Worker Co-ops Show Ingenuity In Coping With Covid-19 —Kenzie Love

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced all small and medium-size enterprises to change how they do business, and worker co-ops have been no exception. Where they have stood apart, however, is the way in which they’ve responded. By demonstrating flexibility, concern for community, and democratic worker control, worker co-ops have shown why they’re especially resilient in times of crisis.

Showing concern for community

For the Vancouver Artists Labour Union (VALU CO-OP), the pandemic could have presented a crisis. The co-op’s initial business plan was based on producing merchandise and campaign materials, primarily for labour unions, and most of the events and conferences at which these materials are normally distributed have been cancelled. But amidst this disruption, VALU seized on an opportunity to stay afloat while also doing good. 

The co-op started a mutual aid campaign in collaboration with Coming Together Vancouver, selling items and designs through their online store, with 50 percent of the proceeds going to Coming Together and the balance going to the co-op. They also started taking pre-orders from individuals or organizations, with the intention of producing materials once social distancing restrictions are lifted.

Catherine de Montreuil, VALU’s board president, acknowledges the rapidity with which the co-op rolled out the campaign presented some challenges (the co-op’s website, online store, and the mutual aid campaign all launched within the span of three days). But she says these actions were a natural outgrowth of its mandate. 

“With worker co-ops, all of us members have a distributed responsibility to care for the co-op, so we’ve really banded together as a team in order to do this,” she says. “And we’ve all been affected differently, we’ve been looking for the best ways to support one another, and we also really wanted to contribute to our community, and that’s part of our values and part of our vision.”

Responding with flexibility

The riders for Shift Delivery, another Vancouver-based worker co-op, are known for nimbly navigating the city’s streets as they make deliveries via tricycle. It turns out, however, they’re equally adept at responding with flexibility to unforeseen events.

When the pandemic hit, it initially posed a challenge to Shift’s business model. The co-op had to halt all non-essential deliveries, and thus lost a significant portion of business in February and March. But by shifting the focus to grocery delivery, still considered an essential service, the co-op was able to regain and even grow its business.

This shift required some changes in responsibilities among the co-op’s members. Marc Baumann, who’d previously been responsible for Shift’s advertising, had to take on more of the riding when advertising revenue dried up. But he compares this favourably to a conventional business where he might have lost his job altogether.

“I think that’s one of the biggest strengths with the model,” he says. “The positions are very flexible and adaptable.”

Exercising democratic control

Toronto bike shop Urbane Cyclist also had to shift gears in light of the pandemic. The store, which would normally be filled with customers examining merchandise in close contact with other shoppers and employees, was allowed to stay open as an essential service, but only if it allowed one person in at a time. But the co-op didn’t take its worker owners’ consent to this new arrangement for granted, giving them the option of saying they didn’t feel comfortable continuing to interact with customers. Based on the feedback received, the co-op decided to limit face-to-face interactions by operating on an appointment only basis, prioritizing employee and customer safety over the potential for profit.

But the store, however, has been no less busy as a result, conducting much of its business through phone and online sales. While the initial motivation for this change was safety, Urbane Cyclist’s Reba Plummer says it’s made good business sense as well. A smaller number of staff can serve a larger number of customers now that they don’t have to serve people who are there to browse rather than buy, watch for shoplifters, and deal with other distractions. And the result, she says, is that the worker-owners will have a better chance of earning a real living instead of scraping by.

“I think it will change how we do business,” she says. “We will definitely be thinking of how to run the store more efficiently.”

By embracing the participative and democratic nature of worker co-operatives, VALU, Shift, and Urbane Cyclist were able to adapt to the pandemic and get the full support of their members for the changes they made. This has served them and their communities well.