by Dawn Paley
Co-operatives are falling back into favour as a way to organize for sustainable economic alternatives and social change.
Though Canada has one of the largest co-operative movements in the world, it is – with some exceptions – a rather conservative sector, which has drifted away from grassroots organizing.
“There’s something on the order of a third of all Canadians that have a membership in a co-op … we’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars of assets, Canada has one of the biggest co-op movements anywhere in the world, and the worker co-op movement here is tiny,” said Hazel Corocan, the Executive Director of the Canadian Workers Co-op Federation. The Canadian Co-operative Association reports that there are approximately 9,000 co-ops in Canada, together employing 155,000 people and serving over 18 million members.
Diversity within the co-op sector in Canada makes generalizations difficult. Beyond the bylaws and a yearly meeting, it is hard to think of many parallels between, for example, small-scale workers’ co-ops, and credit unions with hundreds of billions of dollars in assets. Over the past years, the Harper government has taken an axe to many of the financial supports the government was providing to co-ops to start up and maintain their operations.
“My sense is that there’s growing interest in the worker co-op movement … The interest is growing but the availability of supports is, in most places, harder,” said Corocan, who pointed out that the federal government department devoted to co-operatives had their personnel slashed from 94 staffers to 15.
Co-ops During Quebec Tumult
Over the course of 2012, residents of Québec, and especially of larger urban areas like Montreal and Quebec, have lived through the most intense and tumultuous student strike in Canada. The sustained activities on the streets of Quebec raised the question of whether or not the co-op sector could have, in some way, helped the student movement.
Dru Oja Jay lives in Montréal, where he is active in two co-ops, the Media Co-op and Journal Ensemble, a magazine dedicated to covering the co-operative movement in Quebec.
“There isn't anything magical about co-operatives that make them inherently better than other organizations in this or any other context, but I think that having a democratic structure, and the expectation of accountability that comes with member-owned structures can tilt the balance in favour of popular mobilizations,” said Jay.
In Jay’s opinion, the co-op movement had the potential to do more to support the student and social strike that lasted over six months.
“In Quebec, there's a prevailing de-politicization among people active in co-ops,” Jay told Watershed Sentinel. “People have bought into the idea that businesses are not political to a large extent.” This indicates that many of those running co-operatives have chosen to do so as much for economic reasons as for any other motivations.
“There are, however, important currents that run counter to this, especially among younger and people more recently active within the co-op movement,” said Jay.
Indeed, though they don’t carry the same weight as the powerhouses of the co-op movement, there are many co-operative projects in Quebec creating alternative spaces for socialization and creation.
The Media Co-op and Journal Ensemble attempted to respond to the movements in the streets during the strike with special coverage dedicated to the strike. The Media Co-op launched a special website for strike coverage, which, in the spirit of cooperation, aggregated news, images and videos being posted across various media into a single page, based on hash tags. “The Media Co-op had some good moments; we were able, I think, to expose a lot of people in English Canada to what is going on in Quebec in a level of detail that they weren't getting from other media,” said Jay. “That said, the expectations should be higher. We should be able to respond to events like this with comprehensive, coordinated, and well-promoted coverage; that's why organizations like the Media Co-op exist.”
During the strike, Nicolas Falcimaigne, president of Journal Ensemble and a member of the board of the Association of Independent Journalists of Quebec, wrote an op-ed in Journal Ensemble about the role of Quebec’s co-operative sector and the effects of Law 78, a “special law” passed to control dissent, criminalize protests, and force the students back to school. “Isn’t it time that the co-operative movement, this economic giant, stands up politically to defend the rights of its 8.8 million members, the citizens?” he asked in the piece, which was circulated among Quebec’s 3,300 co-operatives.
“Interesting fact,” wrote Falcimaigne in an email to Watershed Sentinel, “Not a single reader answered that question.” The co-op movement in Quebec did not take a position on the strike, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t co-ops whose members were in support.
About 60 kilometres from Montréal is the Coop les Jardins de la Résistance (Gardens of Resistance Co-op), a workers’ co-op founded in 2009 by activists looking to find ways to live from producing and cultivating organic food.
“The majority of members of our co-op are either activists or people who are very close to activism in Montreal, some are involved in activist groups, I myself am a Wobbly,” said Niko, a gardener and member of the co-op. “There’s not that many activist activities that take place out in the country. One of our members started screening Cinema Politica movies here in Ormstown where we live.”
When the student strike took off in the spring, there was little by way of produce to donate in support of the movements in the street. Individual members of the co-op traveled to the city and participated in demonstrations, particularly the evening pot and pan demos. But over time, and after a busy harvest, they also found ways to support the strike directly.
“Right now there is a network at the University of Quebec in Montreal in solidarity with the students who are doing extra sessions, to make up for the winter sessions, so they don’t always have time to work, so we have made some small vegetable donations for those students, that’s what the co-operative has done,” said Niko. “But it was more the personal investment of the workers of the co-op, rather than the co-op itself.” The ability to earn a decent wage and self-manage their hours allowed the five members of Jardins de la Résistance to be able to participate in the strike.
Then there’s Café Touski, on Ontario Street in Hochelaga, a neighbourhood in Montreal, which is run horizontally through general assembly. “Proof, if any was needed, that workers are able to organize themselves without having to bend to the orders of some boss,” according to the Café’s statement on operating as a co-op. During the student strike, Touski’s was an important place for meetings and discussions among those involved in the movement against tuition increases and austerity policies more generally.
Though the co-op movement at large was not actively supporting the student strike, these exceptions confirm the possibility that exists within co-operative organizations when progressive people are involved. This phenomenon extends far beyond Quebec to the rest of Canada, the US, and elsewhere, where there are many co-ops dedicated specifically to nurturing social movements.
Co-ops for Social Change
Radical Routes, a UK based network of co-operatives, houses activists and promotes the creation of workers co-ops. There are 26 housing co-ops active as full members of the network, as well as nine workers co-ops, and another 17 associate members.
“We are working towards taking control over our housing, education and work through setting up housing and worker co-ops, and co-operating as a network,” reads Radical Routes’ website. Other progressive co-ops include bicycle shops, bookstores like Vancouver’s Peoples Co-op Books, and artist co-ops like Pittsburgh based Just Seeds.
“I think in the rest of the world the co-op sector is not as establishment-oriented as it is in Canada. Even in the US the credit unions seem to be more progressive than they generally are here,” said Corocan. “In Europe, in Japan, in Latin America, it’s different.”
In Latin America, workers’ co-operatives flourish where others fear to tread, and where people on the ground take direct action and organize into structures that have the potential to last, and empower their members financially and otherwise.
Take the Zapatistas, for one.
“In the Los Altos region, the Zapatista communities sell organic coffee through two of their own co-operatives and women embroiderers formed co-operatives to market their handicrafts and eliminate the greedy and racist intermediaries in the nearby commercial center of San Cristobal de Las Casas,” writes Raul Zibechi, who chronicles Latin American social movements, in his 2012 book Territories in Resistance. “There are co-operatives and libraries in all the Caracoles [Zapatista base communities] and in some there are cobblers, bicycle workshops, cafes, and other services.”
Co-operatives have functioned in factories where the bosses walked away from the shop, as was the case after the economic crisis in Argentina, documented, for example, by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis in their 2004 film The Take.
Co-ops are also a prime site of autonomous neighbourhood organizing in Venezuela. While the international media focuses on Hugo Chávez, people on the ground in cities and towns across the country have reclaimed the means of production by organizing co-operatively, and taken local political control through the creation of local councils. “Here the middlemen who keep the profits are cut out, and people produce co-operatively, much as they do everything else in the territory,” according to Andrés Antillano, an organizer with an Urban Land Committee in Caracas.
Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, a professor specializing in co-ops based in Havana, Cuba, estimated that there were between 30,000 and 80,000 co-ops in Venezuela in 2008, up from only 1,000 in 1998. Most of these co-ops, she writes, were formed after 2003, as part of a process to reshape the Venezuelan economy. She points out that the experiences of co-operatives in Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela show that co-ops can be more efficient than capitalist businesses.
But the benefits co-operatives extend to their members can go beyond the balance sheet.
In her book Co-operatives and socialism: A Cuban perspective, Piñeiro explains: “The efficiency of co-operatives is greater still if we take into consideration all of the positive outcomes inherent in their management model, which can be summarised as the full human development of its members and, potentially, of local communities. The democratic abilities and attitudes that co-operative members develop through their participation in its management can be utilised in other social spaces and organizations. Moreover, genuine co-operatives free us from some of the worst of the negative externalities (dismissals, environmental contamination, loss of ethical values) generated by enterprises oriented towards profit maximisation rather than the satisfaction of the needs of their workers.”
Attempting to track the concrete support of co-ops for social movements will never capture the entirety of the potential for co-ops to make change. The impacts happen on a day-to-day basis, empowering members of co-ops – even those which are not inherently political – with skills and abilities that allow them to participate more actively in other social spaces, including in times of social protest.
Some of Canada’s largest co-ops, like credit unions and retailers like Mountain Equipment Co-op, have memberships into the millions. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that all members are participating in the manner described by Piñeiro.
Indeed, for Jay, measuring a co-op by its size may not be the most astute gauge of its potential to make change. “Co-ops are subject to the same manipulations as small power-holding groups use to undermine democracy in other venues,” he told Watershed Sentinel. “Like any democratic organization in a hierarchical society, the trick is mobilizing people. I think that a major step towards that is organizing people into affinity groups and other small-scale structures that give people the space to talk about what they want to do, and feel empowered to do it.”
What’s important, he says, is that co-ops be small enough to have a conversation, and big enough to accomplish something.
Dawn Paley is an editor- member of the Media Co-operative. She is based in Mexico, where she is at work on her first book.