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Where's The Boss?

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Issue: 32 Section: Labour Geography: Canada Montreal Topics: labour, democracy, cooperatives

December 1, 2005

Where's The Boss?

Worker cooperatives will change the way you think about democracy

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Conference participants discuss different models for worker cooperatives. photo: Dru Oja Jay
Peter Cameron is sipping a pint of fair trade cocoa stout, a beer made collaboratively by La Siembra, an Ottawa based worker cooperative specializing in fair trade chocolate, and La Barbarie, a worker cooperative microbrewery based in Quebec City. The beer, coined La Solidaria, is not yet on the market, and much like the worker cooperative movement itself, is still in the early stages of development. "As a movement we're still very young," notes Cameron. "The Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation (CWCF) is only fourteen years old. Ontario didn't even officially recognize worker cooperatives until 1991-92."

Cameron is worker-owner for Planet Bean Coffee, a worker cooperative in Guelph Ontario specializing in fair trade organic coffee. He's come to Montreal for CWCF's annual conference held from November 17th to 19th. The conference is not large, but with 110 registered participants it's the biggest one yet - and according to Cameron, the worker cooperative movement is on the rise.

There are an estimated 350 worker cooperatives in Canada employing around 11 000 people in sectors as diverse as forestry, retail, information technology and entertainment. To a customer, they may appear no different from a regular business, but an employee would never make the same mistake.

"You can see it in new workers who come in. They're looking for the boss," says Melissa Hoover, with a laugh. Hoover works at Inkworks Press, a worker cooperative based in Berkley California. Like other worker cooperatives, InkWorks is worker-owned and democratically run by its employees: There is no boss.

Inkworks employees meet regularly to make collective decisions about how the business should be run. At Inkworks this process is reflected in a workplace with a strong health plan, a press that only uses recycled paper, and a policy to donate or discount work done for local social justice organizations. According to Hoover, Inkworks' priorities are not unusual for a worker cooperative. "There's a lot of research about how coops are innately more accountable to their local and physical environment because that's where the people who work in them live. They have a track record of being more sustainable, more accountable, more involved, going above and beyond status quo environmental and work practices."

This kind of workplace conscience does not make worker cooperatives less competitive in the cut throat world of business, insists Cameron. In fact, it makes them more competitive. In the capitalist system, he explains, companies exploit workers and the environment in order for the ownership class to pocket a substantial profit. "That's a gap we can use to be competitive and take care of our workers. Plus, we have less strikes, we have less days off due to pissed off workers. People won't rip off the company cause it's their company."

The worker cooperative model is one that will appeal to young people, especially those involved in the anti-corporate globalization movement, says Ajamu Nangwaya, a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who is studying cooperative entrepreneurship. "A lot of young people are dissatisfied with their experience in the workplace. They do not have a lot of control over decision-making. They see the disloyalty of companies, they've seen parents lose their jobs after twenty or more years with a company. There is a certain level of cynicism." Though many young people are aware of the bleak working conditions that exist both here and overseas, many are not aware of the alternatives, says Nangwaya. "For the worker cooperative movement it is our challenge to raise awareness and have the services in place to help them form worker cooperatives."

CWCF has taken on this challenge, and several young participants in this year's conference rewarded their efforts. Krystal Payne and Nick Scott were representing their newly incorporated youth-run worker cooperative. The Underground Cafe opened in Fredericton this year to a crowd many times the size of the Cafe's capacity. The vegan cafe specializes in local, fair trade and organic menu options. Geneva Guerin and Melissa Garcia Lamarca gave a presentation on the Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG), the coop they co-founded with three others, to the conference. SSG is a research and consulting firm that is also run by people under the age of thirty.

Although there were many young faces in the conference crowd this year, almost all were white. "It's very obvious when you go to a cooperataive gathering that there are some of us who should be at the table who are not at the table," notes Nangwaya. "In the US it's the same challenge. There are not enough minorities and oppressed racial groups in the worker cooperative movement. This is something we have to change as a movement."

For Nangwaya, once one starts thinking about workplace justice and democracy, one inevitably must address the injustices of society as a whole. "As a coop movement it's important for us to realize that we should be working to displace capitalism," he believes. "Because what we're struggling for is not just decent jobs and democratic work places but to transform society and economics. It is important for us to see the necessity of building democratic structures inside the communities in which we operate so that the worker cooperative is embedded in a community decision making process."

Nangwaya's vision for a new democracy is a far cry from the top-down approach most Canadians are familiar with. "Rarely do people get a chance to practice democracy in our own lives," agrees Hoover. "Not at school, not at home, not at work, so we don't have a lot of training in democracy. I think coops are the one place where people can feel their power as people and make democratic decisions. " Hoover believes that coops could help transform societal democracy, because once people know what real democracy feels like, they want more of it. "I've seen it happen."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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