A worker co-operative is an employee-owned business which is run according to theco-operative principles, such as democratic member control and concern for community. There are tens, even hundreds of thousands of people employed in worker co-ops in places including Mondragon (Spain), northern Italy, Argentina and Quebec. Jobs tend to be stable with less income inequality and more job satisfaction than in other business forms. Unfortunately, in most of Canada the model is not well known – yet! (This is true even in places where the other co-op models are very common, which includes most of Canada.) The Canadian Worker Co-op Federation seeks to change that. We have chosen 2012, the UN International Year of Co-ops, as the right moment to launch this Resource Guide as part of our efforts to promote worker co-ops.
At a time when people from the Occupiers to the leadership of the Davos World Economic Forum point out that there are serious flaws in the dominant economic model, we believe that it is time for the worker co-operative approach to be more frequently used by individuals and organizations seeking to build a stronger and more sustainable economy. We believe it is the approach that many people are looking for: one based not on greed but on meeting human need - for sustainable and fair employment. It is very effective in cases of succession for small business where an owner is retiring yet has no appropriate family members or others, besides employees, who might wish to take over or buy the business.
This Guide, in the form of web links to practical documents, is designed to be used as a reference guide by people considering the start-up of a worker co-op and organizations that support business development of various types, as well as by worker co-ops that are operating.
Topics included range from worker co-op basics, financing a worker co-op, governance including model worker co-op bylaws, employment law, where to turn for support when needed, and also some information on the movement – in Canada and in selected other parts of the world. The sections which cover new worker co-op development are divided into a general section on start-up / basics, and a section on conversion from other business forms, “Successions and Worker Buy-outs”. Lastly, there is a section called “special topics” for those resource materials which did not naturally group with any others: worker co-ops in immigrant communities, our “Quebec Declaration” regarding worker co-op public policy, and a brief history of CWCF. The documents have been written by CWCF, except as noted.
Someone to back you up So much of the time, freelancing is feast-or-famine. During the crunch times, or just vacation time, you have teammates that also know the client and can step in for you—as a fellow worker-owner, they can garner the same authority and respect that you do.
Provide 24/7 coverage without taking years off of your life Those of us in high-availability work that can have a call coming in any time of the day or night can share this burden. For those of us looking to start a family or go back to school, this can make a critical lifestyle difference. And since a co-op is democratic, everyone can be doing their fair share of the late-night duty, instead of just one or two lower-rung people getting stuck with it all of the time.
Leverage complementary skills Over time, we all tend to become specialists—perhaps too much so. A shift in technology or industry can wipe out a niche carefully cultivated over many years. By being part of a team, we are engaged with coworkers with distinct but related strengths, and the natural cross-pollination of knowledge and ability enriches everyone. Unlike traditional companies, the shared-fate structure of a worker co-op incentivizes the sharing of skills between professionals who might otherwise see each other as competitors.
Economy of scale in overhead and administration, more options in facilities and support systems Combining forces can lower overhead by aggregating buying power in office space, information systems, bookkeepers, accountants, attorneys, and other business necessities. Whatever else your co-op may become, it also represents a natural buying club. (Or a natural not-paying-for-things-after-all club—you may discover existing facilities or systems that can be shared, and your new co-workers may have skills in areas where you’ve been outsourcing.)
The ability to take on clients with greater needs Have you ever had to pass up a job because they needed more than you could give? Or regretted taking on a big job because it turned out to be just a little beyond your abilities? As a member of a cooperative, you can consider a much wider range of opportunities, knowing that you’re not facing it all on your own. At the same time, your work relationship with the co-op can be much more flexible and less all-or-nothing than a typical employment relationship; co-op agreements can vary widely to meet the needs of their members. For instance, a co-op could allow its members to keep doing their own solo gigs with their past clients (or maybe even new clients), while agreeing to look for larger gigs to share, and commit to sharing those.
A greater volume and diversity of work from which to choose, including more niches A co-op of five people may do five times as much work, but the increased volume brings increased perspectives on the market and the clients. Simply gaining more exposure to more action will present higherquality opportunities, with more brains to analyze and brainstorm about how to take advantage of them.
Professional camaraderie Even the toughest situations become much easier to resolve when several brains, eyes, and perspectives are applied to them. Ongoing give-and-take and a sense of solidarity make tedious work less taxing and rewarding work more enjoyable.
More than the sum of its parts The members of a team may increase arithmetically, but teamwork increases geometrically. With each new person comes more than one new interpersonal dynamic, more than one new opportunity for fresh ideas and new angles. And groups usually make better, more careful decisions than their members would have individually.
Several guidelines have been recently published for all those interested in joining the cooperative movement, especially in the UK, Spain and France. The Spanish Confederation of Worker Cooperatives (COCETA) and, in France, the General Confederation of Scop (CGScop) have published very practical guides, which describe the most important steps to take and which are aimed at future developers. Each confederation has given its national touch (legislation, financing, business environment, etc.), but both pursue the same objective: to publicize and promote the cooperative option.