Interview with Hazel Corcoran, Executive Director of the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation (CWCF)
A conversation regarding the co-operative movement in Canada
By Luis Fernando Arce, Chief Interviewer
Luis Fernando sat down with Mr. Corcoran to find out what the CWCF does domestically and abroad, as well as about the general co-op movement and its viability as an alternative to capitalism. They discuss several different examples of successful cooperatives around the world and that could potentially succeed in Canada.
… in Canada there had been a cooperative development program until recently, when the Harper Conservative government cut it.
Can you tell me what the CWCF does, exactly?
We’re a federation of worker co-ops across the country – bilingual in nature. We include regional Federations mostly in Quebec that are members of ours; there are some in Ontario too. We basically provide a trade association function – like lobbying and conferencing and that kind of thing – and also provide support for the development of new worker cooperatives in Canada….We liaise with cooperative movements in other parts of the world, and we are actually quite involved with one of the organizations called SECOPA…There is a brand new region for the Americas and I sit on a steering committee and work with a couple of people from Argentina and other parts of the Americas, too: U.S., Mexico, Latin America and beyond.
Here in Canada, how do Cooperatives usually get formed? Because in Argentina a lot of the cooperatives are formed after the factories go bankrupt or are abandoned, then are retaken…
Yeah, in Canada there’s very little of that. The two main ways that co-ops are started here are by new start-ups – some of which are very old and some newer as well. What we’re seeing more of now are conversions when small or medium business owners retire and don’t have anyone in the family to buy the business, and they choose to sell to the employees instead. We’ve been encouraging it more because it’s more natural and those business owners often times don’t really have many other options. Occasionally it happens that there’s a kind of a hostile take-over, but here we don’t really have a great track-record with those…Firstly, they’re usually marginal businesses, so it’s not uncommon for them to fail a second or a third time, because we obviously don’t have the same political situation that they had in Argentina… In Canada two thirds of the worker cooperatives are based in Quebec, even though they only have like 25 percent or less of the population…that’s directly related to the fact that Quebec has supportive government programming.
Do you think that has anything to do with the fact that the Political Left has always been more prominent there than in the rest of Canada?
I don’t think it’s really that, because in Canada there had been a cooperative development program until recently, when the Harper Conservative government cut it. He cut this program called the Co-op Development Initiative, which wasn’t even due to expire yet. It was a program that was put on a five-year cycle and was supposed to have its next renewal next year. We thought there was a pretty good chance they might not renew it when it came up, but we were quite shocked when they canceled it right at the beginning of the International Year of Co-ops. No 10 per cent or 15 per cent cut – just gone! Same with all civil servants in the federal government –almost all: they went from 96 to 15, so there will be no statistics kept, no research done. It’s appalling. That’s why I’m going to Ottawa, because there’s a special committee on politics and cooperatives and they’re meeting all week. Its’ being podcasted on the parliamentary site…If you look around the world, its countries that have – outside of a situation like Argentina or similar things in Eastern Europe – supportive programming that have the biggest co-op sectors. And in fact the federal government has even recently put money into Quebec to support programming, but I’m baffled by that decision [to overlook Ontario].
Italy has a huge cooperative sector and a lot of government support for it, too.
They actually have it in their constitution. And they have excellent programming in terms of capital: every cooperative throws three percent of their profits each year towards a fund to support co-op capitalization.
How does a person join a co-op?
It depends…For a worker co-op, first you have to find one. In Toronto there’s not a huge number. If you look at the CWCF website you can see a list of members, which are most of the worker co-ops in Toronto. You put in an application to any given one. There’s a big one which is the National Food Store, the Big Carrot; there’s Ordain Cyclist (where you pretty much have to be a bike mechanist to work there). But you know, the food store, they have a very large group of worker-owners, and people often just start out as employees and then over a short period of time they get onto a membership track.
What kind of prerequisites or criteria, if any, are there?
To join one the only prerequisite is that there has to be work available. As long as there is, then you can apply and get a job. There’s also the concept of a Multi-Stake Holder Co-op, where people who are involved as members aren’t only workers, but they could be different categories, such as worker members, community support members, volunteer members, etc. In Quebec they call them solidarity co-ops, a much nicer term. But it’s a slightly different connotation as well: in the Quebec one it tends to be more in the social services, where outside Quebec Multi-Stake Holder Co-ops can be in any industry…In Toronto, for example, the West-End Food Co-op is a Multi-Stake Holder Co-op.
What is the difference between a worker cooperative and a credit union or financial cooperative like Desjardins, for example?
The majority of co-ops in the country, I would say, are consumer-owned. So basically you get a very large membership which comes together in meetings, they elect the board of directors representative of the users of that business, and they hire the CEO or manager or whatever it might be called. Let me explain it like this: in Toronto there is a credit union, I think, called Alterna They might have 60 staff members, but those people are not worker-owners; they might be consumers of the service and therefore members, but they’re only one tiny percentage of the ownership, because there are probably 100,000 members (I’m just throwing numbers out there, but it’s probably sort of the right order of magnitude). Whereas in a worker-co-operative – let’s take Big Carrot: I think they have something like 70 staff members, so probably a few are on a membership-track and haven’t become full members yet, but they have something like 50 or 60 worker-owners. Those guys, the people that work in the store, are the ones that own it. Those are full-on co-op principles – the principle that the members in control are the same member-group that shares the profits and that same member group that decides on who the ‘board members’ are. Big Carrot may not have a manager, but that’s basically the fundamental difference: who is the ownership group. And if you do it through the ownership stake-holder [model] you have some of each: so there could be consumers and workers who, let’s say are the real workers that sort of drove the creation of that co-op, so maybe they got 60 per cent of the vote as a class when they get together in a big meeting, and the consumers have 20 per cent, and the support members have 20 per cent, or whatever (this is just an example)…But I think one of the powerful things about worker co-ops is because people spend so much more of their lives and energy and focus as workers rather than consumers, making work a really big part of their life. So it seems like the worker co-op model kind of makes it easier to keep the principles alive. And they also don’t tend to get as big, that’s another issue. Because the minute you have a very big worker co-op you begin to have the same challenges with big consumer co-ops…Housing Co-ops are another kind that tend to keep the principles more front-and-centre, because again you live there, so it’s a bigger part of your life; and it’s easier to keep in mind the principle that this is where you do your banking or buy your food…not that it’s impossible [otherwise], but you can’t even tell that some of the big credit unions and big consumer co-ops [out there] are co-ops.
That’s what I’ve noticed, that a lot of co-ops don’t go for the ‘traditional growth imperative’ of regular businesses in terms of profits; they don’t try to keep growing and growing.
Well I think most worker co-ops want to keep growing. I think once they get to a size where they are reliably profitable and people are feeling comfortable enough, then they don’t have the same growth imperative than a traditional business would have. However, in the environment that we are in, economically, it seems that a lot of worker co-ops are challenged with getting to that place, so they typically are focused in growing their sales and their business. In fact, in November, when we have our Info Conference in Hamilton, it will be about surviving and then going on to thriving as worker co-ops, because we’ve felt that, especially in an environment with no federal support to new and emerging worker co-ops, we need to talk about how to help each other.
Because private funding is also very hard to come by, right?
It is, because the challenge here is that in terms of obtaining capital, it’s a challenge, because the nature of capital in a cooperative is that…it is an instrument and is not what is driving the business. We’ve long argued that there’s a need for a national co-op development fund. We’ve actually run a small one ourselves, but it’s nowhere close to being big enough to meet the needs. We’ve been advocating for a while that there’s a need for a fund on the order of $20 million or bigger just for our sector and more if it were to go beyond our sector…At this point the CCA has been talking about that and has a committee and has a concept in paper and is getting to the point where it will be launched in the not too distant future but it isn’t something that you can apply to today. We still have our small fund and people can use it – that’s one of our services. We’ve also run a program where people can put their RSP money into co-ops and co-op shares; however, unfortunately, the rules have been restricted and it doesn’t work for very small co-ops anymore, because of the way the federal government on the budget of last year clamped down on the roof – another barrier we got! There’s some cultural things in Quebec, as well. I mean the fact that people use the coop model to try to preserve their language is mixed up in there, and you can certainly see that outside of Quebec there are more worker co-ops that are Franco-phones than you would expect by population.
Do you agree or disagree with that?
I agree with that entirely. And that’s because of government programming so much as it is because of the fact that it’s a way to help preserve a minority language. And you can see that tin the Mondragon region in Spain.
Do you guys work with Mondragon?
A little bit. They are certainly involved in the worldwide federation and we do have a board member at the worldwide federation, so we crossed them there. We’re going to see them at this huge summit happening in Quebec City of the Year of Co-ops in October. They definitely know us and we know them, but we don’t interact all the time. They actually work a lot with the Argentineans and other Latin Americans – that’s one of the main places that they are getting support from. There are people in Canada who’ve actually studied the Cooperative Movement quite extensively.
What are your thoughts on the North American Students of Cooperation?
They are an association of students growing in co-ops, so that could be of some interest….Mostly housing co-ops, but they do include some worker co-ops. They’re based in the U.S. and they do have some Canadian members. If you look at the Occupy Movement and kind of the social movements out there and it feels that it’s a time when people are looking for an alternative way to organize business and society and the economy. They aren’t finding it…We’re a national federation. People sometimes say, so you must be big, and you must have more staff than ‘X’, and I go: uhhh, no, we have three. We have next to no resources, we are very bootstrapped. We have four people that work for us on the payroll, but I’m the only full-time (paid) one. We’re just committed to the movement.
Well that’s exactly what it needs, right? It can only succeed with solidarity and commitment.
And we actually spent ten years starting this organization, when we had next to nothing, like $30-40,000 a year budget. We were about to give up when we obtained our funds. We hadn’t obtained the capital funds after years of lobbing the liberals, so we were just going to throw in the towel because we were just exhausted and tired. But luckily that came in just in time…this was in 2001. In 1992 we got incorporated, but in 2000 is when we actually got the commitment from the majority of the Liberal government to create a Pilot Capital Fund, which we are still operating it. We came extremely close to being able to get full funds of the most substantial amount but the Liberals didn’t act fast enough, then the government became a minority conservative one, and then of course they wouldn’t do it. I shouldn’t say ‘of course,’ because they did it in Quebec, but they put the money out in Quebec that was going to come to Ontario….But we don’t have the political capital, we don’t have people on our side prepared to stand up and lobby and go to the streets. In Quebec they do. And until we can get that I think we are going to be kind of stuck or growing slowly. But I hope that we can reach out to the Occupy movement and the young people there.
As you mentioned, people are looking for alternatives. Do you think that this Cooperative Movement could be a viable alternative to Traditional ideas of Neo-Liberal Capitalism?
Totally. I mean look at parts of the world where it’s the dominating part of the economy, like Mondragon. Spain has an economy in a complete and utter mess, and Mondragon is there, still struggling because their sales are being challenged, but they don’t have any unemployment! They just share the pains; everyone gets paid a little less and maybe gets less hours, but no one is thrown out. It’s such a better model – and so hard to get known. When it starts to get powerful and bigger like in those cases, it really threatens powerful interests who are very wealthy. So it’s very hard to actually ignore it. I mean, we do see it starting to get kind of attacked by the media and kind of downplayed as something that was tried once but could never work. There’s so little knowledge about it. But I think that could change and catch on fire very easily. Actually, you know what’s very interesting: I was down at the U.S. worker co-op federation in June in Boston and really got a huge turnout of people – a noticeable percentage of people who had found the movement through Occupy! It seems to me that it’s just really taking off down there. Here we certainly have a handful of mostly young and very activist, passionate people that are founding the movements and starting the co-ops…We have actually hired a staff member we found through Occupy. What we did, is very interesting: we were holding a very large conference last fall in Quebec city, and while we were doing that, the Occupy movement was just coming to Quebec and Montreal at that very time, and we had both gone to the mike and were saying basically, we need to go across the country, and offer workshops and give brochures and say, “Look, we’re one of the things you’re looking for, although we aren’t slick and we don’t have all the resources, but we are this emerging co-op movement.” That actually did create some interest. That happened in New York City along Wall Street. Now we’re thinking about how to use social media to do it better and more cheaply and effectively. I’ve been involved in this project to make some videos around the IYC, and we have a couple mad: they’re fun, like 3 or 4 minutes each, nothing radical, made in conjunction with the Alberta Co-op and Community Associations whose members are not radical…..which is fine, they’re co-ops and I like them: I would say, if the world were made up of co-op like theirs, there would be Conrad Blacks…
Now you’re talking Utopia….
Well, not necessarily. If the world were consumer-cooperative based, I mean. I don’t think it would be Utopian. But it would be better than what we have. If it were a worker co-op, that would be much more utopic! And I think Mondragon probably is towards that. But in any event; I’m saying these guys are good people, they’re doing good things. It’s got us kind of thinking and planning to do a more radical version of that for the worker co-op movement specifically and the plans are in place.
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