The Flexibility Of The Worker Co-op Model

| Create!

Above Photo: Group photo at Canadian Worker Co-op Federation Conference 2019 held in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.

Worker cooperatives is a form of worker ownership that gives workers a voice in how the business that they work for is run and provides them with a share of the profits.

We have reported on worker ownership through cooperatives since the beginning of Popular Resistance, see here.

There are lots of potential new developments coming in the near future around cooperatives and worker ownership. See How a platform cooperative breakthrough might happen in the 2020s.

Starting a business has many questions, but there are some specific questions about worker cooperatives. Here is an article that responds to some of the unique questions for a cooperative business: Starting A Cooperative Platform: 10 Questions We Answered.  KZ

Worker co-operatives are businesses that are owned by the employees. While profit is absolutely a goal, their success is also measured in terms of the difference they make for people or the planet.

Worker co-operatives are businesses that are owned by the employees. Workers pool their skills and resources to create a business in which they are both the owners and the employees.

From the outside, worker co-ops look like any other business however on the inside they differ substantially. While profit is absolutely a goal, their bottom lines are measured in more than just financial terms.

It is not enough for a worker co-op to just make a profit.

Equally as important to worker co-ops are their social and/or environmental goals and the impact they make in the community. They operate under a set of internationally-practiced Co-operative Principles and Values that include fairness and equity, democratic control, self-help, solidarity, social responsibility, member economic participation and concern for the community. In other words, it is not enough for a worker co-op to just make a profit. Its success is also measured in terms of the difference it makes for people or the planet.

Worker co-ops can be found in virtually every sector of the economy from construction to forestry, agriculture, manufacturing, energy, retail, finance, technology, housing, service industries and more. The business model is very flexible and can be used in a wide variety of ways and by a diversity of worker-owners.

Here are a couple of examples.

Developmental Services Worker Co-op

CECNB’s David Daughton caught up with Lisa Murray and Dawn Tait, worker-owners of Ottawa’s award-winning Developmental Services Worker Co-operative (DSWC) at the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation’s recent conference in Tatamagouche. DSWC works with people with developmental disabilities “to facilitate their participation in all aspects of their home and community life”.

Owned and operated by four (soon to be five) workers, the DSWC provides individualized, people-centred services to clients who face barriers to employment and integration into the community. Each worker has stories of their personal experiences working in this field as employees of group homes, schools, and other systems set up to help people with developmental challenges.

CECNB’s David Daughton caught up with Lisa Murray and Dawn Tait, worker-owners of Ottawa’s award-winning Developmental Services Worker Co-operative (DSWC) at the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation’s recent conference in Tatamagouche. DSWC works with people with developmental disabilities \”to facilitate their participation in all aspects of their home and community life.

As Lisa explains it, “I’ve had the experience of having ‘the boss’. And if I had an incident where I felt my client was not being properly supported or receiving the care they needed to achieve their goals, and I brought it up to my boss, they would say ‘Oh, you’re having issues there? We’ll just move you somewhere else’ So it’s that top-down approach where the person at the top, who often has no idea what that client’s life is like on a daily basis, is making the decisions.”

…we shifted focus towards a worker co-op. And it’s been so amazing! To be able to have the backup of other members and share in the responsibilities, I think it’s just the perfect model!

Some DSWC workers had tried starting their own business before trying the worker co-op model. Co-founder Lisa Murray says, “When I tried to start on my own, it was difficult. It’s very isolating trying to start a business, there’s a lot of work involved! So, I started getting together with some of the others and we shifted focus towards a worker co-op. And it’s been so amazing! To be able to have the backup of other members and share in the responsibilities, I think it’s just the perfect model!”

Dawn Tait adds “You also have a say in how we’re going to provide support and services to our individuals where, in other organizations, using that top-down approach sometimes that person making the decisions doesn’t even know the client. I feel like we’ve eliminated that middle area where you have to kind of fight to get someone’s rights. So [the worker co-op model] is amazing and I definitely see a difference for the people I support.”

Powerhouse Worker Co-op

Now flip from a worker co-op that helps clients with employment barriers to one in which the clients themselves form a worker co-op to create jobs that fit their needs and interests. The Powerhouse Worker Co-operative in Sackville, NB is a great example.

The three founding members of the Powerhouse Co-operative. From left to right: Lynn Trenholm, Michael Del Motte, and Chris Watts.</p>”>The three founding members of the Powerhouse Co-operative. From left to right: Lynn Trenholm, Michael Del Motte, and Chris Watts.

Chris, Lynne, and Michael all faced significant challenges to employment and each have their own horror stories to tell about short-term menial jobs, and employers who don’t understand that on some days they simply could not get out of bed.

Michael says he had almost lost hope. “I have been diagnosed with depression and [even though I’d submit] applications to every business hiring, they didn’t return calls. When you get no answer and you’ve got depression, you kind of lose hope and just stop caring.”

When given an opportunity to participate in a special employment program of Open Sky Co-operative that focused on creating co-ops for people with employment barriers, Michael, Lynne, and Chris jumped at the chance to participate.

As a partner on this program, CECNB developed a special training program that introduced participants to the worker co-op business model and helped build their knowledge to start one. Michael, Lynne, and Chris struck on the idea of establishing a commercial cleaning worker co-op that would “provide living wages and sustainable employment to people who face barriers”.  They did their market research and incorporated The Powerhouse Worker Co-operative in early 2017.

“Each one of us had something to add to the company. Lynn had the idea to begin with because she knew there was no local cleaning company. Chris is more of the co-operative’s face as he’s more willing to mingle and talk to people. For me, I have my willingness to learn. And I do the books.”

In the beginning, Powerhouse Co-op was able to secure a few small commercial cleaning contracts with the help of Open Sky however they soon expanded into car cleaning services. As their reputation grew so did their customer base and later that same year, the Town of Sackville offered them a short-term contract to provide crossing-guard services. Powerhouse is now in its third year of the contract and have increased it from one position to two.

One thing I can say about having people who, not only do I rely on, but who also rely on me … it motivates me to stick with the co-operative long-term.

Co-founder Michael Del Motte, the financial wizard of the co-op, setup and manages the bookkeeping system. Given the health challenges he faces, Michael says it isn’t always easy but with the support and help of the other members he is able to overcome the barriers.

“One thing I can say about having people who, not only do I rely on, but who also rely on me, if I had started a business on my own I would have given up by now. But because I have other people who rely on me, it motivates me to stick with the co-operative long-term. I can’t predict the future or how things might turn out but the reason I got this far is because I know people need me.”

Of the future, Michael says Powerhouse is looking forward to expanding their customer base and continuing to add new worker-owners to their co-op. In the meantime, it provides its current members with employment and a support system of people who truly understand the challenges of mental illness and help each other through them.