As a developer of co-operatives in Calgary, Greg O’Neill is witnessing increasing interest in the potential of co-operatives to address current challenges faced by people at both ends of the age spectrum.
On the youth side, where unemployment is a growing concern, Greg is working with a group of younger people who are starting a worker co-operative bakery modeled on the very successful Arizmendi Association of worker Co-operatives in the San Francisco Bay area.
“The people involved are talented and energetic youth who have been unable to find rewarding or meaningful employment in the existing job market,” Greg says.
“They are looking at the worker co-op model as a means by which they can pool their skills and resources to create their own employment with conditions that meet their expectations and values. The elements of a democratically controlled workplace, equality and equity in the enterprise and the chance to be in control of their work experience are motivating the group.”
A group of these youth recently visited those involved with the Arizmendi worker co-op bakeries. Each of the five Arizmendi bakeries that launched as worker co-operatives is employing 10-12 people who are earning well above the minimum wage while also leading the management and operation of these enterprises.
“It was exciting to see the success that has been achieved by the chain of worker co-operatives,” Greg says. “We left those meetings certain that we could do the same in Calgary and we have been working on the development of a similar worker co-operative bakery since then.”
At the other end of the spectrum, are groups of older people who have come together in various parts of the city to explore creating more options for themselves as they age.
“The demographic bulge that is heading for post-retirement living views the current options that are available to them as not being adequate and the choices too limited,” Greg says. These people are investigating how the co-operative model could make it possible to provide themselves with services that will keep them in their own homes for a longer time.
A public meeting held March 17 presented an idea for an “aging in place” co-operative. More than 50 people turned up for the presentation. Eighteen went on to pledge to become members of the co-operative, with several expressing an interest in becoming a part of the steering committee.
“The spirit and enthusiasm that people have for creating alternative means to meet their needs is very energizing,” Greg says.
“The co-operative enterprise model is not well known to most people. As it is introduced to groups of people with shared needs, the level of excitement that people have for the concept is encouraging.”
‘Co-operatives are Small Democracies’
Greg describes co-operatives as small democracies within the larger economy.
“They are also successful enterprises based on serving people’s needs as opposed to rewarding shareholders’ investments,” Greg says.
“They occupy a unique niche in the larger spheres of commerce and government. They are not charity or non-profit enterprises that are set up to help others. They are organizations of people that are created to provide mutual self-help. When they succeed they are a moderating presence in the economy, not competitors of private businesses but an alternative to them.”
Co-operatives in Calgary – Then and Now
Co-operatives have been a part of Calgary’s history for a long time. There are very successful food co-operatives, credit unions and other retail co-operatives in the city. All of them started because a group of people saw a pressing need that was not being filled by either the existing privately-owned businesses or through public policy. Access to credit for people who could not access it from the banks, for example, led to the creation of the credit unions.
A key difference in today’s co-op scene in Calgary is the issues they’re being formed to address.
“The issues of youth unemployment and appropriate housing for older people are evolving needs,” Greg says. “They are different from the needs that led to the creation of the existing co-operatives but share common characteristics in that the private sector and government, through public policy, have not provided an effective means to address them.”
Despite their active presence in the past, co-ops have not been well-known or understood in the mainstream.
However, in the two to three years, thanks largely to the efforts of longtime co-op champions such as Greg, there is a promising shift afoot within some key community and economic development initiatives and systems to include the co-operative model as a solution. These initiatives and systems include the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative, Calgary Economic Development and Calgary Community and Neighbourhood Services.
Sarah Arthurs’ engagement with co-ops ranges from launching the New Scoop news co-op to sitting on the First Calgary Financial board of directors to currently working as the co-op outreach consultant for the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative. She has also played a key role in raising awareness and providing education around co-ops.
“What’s exciting for me right now is that the co-operative model has been embedded in the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative, which has a four-year mandate. Exactly what action steps they will take to reflect that piece of the strategy will be rolled out in the next month,” Sarah says.
“It’s also exciting that this whole group of social workers that is embedded in building strong neighbourhoods and employed by the City of Calgary is really becoming intrigued about how they can use this model in their work with citizens and communities in Calgary.”
What’s Required to Move the Co-operative Sector Forward?
A question now is what’s required to shift all of this co-operative energy to the next level?
“The increasing income inequality and marginalization of various people that is occurring under the current socio-economic framework, combined with the environmental devastation that results from the current hyper-consumerism, are problems that many people identify,” Greg says.
“A lot of people that I talk to express a feeling of powerlessness in being able to make positive change. A lot of energy is expended by people who want to stop the trends or at least slow them down. The energy is expended criticising or being against the way things are.
“Co-operatives provide an example of something you can be for. They are a means by which people can use their creative energies, gifts and abilities to make something new that is not exploitive.”
Greg suggests the following question, if answered, might generate a meaningful shift in the sector: “Do you want to be an active participant in creating a future that is based on the values of self-help, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity?”
Sarah points to the importance of financial and “moral” support to actually create co-operatives.
“The paradoxical thing about developing co-ops is that on the one hand you say to people, ‘This is an amazing model. It’s about citizens and communities coming together, owning something, not being dependent on government or charity.’ That is all very empowering and exciting.”
But the process of developing a co-operative is complex. “You’re establishing a business,” Sarah says. “You need to do feasibility studies and create business plans, you need to learn how to do a complex governance process because it’s a governance of many, not just one person who owns a single business.” All of this effort requires financial support as people with experience in co-op development must be engaged.
“The challenge we’re at now is that we’re getting a lot of take-up and pick-up and excitement about the co-operative model, but then we don’t necessarily have the capacity to follow through in terms of supporting people in developing feasible co-operative business plans and ideas to move forward.”
Sarah proposes that the question to be asked in order to shift Calgary’s co-op sphere of activity to the next level is this: Who is going to step up to be a financial supporter and backer as well as moral or worldview supporter?
Reconvening the Co-op Curious and Co-op Champions
On March 25, a panel presentation and “popcorn” update regarding co-op development in Calgary will be presented.
The panel includes Peter Driftmeyer on the Co-op Zone training program in co-op development, Chris Picek and Greg O Neill on The Grain Exchange Worker Co-operative, and Sarah Arthurs on the New Scoop news co-op.
Participants will also have an opportunity to present “popcorn” (brief) updates on seed ideas as well as existing projects. Popcorn will be served.
To learn more, click here.