The following speech was delivered by Dru Oja Jay at the invitation of CoopZone (Canadian Cooperative Developers Network) at their Annual General Meeting on September 25, 2018.
I want to start by saying that I have a huge amount of admiration for the work you do, and it’s an honour to be here. As co-op developers, you’re doing possibly the most important work that exists. And I’m not talking about making sure that people know what’s in their bylaws. What I mean is, you’re helping to bring a new kind of economy into being – if there’s anything that’s hopeful, it’s that.
I just got back from the Worker Coop National Conference in Los Angeles, put on by the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives.
The atmosphere was one of celebration and expansion. In a town that doesn’t have a very big cooperative presence, we saw the biggest turnout to a US worker co-op conference in the Federation’s history — 450 worker members were there.
There is a sense that worker cooperatives in the US are moving out a phase of being an economic subculture. The movement is becoming an engine for innovation and transformation that addresses some of the core social, economic and environmental issues in the country.
And the record shows how successful their approach is, whether it’s recent major legislation that promotes and boosts worker ownership, or the 17 staff members of the USFCW and DAWI, or the fact that women and people of colour are a majority of the membership of the USFWC.
As someone who has followed the US movement with a lot of curiosity and interest, and also as someone who has been around the Canadian and Quebecois co-op movements for a while, I wanted to take the opportunity today to share a few reflections.
My first encounter with the US worker co-op movement was seven years ago. I showed up to the Eastern Conference on Workplace Democracy not knowing anyone, and it took me a while to figure out who I was dealing with. It wasn’t until the speeches were done, and folks were chatting informally, that I realized that a core of the organizers shared my story: we had become politicized by global movements in the 90s resisting the WTO, IMF and World Bank, but we had bumped into the limits of running from city to city attending protests.
All of us had looked for a better way to do things, and all of us had found the co-op movement, and understood the potential of building a democratic economy – business by business, co-op by co-op.
I mention all this, because many of the people at the heart of the US solidarity economy movement have decades of experience doing anti-racist work, migrant justice work, gender justice work. And they have worked to move their way of doing things from the margins to mainstream. So today, they find themselves in a situation where the onus is on the middle class white guy to educate hisself before entering spaces where women and people of colour are a majority of the membership and leadership, and not vice versa.
This isn’t about scoring social justice points; it’s about relevance. Many of the organizers told me in LA last week: The relationships, practices and dedication to inclusion and diversity are what makes the movement not just welcoming, but what makes its message resonate widely. Discrimination around gender, race, migrant status and class are all economic issues to which cooperatives are part of a real and lasting solution. And movements are full of highly networked, skilled organizers.
Whether we’re talking to Me Too, Times Up, Black Lives Matter, migrant justice, or climate justice, the pitch is more or less the same: getting control over our workplaces means we can anchor wealth in communities while gaining the power to make policy that transforms our daily lives. While we demand that our government do the minimum, we can build an economy that does the maximum.
While we support blockades to stop tar sands expansion, we can build green energy co-ops. While we mobilize against detaining migrants without charges, we can create cooperatives owned by migrant workers. While we mobilize against police violence, we can build equitable economic power in marginalized communities.
Movements can rapidly distribute the tools of cooperation to the most mobilized and motivated people. And the co-op movement can embody the values – and the future – that those movements fight for.
There is huge potential, but none of this is a given. It’s the relationships and daily connections that can take this from theory to practice. We’re not there yet.
I’ll give you a few examples of what I mean.
When the meeting that turned out to be the founding meeting of the Leap Manifesto gathered in Toronto, I noticed that there were no cooperative movement people on the list of invitees – mostly because the organizers didn’t know any. I tried to get someone at the last minute, but no one was available. Long story short, 60,000 people ended up signing a statement that could have promoted cooperative ownership.
A friend of mine works at the Migrant Workers Centre in Montreal. At some point, they were thinking about the idea of setting up a cooperative alternative to the terrible temp agencies. They knew there was technical support out there, but there was no one they already knew who they could call to start the conversation.
There are countless other examples of missed opportunities – and others that I will never know about, but hopefully the point is clear.
There are some real challenges to building these links.
The cooperative movement is in a funny position, because historically it has been used by the government to triangulate movements and uprisings.
Early in Canada’s colonial history, the British Empire had a policy of supporting cooperatives as a way to build social and economic structures to settle the land. As we settlers are becoming more and more aware, that settlement happened because indigenous peoples were being driven from it through starvation, physical violence and policies of cultural genocide like residential schools. The cooperatives supported by the British empire were undoubtedly helpful to their members, but decidedly unhelpful to the Indigenous peoples who were displaced by those members.
The Antigonish movement is rightly recognized for its amazing work in adult education and economic empowerment through cooperatives in the Atlantic, but what’s less often acknowledged is that it received tacit support from some sections of the elite. Because of the rising threat of militant socialism, especially among coal miners, they saw Moses Coady and company as a palatable alternative that improved peoples lives without threatening power structures.
Today, the picture is still complex. According to some researchers, Indigenous cooperatives have started to break from the colonial mould, and a significant chunk of the worker co-op movement is aligned with peasant movements in the global south.
But there are still some real tensions. The labour movement is suspicious of cooperatives because they often fill in the gaps created by neoliberal austerity and its cuts to health and social services. Many see cooperative wind farms in New Brunswick as the thin edge of the wedge of privatization. The environmental movement and international Indigenous movements are concerned about forestry cooperatives’ embrace of biomass as an energy source. And that’s without discussing investments in tar sands extraction by Desjardins and Federated Cooperatives.
These are real political contradictions, and some of them won’t be solved anytime soon. But the more we can create working relationships between movements, the easier it will be to work in solidarity with each other.
The legacy of triangulation also lives on in subtler forms. Whether it’s the federal government, the big cooperatives, or foundations, there’s a tendency to look for top down solutions. I have been tempted by this myself, but we need to remember that one way or another, all of our successes come from grassroots mobilizing.
We can see this in all the examples I just cited. If governments are funding co-ops, it’s not because we made the case well — there is always another reason, whether its social unrest, economic collapse, threats to their power, a thirst for votes, a need to shore up credibility after the latest round of brutal neoliberal cuts, or just to manage scarcity in regions and sectors that aren’t profitable.
If we choose to become the supplicants of power instead of creating our own, we in the cooperative movement will never be a part of large-scale changes for the better that only movements have delivered. I’m talking about redistribution of wealth, wages that grow faster than inflation, better quality of life across the board, a more caring society and the climate transition that we need to survive as a species. When gains that big have been made, two factors are always present: movements challenge power directly, and they stay unified long enough to win. There’s nothing wrong with applying bandaids to capitalism, but the moment calls for much more.
The need to change our orientation from top-down to bottom-up is getting more urgent. Because of climate change, to be sure, but also because the erosion of the welfare state has led to a collapse in public confidence. Doug Ford and Donald Trump are the symptoms of this collapse, but they are not the worst that can happen.
In his book Viking Economics, George Lakey lays out how cooperatives played a key role in Scandinavian countries’ turn away from fascism toward social democracy. Not to give away the ending, but they did it as part of a broader series of movements working together.
Whether we want to face the climate crisis, redistribute wealth, stop fascism, or just grow co-ops by making them widely relevant, I think the first step is the same: create links with other movements.
My recommendation is simple.
Buy a migrant justice organizer a cup of fair trade coffee. Reach out to organizers from Black Lives Matter and Idle No More. Take a union organizer out for beers at a co-op brew pub. Or sip kombucha by the river with an environmentalist. And do it with the intention of learning, sharing and growing — both ourselves and our movement.
There’s plenty to do from there in terms of creating space for diversity and movements in co-op spaces, investing in leadership development, and encouraging local cross-sectoral solidarity economy organizing. But all of that comes from stronger relationships and a lot of listening and realigning.
So what I’m asking you to do is small, in the sense that the first step doesn’t take a lot of time. But it’s also huge because whether you’re a seasoned movement organizer or you’ve never been to a protest, it actually means reshaping your personal universe.
It’s always worth it.
I want to leave you with a story that i hope will be both instructive and hopeful. A few years ago, Quebec had a student strike. Thousands of students leaving their classrooms had the effect of forcing everyone who hadn’t already, decide whether they were going to join them or not. As a result, a lot of people who didn’t know each other started working together, debating issues and making decisions for collective action. When the dust settled, that web of relationships became the Concordia Food Coalition. They got together and took over two campus cafes and created a worker- and student-owned cooperative that serves local food and fair trade coffee. They turned the campus bar into a co-op. Then another group created cooperative affordable housing for students. Now a new generation of the same group is working to get student funding to start a solidarity economy incubator. The administration, which resisted many of these moves, is now pouring donor money into social innovation and cooperatives.
If you’ve ever watched a hockey game, you’ll have heard the cliché “if you put pucks on net, good things happen”. That’s pretty much what I’m suggesting here. Not every connection with other movements will bear fruit – or result in cheers – for the cooperative movement. But enough individual actions will result in increasing success. If the cooperative movement comes up with its own cliche to talk about grassroots organizing, I promise I’ll never get sick of it.