A Vehicle for Economic Development
by John Cline
This paper discusses selected examples of Canadian and United States worker co-op development based on research initiated in 1995 and is an ongoing activity. The case study is about a successful employment transition by three women from nursing careers to a specialty craft business in Nova Scotia. It is presented as an example of successful development.
Thanks to SSHRC and Acadia University for the small universities grant for the original award and the Manning School of Business for the opportunity.
Special thanks to my partner Janet McClain with Acadia University's Department of Sociology. Her contribution to the selected case study development from my interview transcript of editing, critique and advice.
In addition, The 1995 25th Annual Atlantic Schools of Business Conference, the 1995, 1996 and 1997 Atlantic Canada Economic Association Conference, the 1995 and 1997 Learned Society, and the 1995 and 1997 Canadian Association of Rural Studies for opportunities to present my research at their conferences and meetings.
For my independent research efforts, thanks to St. Maryís University for in kind donations and support. Dr. Sonja Novkovic in Department of Economics at St. Maryís University for financial support and contribution to the surveyís second version. Co-op Atlantic for providing a French Canadian translation of the survey. The Federal Co-operative Secretariat of Canada for financial and translation support to expand the research across Canada. The Conseil Acadien de la Co-operative along with New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland Provincial governments for their lists of worker co-operatives. The Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation for their support. The CWCF Co-op Developers Network for reviewing the initial draft of this paper at the Oct. 10th, 1997 Canadian Worker Co-operative Federationís development workshop on worker co-op development.
Copyright 1997. John Cline. All rights reserved. Articles can be reprinted or referenced only with permission of this author or any contributing authors to this work. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system without the prior written permission of this author or any contributing author.
Table of Contents
This paper is based on 3 years of research pertaining to Worker Co-operatives. The initial study focused on Nova Scotiaís worker co-ops in Nova Scotia. The research was expanded to all of Canadain 1996. In early 1997, the research was extended to the United States and beyond North America. The research survey tool is now on the World Wide Web in English, French, and Spanish.
The research focuses on development, womenís involvement, co-operative principles and cultural values. The development phase of this research is based on six questions. Other questions about gender involvement, co-operative principles and values are imbedded in the basic development themes of;
(1) How do you define development before and after incorporation?
(2) What are critical elements for successful development before and after incorporation?
(3) How do you define co-op leadership before and after incorporation?
(4) What are important elements for good leadership before and after incorporation?
(5) What community factors tend to influence development before and after incorporation?
(6) What community factors tend to influence leadership before and after incorporation?
Worker Co-operatives are enterprises where workers are member owners. They work in the business, govern it and management it. Participation is based on one vote per member, regardless of how many shares are owned by each member. Net income is shared by worker owners. Salaries are generally on a low ratio of two to one. They control their working conditions, business policies and related matters of the business (Axworthy & Perry, 1988:6). The Canadian Worker Co-operative Federationís definition of a worker co-operative is:
Any business functioning as a worker co-operative, inclusive of various corporate forms and organizational structures. These corporate forms include co-operatives, business corporations, and non-profit societies so long as the worker-members control the organization, and their by-laws require one member-one vote. In other words, the vote must be based on membership, not based upon the number of common shares or other equity. (Canadian Worker Co-op Federation, 1995:1).
Worker co-operatives adhere to certain prescribed principles and values.
Open and voluntary membership - no discrimination; autonomy and independence - ability to engage in commerce and remain independent;
democratic control - one share one vote regardless of shares or equity owned;
member economic participation - equal or equitable sharing of income and profits; education, training and information - for members and the public;
co-operation among co-operatives - helping and utilizing each others' services and products;
and a concern for community - contribute socially and economically to their respective communities.
Co-operative cultural values are equality, equal access to resources and opportunities, equity through fairness, respect, trust and community; mutual empowerment; and an attitude of trying to working together (Atlantic Council of Co-operatives, 1993:13). The underlying operating principle of development is co-operatives generally arise out of a need (Chiasson & Johnson, 1995:7). As a kid, my father told me a successful business person was one who recognized a need and met it. His words were:
"Find a hole and fill itî. In other sectors of the business world there are similar analogies, but not necessarily for the same reasons nor may there be an actual need (Nickels, McHugh, McHugh, & Berman, 1994:169).
In Fall of 1994, a SSHRC small universities grant from Acadia University was awarded for a pilot research project to investigate Nova Scotia rural worker co-operative development, leadership roles, gender involvement, principles and values. At the December 1994 conference in Montreal, focus groups interviews with worker co-op developers, co-op workers, government staff and managers, and labour representatives provided the initial development phase for this research project. As a result of focus groups and a literature review; an interview guide was developed for field research.
In early 1995, 23 active and struck worker co-ops in Nova Scotia were contacted by telephone. Interview permission was received from 10 active worker and 1 dissolved worker co-op. Between February and March of 1995, group and individual interviews were conducted on-site at each business or in homes of worker owners. Interviews were taped or hand written and transcribed verbatim into qualitative interview records.
Results of focus groups, individual interviews and another review of literature produced a survey tool. Seventy seven surveys were sent in mid of April 1995 in Nova Scotia. Twenty seven surveys were returned completed, 5 were returned not deliverable, and 5 returned showing the co-ops were dissolved. Three of the dissolved businessesí completed surveys. Based on these figures compared to the total number of surveys sent out, usable survey data represents 38.5% of sampled population (Cline, 1995: 52 ).
In 1996, the Co-operatives Secretariat Canada provided support to expand the survey research to all known Canadian Worker Co-ops. The resources included cost of one survey mailing, their current list of worker co-ops, mailing labels and a French cover letter translation for Quebec. Dr. Sonja Novkovic in the Department of Economics at St. Maryís University and I developed additional survey items to assist in of our joint research. Co-op Atlantic provided a French translation of the survey for Quebec. The Department of Management Science and Finance at St. Maryís provided support services for survey mailing.
From May through July of 1996, Canadian Worker Co-ops received a survey with return envelope and postage. Additional worker co-ops were identified through the Conseil Acadien de la Cooperative, provincial lists and other resources that identified worker co-operatives. As a result, total known worker co-ops increased to 424 from the original 407.
In December 1996, a US Worker Co-operative directory was located on the Internet with a list of 167 worker co-ops by Statesí. In January 1997, US worker co-ops were mailed surveys and completed mid March. Canadian worker co-ops who did not respond to the initial survey were sent a second survey including a second French survey, with language revisions, was also sent to Quebec. The survey is now in French, English and Spanish on the WWW. My intent is to encourage worker co-ops internationally to participate in the study and to make existing research available.
Worker co-operatives are found in all sectors of economy. Modified forms of employee ownership range from company stock purchase programs, ESOPs (Employee Stock Option Plans), to joint union and employee ownership of majority shares of a firm. These are a few of hybrid versions of the employment co-operative model. Surveys returned to us revealed a number of scenarios as to why and what they developed as a particular business. We recognize there is overlap in these groupings.
Out of necessity is a basic need for employment or services such as food and housing.
Displaced workers of varying conditions use worker co-ops as a vehicle for Entrepreneurship. With down sizing of hospitals, medical services and associated fishery operations, nurses, medical personnel, and fish processing plant workers have developed worker co-ops in unrelated fields such as clothing and specialty retail operations. Most workers started their businesses before actual unemployment. The choice of worker co-op as an organizational structure is based on co-operative values and principles. Outside help ranges from none to local or regional economic development agencies.
One worker co-op is a franchised used clothing retail outlet. It has 3 female members and employ causal labour to assist in unloading shipments of clothing. They started the business as a result of a fish plant closing. An observation about the community where this retail business is currently located suggests if they were to organize their business today they may not have as much success. The community has a low economic activity. The result is many closed shops and vacant buildings in the community.
An entire Department at Memorial University was closed in 1991. It provided adult education and services related to community economic development. The staff decided to continue these services based on community needs and their need for continued employment. They formed a worker co-operative as a consulting firm and continue to provide those services.
Food collectives and co-operative buying clubs are a common business ventures identified in the surveys. CRS Workers Co-op in Burnaby, BC had its beginnings setting up food buying clubs funded by BC government. Workers realized there was an opportunity to supply buying clubs as a wholesaler. The existing consumer co-op structure was converted to a worker co-op and expanded its operations to include a bakery. Today this business has 61 worker owners and is very successful.
Transitional, previous experience The need generally expressed here is to fill an industry need, a need for self reliance, and a need for the local community. The aquaculture industry, as a result of the collapse of the Atlantic Fisheries, is filling a need for marketable fish and employment. The need for independence is a personal value relating to economic self control and self sufficiency. The community need is the worker ownerís affiliation with their community, the desire to maintain itby an economic venture and the principles of the co-operative movement.
One example is a fish hatchery operation in Cape Breton for Trout, Steelhead, Salmon and Arctic Char. The business started in 1988. The worker co-op has 5 members. There are three worker owners, a local Community Economic Development Agency and a private sector partner. They employ one causal labour who works during the busy season and may become a member of co-op. They became involved in DNA experiments for breeding and stock tracing studies related to the Fisheries with Dalhousie University. It has resulted in new breeds, wider selection and an export business inaddition to local needs.
Another worker co-op model of this type is a trucking business. Four men started a trucking business. Three were in the same family. The father was the manager - organizer and his sons are truck drivers. The fourth was a mechanic. The business concept was unique. They would buy damaged rigs from insurance companies and rebuild them. The initial tractor trailers were then put into use by the sons to generate revenues.
Additional trucks were rebuilt and sold to raise capital for the operation of the business and expansion. They would buy a damaged rig for $15,000 to $20,000, put it back into road condition, and resell it for $60,000 plus.
For the members, it was a transition from employee to worker owner in their respective skill areas. The first ìrigî was built and put on the road for the business itself. The second was completed and used in the business. A third rig was under rebuild. They continue to build the trucking fleet and sell rebuilt ìrigsî. The success of their effort has resulted in becoming a delivery agent for a major regional company.
Similar services These worker co-ops are a result of various needs in the trades and services sector where independent workers collectively work together to provide products and services.
Independent garbage collectors started a worker co-operative as a result of new environmental requirements and new municipality approaches to waste management. Other trades such as carpenters form worker co-ops to have control over the work environment and improve incomes. Farmers start worker co-ops to share resources and labour for joint and independent farm operations. One worker co-op was formed by independent business people to compost fish waste for retail sale. In these types of worker co-ops; individuals have previous self employment or bring into the co-op an active business that becomes part or entirely the worker co-op where individual business become assets of theco-operative. Another worker co-op is used to help young people gain skills while working so they can have continued employment in or outside the co-operative.
In St. John, New Brunswick Central American immigrants started a restaurant based on their cultural roots. They had been nurses, educators and other professionals in their respective countries. The restaurantís success is due to the unique food offered to the community. In Alymer, Ont. immigrant Mennonite women began a worker co-op to provide sewing skills and a source of income while raising families. A lack of employment for disabled adults in Ottawa initiated an effort by the YMCA to start a worker owned co-operative in 1980. The business provides training and employment opportunities in shelter workshop, supported jobs by a job coach and independent contract work.
Integrated services Health services, waste management consulting, Eco Tourism, and psychological counseling services. Workers in each example were previously unemployed, employees, self employed or just entered into business for the first time.
One worker co-op health care co-operative started as a result of a need for in-home nursing services. In 1988 two RNís personal research indicated the local Hospital-Centered Nursesí Registry did not provide that service. The need for the service was apparent with many people needing care that could be given in their homes. It was not provided by hospital and was being passed on to nursing homes. As a result, these health care professionals and their family members started the co-op. They contract out excess work to other professionals as needed. Currently the original members still operate the business. The intent was to make other nurses, nursing assistants and other personal care workers co-op members. Two additional worker owners have been added to the business. There were 8,000 contracted hours the first year. There were a total of 40,000 contracted hours in 1994-95. The service continues to grow and prove this type of service in the community.
An Eco Tourism worker co-op in Halifax began as a family business providing cross country ski tours in 1982. In 1988 the family and employees became a worker co-op. In 1992 they enlarged their focus to walking tours about ecology and landscape in NS PEI and NB. The tours average 6 days and average 10 miles a day. They utilize local B&Bs. Today they have brochures, a WEB site and are a leader in this niche market. There are 3 worker owners and 4 part time guides. Guides have opportunity to become worker owners over time and experience with the business. One guide became a worker owner in 1996.
In Montreal, there is a firm of professionals who are independent consultants, but each are members as worker owners, in the co-operative. Their primary business is international development. They share on a user fee basis the co-ops services and costs to operate in their industry. Each owner member is expected to generate a certain level of revenues to support the co-operative. They are also expected to ìoff loadî contractual work for newer members to help them as members of the co-operative.
Small / Family business Family worker co-op businesses is another scenario. The worker co-op model operates effectively in this environment. Worker co-ops at this micro level is similar to small business enterprises. It generally involves immediate family members.
One example is a family who started a local retail store selling local crafts and art work. The family consisted of the mother, her son, his wife, and her daughter. They converted part of their hotel into a service business repairing and refinishing furniture. The community setting was a population of about 250 in Cape Breton. The primary trade is tourists and summer cabin owners. Retail business is brisk enough to employ one person during the tourist season. In the Fall and Spring they traditionally cater to hunters and fishermen.
Another family worker co-op started an aquaculture operation on the family farm. They raise trout in ponds and sell the fish to local retail and wholesale markets. They have 5 family members as worker owners: a woman and her husband, two brothers and the finesse of one of the brothers. Motivation and support came from the father, of the woman, who owned the farm. He encouraged them and provided resources such as land for ponds. They began to save money from their various jobs before deciding what type business they could pursue. After deciding to go into business, they contacted the Co-operative Branch of The Economic Department. After discussion with a representative of the agency, they decided the worker co-op business structure was best suited for their needs.
Stakeholder Relations And Agreements Under various conditions, worker co-operatives are developed with distinct partners from other sectors and organizational associations. They maintain their individuality and self control while other businesses are members of their worker co-operative. Stakeholders may or may not be a majority.
Outside Truro, NS there is a co-operative with members who are worker owners, livestock breeders, and a marketing co-op. Their representatives form of the co-ops board and ownership. It began as a marketing co-op for lamb growers. When cost of slaughter and processing made their product non competitive, lamb breeders procured a local processing plant and included the workers as owners and members of the new co-op. The marketing co-op also became a stakeholder as a member. At last report there are 30 members (breeders, marketing co-op representative and worker owners) and 2 non member employees. The operation has expanded to process other livestock.
A farmers co-operative in Cape Breton operates as a stakeholder co-operative. Members include farmers and workers on an equal basis. They combined resources such as equipment and land use. Local farm workers were included as members and owners. They also share earnings and income from results of combined resources.
In New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec, three respective co-ops have a stakeholder membership consisting of employees, wood lot owners, marketing organizations, processors, product manufactures, and truckerís. Each has a equal voice in the co-operative. In these businesses, worker co-operatives do not always have control of the overall co-operative structure.
Employee / union buyout or takeover Employee buyouts and takeovers occur under pleasant conditions where the owner no longer wants to own the business for a variety of reasons. Under adverse conditions such as a union disputes, restructuring, plant closings and outsourcing, worker co-ops have emerged as viable businesses.
A US bike manufacturing company (partnership) in Oregon was sold to its employees after 9 years as a business in 1978. The partners wanted to experiment with worker ownership and empowerment. The ex-partners continued to work in the co-operative business as worker owners until retirement in 1982. Their continued presence and knowledge helped the ongoing success of the business.
Another Oregon bike retail and service business was sold to its workers by the owner who was ìburned outî. This business sells new and used bikes; parts; trailers and repairs. The owner came back into the worker co-op three years later as a worker owner. There are 11 worker owners and 6 non member employees.
Another example is where employees purchased a business to keep a viable business operation in the community and preserve employment. A Canadian travel agency developed as a result of a company (an insurance co-operative) out sourcing a business operation for internal efficiencies. Recently this worker co-operative (all women) partnered with a large travel agency to improve their market position and services to clients. The relationship is a stakeholder. The other company sits on their board. The co-op is an associate partner with the other travel agency with decision making power.
A US cab company basically took over the company it struck after it closed in 1979. The long term result is a monopoly status in the municipality and surrounding communities. They either purchased other local cab companies or put them out of business over time. The history of this worker co-op reads like an action packed short novel. It is filled with internal struggles, burnoutís and emerged with a new culture as a worker co-op. Their diverse cab and community delivery services have sustained and profited them over time.
Another case was a trucking service owned by CN. When the railroad privatized a number of its operations, employees procured the freight service in a partnership with several other stakeholders who had a vested interest in keeping services operational. Unfortunately the business did not survive as a result of one of its major stakeholders going under in 1997.
Employee Stock Ownership Plan This approach uses legal trusts which allow workers to form or purchase a business giving them control, equity and investment without future loss of the business by a subsequent stock proxy, buy out or any other financial takeover strategy. It allows the sale of stock to the public using traditional stock capital raising methods including formal stock markets.
In Florida, a worker co-op partnered with AFL/CIO in the motion picture industry to create TOROFILM COOP using an ESOP. TOROESOP is co-financed by a TV show series about South Beach, which has as work title SOUTH BEACH CAF (the TV Series company). TOROFILM is a North Carolina production company. It has a workers trust with 30% percent of stock shares going to the workers share of the trust in exchange for a ì Productive Creditsî (sweat equity). Another 15% of the shares will be offered to the public market through a SCOR (small corporate offering registration) from North Carolina, when the capital becomes necessary. Total outside financing of the project will come from the exchange of 45% of all shares of SBC, or 200,000 shares at $5.00 each. TOROFILM will have enough money to pay for reproduction, production and post production with $1,000,000 to start and finish the SBC series. A track record of bringing in forty-five films, three consecutive International Film & TV Festivals in New York (among others) will support and back-up TOROFILM principals.
Replication of a successful worker co-op business If there is no competition, worker co-ops in one geographical area replicate new independent worker co-ops in other geographical locations. Another reason for replication is the exiting business does not intend to expand. They have reached their level of satisfaction or full capacity.
A worker co-op green house operation in Cape Breton replicated their type of business operation to another part of Cape Breton as an independent worker co-op.
A worker owned used building material store co-op in Victoria, BC intends to replicate its operation across Canada through First Nations networks. Each new store will have its own independent worker co-op structure and members.
Worker co-op development centres A development agency generally with outside funding from private and or public sources that initiate new worker co-operatives.
In Ohio and California as well as other locations in North America, there are centres with support facilities, capital sources and staff to help worker co-ops to start a business or purchase exiting firms. These centres have stakeholder relationship with local universities and other stakeholders. In Athens, Ohio; Ohio University provides technical knowledge from various departments such as Engineering and Business to the Centre.
Summary: The development of this condensed worker co-op case study resulted from three nurses who lost their jobs due to the closing of their community hospital. This case study reports their evolution as a worker co-op and the process leading to current success. This use of the worker co-operative model is identified as a career transition development.
Profile of three women worker- owners, Nova Scotia Case Study, June 1996
Each woman is over 50 years and has resided in the same community for many years. All have worked together at the local hospital as registered nurses before it closed in the Fall of 1994. Each had no prior business experience. When they heard the store was for sale, they decided it would be a good opportunity for the change in their career paths. They approached store owners in the Summer of 1994 and proposed to purchase the business keeping the current business name and products. The current business was a marketing co-operative owned by artisans. It had paid staff to operate the store. The business was 11 years old. Because the nurses wanted to share the responsibility and ownership equally, they decided to become a worker co-operative. They reopened the store in March 1995 and had been in business 15 months when this interview took place.
A focus group interview was conducted by John Cline with assistance from Janet McClain. The founding members each took a different position based on skills, choice and for incorporation purposes as president, secretary and treasurer. The following discussion is a summary of the themes, the interview and highlights of their responses.
On the topic of important issues prior to going into business, they expressed concerns about the lack of possible future employment in the area for nurses because of cutbacks in hospital facilities and health services. "We felt this business might be more secure, something of interest to us and an on-going income." One worker owner found out about the SEA grant program (Self Employment Assistance) available through Human Resources Canada. Another worker owner heard about the sale of the business "through the grapevine". It had not been advertised. Each worker-owner put in an equal amount of money to avoid "future quarrels" about ownership.
Important issues relating to the business: after they incorporated and began operating the store was described as "everything was new to us from using the computer, determining the cash float, ordering the inventory and basic day-to-day operations." They were concerned about making the right decisions on products and judging the tastes of both local customers and tourists. In the first year, they were also pre-occupied with keeping within their budget so "we would not go down the tubes." They learned about marketing when they went to their first show, how to negotiate prices and how to get basic services from their landlord: "we got a bathroom installed."
On financing the business, they were concerned about "not getting financing because they were women" which they heard from many sources it could be a problem especially because of their unemployment status. Lack of experience was also a worry when they approached lenders. "We talked to four banks and a local credit union. We asked for only a line of credit.". They were turned down by one bank who referred them to a federal lending agency; one bank felt they had enough of their own capital for operation; and others were simply helpful but noncommittal. They were offered a line of credit from through the credit union. Then one bank warmed to their proposal after they decided to take their business to the credit union. "We learned from that experience you can negotiate with banks." They also felt the run-around received from several lending institutions was not related to their gender. It was more about trying to secure a loan for a small retail store without an established business track record.
After being in business for over a year, they reflected on some of the critical factors of staying in business. These factors were purchasing the right quantity of inventory, having proper displays in their small store and assigning the right prices. On the subject of needed skills, all agreed their computing skills were lacking. One worker-owner said " I had never typed before," and another owner was taking a computing course. The women felt their best assets were "people skills" from being in nursing for so many years (all had over 25 years in the profession). They have also benefited from the expertise of one owner's husband, a retired businessman, who has been "an unbelievable amount of help" in setting up their inventory and accounting system as well as teaching them how to use the computer. "They (husbands) had a part in helping us in one way or another and have been supportive."
Equitable decision-making is also a significant contributing factor to the success of the worker co-op. "We share the decision-making, but if adecision needs to be made on the spot, whoever is in the store calls the shots." Each attribute this feeling to a greater level of trust and confidence in each other compared to the beginning when "whoever was in the store would call the others for input." They also mention they are flexible in sharing the work load as "it is something we used to do in our previous jobs as nurses." Still, they mention the treasurer has the toughest job of managing their finances and "she is hoping we will all take over some of those responsibilities." They mentioned not having any substantial disagreements up to this point, and if any occurred they would use majority rule if consensus could not resolve an issue.
Leadership and development of complementary expertise are also importantin worker co-ops. The women see their leadership roles as accepting responsibility for whatever is needed at a given time. "If one of us has a particular skill, such as woodworking or setting up displays," then they take on those responsibilities. The other reason why they feel comfortable with each other is because "we're friends and worked in the same hospital together. Two of us worked in the same department and we all have known each other for the past ten years." They trust each other's judgment and competencies. It is important to note they reinforced each others contributions and work with personal praise and supportive comments throughout the interview.
Concerning community support and involvement in the community, they mentioned support coming from their landlord, the local credit union, Acadia University Small Business Development Centre, a local worker co-op developer, The Nova Scotia Co-operatives Branch of The Economic Renewal Agency, Human Resources Canada, and tourist bureaus in two communities.
They acknowledged that ongoing "advice, support and encouragement" from a worker co-op developer was important support. They also mentioned support coming from the general public. "The public helped us to shape the business by recommending products, new artisans, sharing their own knowledge and various experience." We have also built a bridge to other worker co-ops and similar businesses in the County and the province. We assist women business owners in the local community by purchasing business cards and other services from them. They mention not having time to become directly involved in women's business associations and activities up to this point, but they would like to be involved in the future.
On the plus side, this venture "has been a real learning experience, though not as exciting or satisfying as nursing. Yes, we miss the hospital community and its demands." On the down side, while their business has shown a profit each year, the return on their investment was not as much as they had hoped for. It is partly a result of several new stores with similar products opening next to their store and along the main street within months after they had reopened. It is interesting to note a year later, their worker co-op is still going strong and their new competition has since gone out of business. As well, two of the worker owners still do some nursing on a part-time basis just to stay in touch with their friends and their previous profession.
Box 448, Wolfville, Nova Scotia B0P 1X0
1-902-542-4002 (fax & voice)
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Cline, John, "From Salmon Eggs To Trucking And Trash: Rural Worker Co-op Development In Nova Scotia. A Study Of Worker-Owned Business Development."Atlantic Canada Economic Association papers, Vol. 24, 1995, pages 49-66.
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