Why Do Worker Co-operatives Need a World Declaration?

In 2007, during Congress in Saskatoon, Canada, which included the joint meeting of ACE, CASC and the ICA Research Committee, April Bourgeois presented a paper by that same name.

Unfortunately, I misplaced my notes from that discussion. However, the upshot is that the concept of what constitutes worker ownership varies greatly based on location and political motive. Even in countries with national laws regarding co-operatives, the specific definition of a worker co-op often gets ignored.

This allows people to create “worker co-operatives” for marketing and tax purposes that are really traditional partnerships. This waters down the co-operative brand as a whole and the worker co-operative brand in particular. For instance, a cab co-operative might only have 3-4 members who each own and lease out 40 vehicles. Because they drive, they are “workers” but they also exploit the work of 40-60 other workers who do not get the benefits or protections of membership.

This scam plays out across the globe. It can (and does) happen in South America and North America. In addition, in the United States (and to some extent the UK and Canada), the concept of worker ownership has been further diluted through schemes such as the Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) in which workers often invest in the company that employs them. These may be truly worker owned company, but often the majority of the shares (and the voting power that goes with that ownership) rests in the hands of senior management.

Finally, there is a movement to shore up the image of companies in the mind of the consumer. Groups such as World Blu Democratic Workplaces exist to help companies improve the worker experience by creating participatory management models. While this work is exemplary, it creates the false idea that “democracy” is the same as participatory management. While participatory management may be a key part of a democratic workplace, without the actual control afforded through the universal suffrage of “one member, one vote” the workplaces of Wolrd Blu exist through the benevolence of the majority stockholder.

Outside of the US, Canada and Western Europe, governments may interfere with worker co-operatives and even try to control them. This was certainly true in the Soviet Union as well as central African nations. It is part of the debate in Venezuela between the two separate worker co-operative movements. One is aligned with the Chavez government and one maintains a political independence. While the Chavez linked co-ops tend to run government work, I want to be clear that I do not think that President Chavez controls them either personally or through his political apparatus–the point is that people make assumptions on the independence of these types of co-operatives.

In 2005, the ICA approved the World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives at its General Assembly in Cartegena, Colombia. It was developed through the sectoral organization CICOPA and finalized at CICOPA’s meeting in Oslo, Norway. Because of this, it is often called the Oslo Declaration; however, this (in my mind) gets too confused with the Oslo Accords which is an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis for how they would negotiate peace. Given the failure of those Accords, it seems that it would be better for us to simply refer to the CICOPA Declaration. Not only is it simpler, but everytime that I say CICOPA out load, I think Copacabana and the song that goes with it).

In any event, the importance of this declaration comes from it defining a worker co-operative across international boundaries.  It has eight parts: General Considerations, Basic Characters, Internal Functioning Rules, Relationship within the Co-operative Movement, Relations with the State and with Regional and Intergovernmental Institutions, Relations with Employers’ Organizations, and Relations with Workers’ Organizations. Over the next eight weeks, I will present each part with my take on it.

Now, I was not part of the drafting of this document (a bit before my time in the Co-op World). Of course, I do know people who were part of the drafting. I want to encourage them to pop in and correct me when I am wrong, expand on things that I miss, and generally help to illuminate this important document that may be almost entirely unknown in the United States.

Next Week: General Considerations

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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2 Responses to Why Do Worker Co-operatives Need a World Declaration?

  1. At a recent worker co-operative forum in the UK we discussed the nature of being a worker co-operative. I tend to think of worker co-operatives in probably too tight a definition; assuming adherance to co-operative values and principles other characteristics are:

    > a substantial majority of workers should be members and only workers should be members.
    > workers should be under a contract of employment (not sub-contracted or self-employed).

    With the growth of multi-stakeholder co-operatives, use of Limited Liability Partnerships and co-operative consortia’s of self-employed people. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish or catagorise. I understand in Mondgragon all worker are technically self-employed?

    One of the main points out of the forum was; is it important to characterise the different types of Co-operatives at all? Should we focus on worker ownership and participation in all forms of co-operatives and actively look to blur the lines.

    I look forward to reading this series.

  2. I agree that as the multi-stakeholder model grows, some of these distinctions between sectors will lessen. The Co-operative Movement should promote democratic work places, plain and simple. I would even go so far as to argue that every co-operative should create a membership class for its workers with the appropriate amount of votes at the General Assembly and allocated seats on decision-making bodies. Workers are a significant stakeholder of every co-operative and should be recognized as such.

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