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