Conference Reactions

Highlights from the CWCF-CoopZone Conference - by Joy Emmanuel (CoopZone)

In a nutshell: intimate and informative are two words that quickly come to mind to describe this year's CWCF-CoopZone conference in Ancaster, Ontario. How so? Here are a few highlights:

* Spending the day on Nov. 7th with Peter Hough who introduced a small group of co-op developers to the Worker Co-op Index. A new diagnostic tool based on the theory of Full Participation Management, this survey-based index provides feedback on the overall health of the co-op in a number of key areas.
* The first face-to-face meeting of the new CoopZone Legal Network took place among a group of lawyers committed to serving co-ops more effectively in cities and towns across the country. CoopZone President David Daughton and Hazel Corcoran are working closely with these new members, and helping them to identify other co-op friendly lawyers across the country in order to build a critical mass for effective peer learning, networking, referrals, etc.

* Being introduced to a great new co-op movie - Shift Change: a documentary about how worker co-ops are invigorating local economies in communities from Mondragon to inner-city Boston.

* Lots of great conversations over, and between, meals with other co-operators from across
the country; it was great to see new faces among the familiar ones. Exciting to be immersed in worker co-op "culture" and learn more about their challenges and triumphs. Taking time for a rejuvenating group walk through the beautiful fall forest. Opportunities to taste test samples of delicious chocolate - thanks to Cocoa Camino.

* Two great panel presentations, one on Business Sustainability and one on Membership
Development. Presenters offered candid insights on their co-op's experience in approaching certain organizational and business development challenges. A good illustration of co-operation among co-ops. The place was a buzz of conversation even when the sessions ended as people were inspired to share their own experiences and insights.

* Engaging keynote address titled: Surviving and Thriving as a Worker Co-op presented by two members of the world's only co-operatively run sex-shop.

* The Solidarity supper to celebrate the International Year of Co-operatives and recognize
the tremendously supportive role and contribution of Alain Roy of the federal Co-operatives Secretariat. Alain has been working with the Secretariat since the 1980s. He has always been a strong supporter of, and advocate for, both CWCF and CoopZone, and his efforts are greatly appreciated.

* Did I mention: great connections; appreciated meeting James and Pamela, part of our
CWCF/CoopZone team; super to have new co-op developers attend; appreciated the co-op developer's round-table, and so much more!

A big thanks to Hazel, the other staff, and all who contributed to making the conference a big success. Next year's Conference will be November 7-9, 2013 in Edmonton. Don't miss out - put it in your calendars now.

CWCF AGM, by John Harvie (Director, The Co-operators)

On Nov. 8th, 9th, and 10th I had the good fortune to attend the Canadian Worker Coop Federation (CWCF) AGM. The World of Cooperatives is truly large and diverse. This AGM was not a large event, but it was a quality event with a range of people representing member-owner organizations of the CWCF, such as bicycle courier Coops, bicycle sales and service Coops, fair trade coffee and chocolate Coops, construction Coops, Coop developer Coops, sustainable solutions consulting Coops, technology Coops, and food Coops.

The delegates to this AGM seemed to be very committed to the Coop business model and more specifically to the Worker Coop model. During the course of the AGM, the discussions of their business challenges, opportunities, successes and problems were refreshingly open and honest.

The CWCF and some of their member organizations have received moral and financial support from the Cooperators over the years, and they were quick and sincere in their praise of the management and the Board of the Cooperators.

The meeting began with a welcome from the Presidents of CWCF and of CoopZone and also from the manager of OnCoop, and then an icebreaking session where the facilitator had us all on our feet admitting our ages and our cultural backgrounds and then finally tying everything into the challenges facing Cooperatives in the marketplace. This was no small feat.
The business of the AGM was conducted in three parts over three days. Day one was the business reports, day two was the financial presentation and day three was elections resolutions and other business.

One of the most significant decisions of this AGM was a unanimous vote in support of a resolution to pledge from $175,000 to $250,000 to the National Cooperative Investment Fund. The pledge total is unclear because of a $75,000 grant being donated by a third party and not yet confirmed. The $175,000 from the CWCF’s own development fund is a firm pledge with some sensible conditions such as the total fund must reach at least twenty million dollars. This is a very impressive commitment considering the CWCF is not a rich organization.

Over the three day meeting several topics of interest were presented and/or discussed such as:
- Regional caucus meetings were held
- CCA presentation by Lynne Markell
- CWCF Cooperators Group benefits presentation by Dean Howard
- Panel discussion on business sustainability through financial viability
- Panel discussion on Membership development and Integrating new members
- Seven separate and distinct workshops.
- Presentation by playwright Lindsay Kyte on her play, “Journey to Tomkinsville.”
- Presentation of the “Worker Coop Merit Award” to Alain Roy.
- Viewing of the film “Shift Change.”
- Wrap up plenary which included three short presentations by delegates identified as “listeners” who gave their impressions of the AGM
All in all this was a positive experience for the delegates and for me. I have not previously had much contact with the Worker Coop movement. They are growing in strength and significance in Canada and seem poised to meet challenges and opportunities. They are truly national in their scope as recently all three Quebec Workers Federations joined the CWCF.

It seems like a big deal to me. I was glad to be there.

 

Conference Reactions - by Jamie Campbell

 

Thursday, November 8th:
   The icebreaker went well.  I got an opportunity to talk with a Co-operators staff person, and some other worker co-ops, and got at least a bit of context as to their presence at the AGM.  The one aspect to this that would be good to see modified for next year is I think it might be more valuable if it were deliberately targeted instead of having people be grouped on peripheral demographics. What was actually used for grouping was stuff like age of participants; age of co-ops, etc.  However, if it's restructured the way I think it should be, then the "icebreaker" side probably disappears, and it becomes just straight networking.. anyway, food for thought.
   For our region (Prairies, NWT, and Nunavut) the caucus meeting was just Paolo (Urban' Eatin' Worker Co-op) and me (from ParIT).  Cory from Natural Cycle didn't arrive until just before the plenary he was part of, so he wasn't in the caucus meeting.  I ended up reading him the report and Erwan and Cheryl's supplementary information, and asking whether he had any "last minute resolutions" he wanted to table (he didn't, neither did I).  .. I think the main reason why there was so little Manitoba representation is that the Co-op Promotion Board subsidization was not available this year.
   The AGM Part 1, and Presentations by CCA & Co-operators were useful information sessions.
   I was one of the presenters in the Plenary later that day.  My thoughts were primarily focused internally, to ensure that I presented and answered questions as best as I could.  I think that being in the Plenary provided ParIT and I with valuable visibility, so although I don't have any notes from the other people's content, I think it was well worth doing.
   The Keynote, as with the AGM/CCA/Co-operators, presented information that I'm fairly familiar with {Stuff like: diversity is important; If a new employee is having a hard time working out, it's valuable to ask "how is the co-op not handling the integration as it should be" rather than "how is the new employee a terrible person"; a co-op needs to know its stuff and serve the customers well, and have a strong relationship of trust}, but their perspective, in being more deeply "Social Justice/anti-oppression" than the usual CWCF fare was, I think, very valuable for other participants to hear.
   For the trade fair and networking time.. the CWCF organized part was three tables (two in dinner area and one in main area), dominated by La Siembra, and CCA, with various informational bits on out-of-country co-operatives.  As such, to be honest, I didn't personally find it all that valuable (although I loved the opportunity to sample La Siembra chocolate!).  I'd love to see the networking component *formally* organized for future years, perhaps even all the way to the point of brokered meetings.  There is no point, in the rest of the year, when we have such a golden opportunity to genuinely get co-ops working with co-ops, and I sort of feel that this year (not to single out this year because I think this has been true for all prior years too) we really let that fall off.

Friday, November 9th:
   For the membership integration plenary, most of what I took away was of anecdotal/historical interest.. I'm not sure that there were any specific strategies that were appropriate to bring back to ParIT.  Hearing about what other co-ops have been through was certainly interesting though.
   AGM part 2, as with Part 1, was primarily of value to non-board members.
   I attended the "challenges of growing sales" workshop by Jennifer Williams.  Lessons I got out of this : a) it's important to always look to growth to prevent multinationals from slowly (or quickly) obliterating you {I'm not sure to what extent this applies to ParIT as we're service rather than product-based.. multinationals in the Enterprise Resource Planning arena tend to target customers prepared to spent $500,000 rather than our ballpark}; b) In a slightly contrary vein, don't turn away from your core brand (La Siembra figured out in retrospect that they could have pushed far harder on their core, chocolate, offerings, when initially they thought they had taken it as far as it could go); c) Even very expensive mistakes (for them, juice) can lead to new opportunities, as they got *chocolate* opportunities from new purchasers who didn't even know they existed until they made their juice attempt.  These new opportunities almost certainly weren't worth what they lost in the attempt, but the point is, the strategy of lemonade from lemons applies even to stuff of this magnitutde; d) Most of the groups in the workshop were sharing experience contrary to the advice we prior advice ParIT received (to back away from bothering to mention anything about our Co-op side).. instead, the common theme at the table was that everyone there agreed with the "backing away" advice.. and tried it.. and found when they revisited, and started mentioning their co-op side again, that it had a surprising, hugely positive impact, and so now they've all decided to not practically hide their co-op nature anymore; e) Specific advice for ParIT {or perhaps for me specifically}.. was that even when a competitor is going nuts with fraudulent stuff to specifically steal business (eg, a competitor openly lying about being a Worker Co-op), it is STILL better to just focus on ParIT's positive aspects, because, the competitor's strategy of openly lying WILL catch up with them at some point, it's not the sort of thing that can be sustained, so we're better off letting them sink *themselves*.  
   The solidarity supper was good times, but, as with the trade fair, I think it could have provided massively more value than it did if CWCF played a role in formally connecting co-ops instead of "ok, it's networking time people, go to town!".

Saturday, November 10th
   I did the "free consulting session with a developer".  This was a bit frustrating in that I ended up with only about 20 minutes with Marty Frost. However, it was (I think) a useful 20 minutes.  The specific discussion I had with Marty was regarding the potentiality for a CWCF Hub to help enable me to continue with my massive overcommitment to a kajillion co-op projects.  He had three pieces of advice a) make sure that funders are willing to do this sort of thing; b) make sure that other worker co-ops in town support you in this since otherwise (a) is unlikely; c) most likely, it's a better idea to just drop everything that puts you in a position of overcommitment, even if a & b are achievable..
   The elections and resolutions session : all resolutions passed and all nominated directors acclaimed.  No "other business".
   Went to the "financial benchmarks" workshop.  Took extensive notes (more extensive than for any other session).  I plan on taking a try at applying this process to ParIT because right now our level of informality in financial self-assessment scares the stuffing out of me.
   Wrap-up plenary : three listeners, no negative thoughts at all from any of them (which is very rare, usually at least one listener says at least one "needs improvement" thing).  Alain put forth that our goal should be to go from the approx 300 current worker co-ops, nationally, to approx 2000 (1000 in Quebec and 1000 in the rest of the country) by 2022 {a ten year goal}.  Allons-y!

After that, headed to the airport with Hazel and John Harvie.  Some interesting times : David Daughton left his computer behind.. but I accidentally gathered it during the venue shutdown, so, I ended up saving him much trouble even though in reality it wasn't me but rather miscommunication that was his saviour.  Also had excellent conversation with Hazel and John.

 

CWCF Conference - by Kathleen Banville

In contrast to last year’s conference in Quebec, this year’s CWCF Conference was intimate and
humble. As in previous years (I’m told, since this is only my second year going), the conference
was held at a retreat centre - Canterbury Hills, in Ancaster, ON. With attendance numbers
topping out at about 45, most attendees had a chance to interact over the weekend enough to
wind up on a first-name basis.

Thursday morning started off at the relaxed hour of 10 a.m., giving out-of-towners enough time
to arrive. Two of my co-workers and I took the GO train in from Toronto, and two others were
already at the conference centre. Nancy Kendrew, a founding member of our co-op, excitedly
told us about the Shift Change documentary [http://shiftchange.org/] that we had missed the
night before. If you haven’t watched it or the trailer, you should definitely check it out ASAP.

Conference attendees were welcomed by friendly, informed and succinct speeches from Alain
Bridault and Hazel Corcoran (CWCF), David Daughton (CoopZone), Mark Ventry (OnCoop),
Lynne Markell (Canadian Co-operative Association). Then Atlantic Director Eric Tusz-King led
some interesting and fun icebreaker activities. Participants were asked to arrange themselves
by age, co-op age, and heritage, and in those groups we had co-op related questions to answer
then present to the group.

After a short break we split up for regional caucus meetings. The Ontario meeting was further
split up into members of CWCF and non-members. I participated in the CWCF members caucus
meeting since Urbane Cyclist is a member (and Reba Plummer, one of our members, is on the
board). Some attendees had issues with co-op developers taking part in the meeting, but co-op
developers are members of CWCF too so they stayed. We discussed some interesting ideas to
promote co-ops in Ontario such as business succession, getting youth involved, and lobbying
the government for better tax incentives and programs such as allowing RRSP investments with
member shares.

A presentation on Business Sustainability through Financial Viability was a real hit as it
addressed core issues that concern all co-ops: money! Kelly Storie of La Siembra candidly
shared stories of failed products and how to deal with those losses, while looking on the
bright side of learning the benefits of market research. Russ Christianson, co-op developer,
gave great advice to “do what you know really, really well,” urging us not to stray from our
strengths while searching to grow our businesses. As much as possible, co-ops should be
financially independent so as not to be vulnerable to debt. Co-ops should be taking advantage
of options like stretching out payable deadlines and recognizing sweat equity to help manage
payroll. Doing business with other co-ops is an important aspect of this too, Jamie Campbell of
ParIT explained a new entity in Winnipeg made up of worker co-ops and other entities which
collectively bought their building, the A-Zone. He underlined the importance of participating in
your community and investing in resources such as buildings to create community space and
shelter for co-op businesses.

La Siembra has consistent challenges in engaging their investors. The rest of Canada is jealous
of Quebec’s Caise Solidaire that understands co-ops and makes it easier to access loans.
The group collaboratively came up with the term “marketing the co-op difference” (rather than
“advantage” which has been used in the past). This is in recognition that if we are going to use
our co-op designation to separate us from our competitors, we must work hard for it to be an
advantage for the consumer by operating smoothly and providing a better service or product in
addition to being a local co-operative business.

The keynote speech was presented by two worker-owners from Come As You Are co-op- the
world’s only co-operative sex store. Annanda DeSilva and Jack Lamon almost didn’t make it in
their car that broke down on the way from Toronto to the conference, but eventually they arrived
and presented a light-hearted but serious talk. Sprinkling their stories with sex jokes, Jack and
Annanda took us on the adventure of struggling to make ends meet, realizing they need more
members in the co-op, realizing that potential members might not take the responsibility as
seriously as needed, and eventually finding something that works and satisfies their core
values. We were all impressed with CAYA’s clarity of their core values and being able to stay on
message. Annanda was a listener at the conference last year and asked for more diversity in
presenters. She pointed out that with CAYA being the keynote this year that has been
addressed in an unexpected but very satisfactory way. Just like one sex toy won’t work for
everyone, one co-op structure doesn’t work for all co-ops, and diversity needs to be embraced
in order to empower the movement.

Friday morning came on strong with a three hour presentation on Membership Development
and Integrating New Members. I presented at this plenary along with Cory Bellhouse (Natural
Cycle) and John Richmond (West End Food Co-op). Cory, who holds a degree in conflict
resolution, presented some strategies that work for keeping members engaged such as having
regular check-ins at meetings on how projects are going, sharing financial and administrative
responsibilities, yearly evaluations and committee work. I presented Urbane Cyclist’s new
Member Criteria Statement that we recently published in order to create clearer expectations
of new members applying (to help vet applications when we receive them), as well as ongoing
expectations of members that we’ll be evaluated on each year. John burst the bubble of co-ops
being all about “peace, love and happiness” by acknowledging that ongoing conflict is a staple
of the co-op model. Structures for responsibility and accountability are important but so hard to
maintain because there are always some members who avoid conflict.

To mix it up a bit, Reba Plummer lead an hour-long hike in the Carolinian Forest on the grounds
of Canterbury Hills Centre. The splendid fall colours made a great backdrop for the sharp rock
gullies, tall trees and even the occasional waterfall. Most participants took advantage of the
outdoor adventure time, using the walk to get thoughts circulating and chatting with each other.

At the second part of the AGM in the afternoon, financial statements and budgets were
presented by Peter Hough.

Friday afternoon’s workshops covered Worker Co-ops 101, Growing Sales, and a co-op
developer brainstorm on Integrating Co-op Principles into Governance and Operations. At the
growing sales workshop by Jennifer Williams (La Siembra), participants worked together to

brainstorm solutions for all of the businesses present. Common things we kept in mind were
to choose your strengths and advertise them (quality, environmental impact or price to name a
few) and try to avoid the “me too” syndrome. “Me too” is when you advertise your business as
doing the same thing as another one. Instead, choose what sets you apart and focus on that.

At the solidarity supper later in the evening, Alain Roy was presented with the Worker Co-op
Merit award. Alain Bridault made a long impassioned speech, translated to English from French
by Hazel Corcoran, taking us all the way back to the Co-op masters program at Sherbrooke that
they were both enrolled in during the ‘80’s. Hazel and Alain Bridault also said a few words, and
there was a great round of applause. The celebrations continued into the night with live music
by Allan Merovitz and Jennifer Lockman.

During the last day of the conference, Saturday November 10th, participants had options to
watch Shift Change if they had missed it or participate in free consultation time with a developer.
Peter Hough and Marty Frost were on hand to share their expertise and patient explanations of
all things worker co-op. My group spoke to Peter about figuring out member shares and how to
pay out dividends.

Afterward we finished the third and final portion of the AGM. First retiring board members were
recognized. Lee Fuge and Claude Jourdain were both leaving the board. Hazel made a speech
about how Lee usually avoids the spotlight (but when she talks listen up, she’s got great ideas!
) and Lee characteristically declined to come to the front of the room for applause. Claude was
absent but honoured. All of the directors who were nominated were acclaimed because they
were running unopposed. The directors who were acclaimed are (Boris Schaffer of the Canadian Ethical Restoration and Construction Co-op and Jessica Provencher of La Barberie).

There were three resolutions on the table and they all passed. Dues for CWCF Regional
Federation members were increased to $300, the CWCF pledged support for the National Co-
op Development Fund, and research into indivisible reserve legislation will begin this year.

The last round of workshops included Setting Financial Benchmarks, Co-op Worker Guidelines
(brainstorming the universal co-op handbook), Building International Solidarity and CoopZone
Strategy re: Business Successions to Co-op. It was hard to choose with all the great options. I
attended the Worker Guidelines workshop and we discussed some standards that can be used
in all worker co-ops in order to create some groundwork to share with others.

Three Listeners (Paolo, Boris and Nancy) presented their observations of the conference to the
rest of the attendees as part of the wrap-up plenary. All in all it was positive feedback with most
comments about the intimacy of the small group. Alain Bridault referenced a plan to have 2000
worker co-ops in the country by 2022. Events like the CWCF conference can help by finding
ways to support existing co-ops,. Everyone said their goodbyes and left the beautiful grounds of
the conservation area. Next year the conference will be in Edmonton, Alberta.