The co-operative business model is intended to be an alternative to the traditional capitalist business model, in which the business’ owners or their representatives (managers) run the business and receive the profits from the business’ operations. In a co-operative, the customers of the business are also the owners of the business. Customers usually have to purchase a membership in the co-operative to use its products or services. The members elect a board of directors which is responsible for overseeing the business’ operations, and profits from the business are returned to the members in the form of dividends or reduced prices.

Many co-operatives were formed in areas or industries that traditional businesses refused to serve – either because they did not think there was enough of a market, or because they did not think they would make enough profit. So the co-operative business model is not only an alternative to capitalist business; it’s also a direct challenge to that model. As such, you would think that co-operatives would also challenge the traditional top-down relationship between managers and workers, and treat their employees fairly and respectfully. But workplace disputes at three different co-ops are showing that unfortunately this doesn’t always happen.

In Saskatchewan, unionized workers at the Saskatoon Co-op, which runs many retail outlets in the city, went on strike last winter. They recently settled a new collective agreement which includes a two-tiered wage structure. Newer employees are being paid less than employees with more seniority, even if they do the same jobs. That violates the principle of “equal pay for equal work”, and, according to some, that was the reason for the large member turnout at the Co-op’s annual meeting in June. At that meeting, two new board members were elected who ran on a platform opposing the two-tier agreement and the board’s “unresponsiveness” to employee concerns.

Here in British Columbia, two current labour disputes involve employees of co-operatives. The most visible, because of the size of the organization, is the contentious collective bargaining between Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) and the United Food and Commercial Workers. MEC has 22 stores across Canada; only one, in Vancouver, is unionized, with the employees represented by a new UCFW local that was  certified in April.

The union alleges that the store’s management and head office were notably “anti-union” during the organizing campaign, including directing employees to the website of the blatantly anti-union LabourWatch. The departing CEO of MEC sent a letter to employees days before the vote, noting that sales at the store had steadily declined over the past few years while operating costs had increased. Despite these actions, however, MEC told the Globe and Mail newspaper that it “is dedicated to fostering a healthy and respectful workplace”.

Meanwhile, at Westminster Savings Credit Union, nine employees at the Port Coquitlam branch have been on strike since January, after being without a collective agreement for two years. The employees are members of MoveUP; the union at the branch was certified when the branch was operated by another credit union, which then merged with Westminster. The employees went on strike when the union and the employer could not agree on a proposed change to their pension plan.

Picket line at the Westminster Savings Credit Union in Shaughnessy Square, Port Coquitlam, BC. (credit: TriCity News/MoveUP)

This week, the credit union announced that it will be closing the branch in the fall, “and the fact that this location is unionized had nothing to do with the decision”. Last week, the BC Labour Relations Board refused to grant permission to the union to set up picket lines at other Westminster Savings branches, but the union has indicated that it intends to fight against the closing of the Port Coquitlam location. The BC Federation of Labour has also issued a notice encouraging members of the unions it represents to boycott Westminster Savings until the strike is over.

I’ve had the experience of serving as an elected director of a co-operative (a credit union). While it was a very rewarding experience, it also involved a lot of responsibility, and occasionally it was very challenging. Directors of co-operatives are responsible for the financial and operational well-being of the organization – which means balancing many different considerations – and for doing so in ways that represent the wishes of the membership. The ability of the board members to carry out their jobs effectively also relies very heavily on the work of the staff who manage day-to-day operations.

Because I’ve been on a co-operative’s board of directors, I’m somewhat hesitant to criticize the directors of MEC and Westminster Savings. I know the difficulties of their positions and the amount of effort and responsibility it takes to do their jobs well. Nevertheless, co-operatives are different from other businesses, and that should be reflected in how co-operatives treat their employees. Co-operatives are about working together, and by that I don’t mean the empty HR platitudes of “the most important asset of an organization is its people”.

In a co-operative, the employees are members, the customers are members, and the directors are members. Even when the co-operative’s business side is structured as a hierarchy, the principle of mutual equality should guide how the workplace operates, because everyone in the workplace is a co-owner of the business. If employees of a co-operative are dissatisfied to the point where they join a union or go on strike, that situation represents a failure of what co-operatives are supposed to represent. Employees can be treated badly in any kind of workplace; co-operatives can and should do better.

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