Kevin Kapenda takes a lot of calls. From his office in Surrey, B.C., Kapenda fields questions from fast food workers tired of low wages, delivery drivers fed up with being on the boss’s clock, and young people trying to build a more just world

But Kapenda isn’t giving advice about labour rights or bargaining strategies: he’s helping workers become owners by founding co-ops.

Kapenda is a co-director at Solid State, an organization which aims to cultivate a solidarity economy in the predominantly racialized, immigrant city of Surrey.

As we talk, his phone vibrates. An increasing number of people, he says, are reaching out to find out how they can break out of corporate-owned businesses and start their own worker co-operatives. 

“A bunch of delivery drivers for Amazon are tired of getting paid a little bit above minimum wage to deliver packages all day,” said Kapenda. “So they come to us and say, ‘Hey, how can we create a worker-owned logistics company for this e-commerce boom?’” 

Over the last four years, Solid State has helped create 18 co-ops, all of which are owned by racialized people and located in Surrey. The enterprises include urban planning consultancies, to a sustainable streetwear line, to the soon-to-be launched Black Arts Centre, of which Kapenda is a member. 

Worker co-ops are co-owned and managed by workers, who determine the overall direction, share managerial tasks and, if the business turns a profit, split it evenly amongst themselves.

The buzz of activity at Solid State isn’t happening in isolation. The pandemic delivered a staggering blow to the economy, and more and more people across Canada are turning to collaborative work models to stay afloat. 

Between 2019 and 2021, the number of worker co-operatives in the United States grew by more than 30 per cent. In Canada, co-ops have gained so much steam that the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation is asking the federal government to invest $91-million and create new tax breaks for worker co-ops over the next five years. The funds would help workers convert businesses into worker co-ops and allow existing ones to expand.

There are currently less than 400 worker co-ops in Canada. But over the last year, a lot of people have reached out to the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation asking how to start their own, according to executive director Hazel Corcoran. 

She says that people are tired of stagnating wages and lack of control over their working conditions, and are looking to worker co-ops as the next chapter in their careers. With the right amount of government support, Corcoran predicts a “great turning toward democratic, co-operative workplaces.” 

Even though he has big dreams for Surrey’s co-op movement, Kapenda is honest with aspiring co-op owners about how difficult starting and running a co-op can be. Unlike businesses that can be incorporated in under an hour, for a co-op the incorporation process can take days or even several weeks. Democratic decision-making and coming to agreements can be a slow process and requires collaboration and compromise. 

Still, Kapenda says worker co-ops are critical for addressing the financial insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic and the widening racial wage gap. Kapenda says he is inspired by Emilia-Romagna, Italy, where one out of every three residents are co-op members. While this dream is far down the line, every co-op they’re able to start brings Surrey one step closer to a community-centred economy. 

Co-ops for system change

While some worker co-ops are started by workers looking to improve their pay and working conditions, others are employing the collaborative model as a way to push for a just transition. 

Yuill Herbert is one of the founders of Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG), a worker co-op that advises municipalities and institutions on their climate transition. SSG recently finished writing Toronto’s Climate Action Plan, which lays out a strategy for the city to achieve net zero emissions by 2040. 

“This was a vision for a future that doesn’t involve oil and gas,” said Herbert. “You can really see people thinking about their future in a pretty profoundly different way.”

In 2001, when Herbert and four of his friends were brainstorming the consultancy that would become SSG, they weren’t interested in creating a company fixated on profit margins or a non-profit beholden to grants and benevolent donors. They wanted a business model that would enable them to push for systemic change at the scale of the climate crisis. As soon as they discovered the worker co-op model, they knew it was for them. 

When SSG was founded, it involved five worker-owners, including Herbert. Today, SSG has more than 20 worker-owners, about 10 employees on their way to becoming owners, and two new offices in the United States and Chile.

“I think co-ops are a mechanism to fight inequality and also build resilience and ensure that there’s a social purpose in the enterprises that are facilitating the energy transition,” Herbert explains.

As the climate crisis worsens, the Liberal government has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050—in part by investing in retrofitting homes and transitioning oil and gas workers to cleaner energy sectors. 

Corcoran of the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation says that if the Liberals are serious about addressing the climate crisis and guaranteeing stable, well-paid jobs, the just transition needs to invest in worker co-operatives. 

“The nature of democratic employee ownership means that the people who are affected by the decisions in their environment are the ones making them,” Corcoran says. “Without that, you’re always going to be at risk.”

Photo: Neechi Commons

Building Neechi Commons

Perhaps one of the most well-known worker co-ops in the country, Neechi Commons, was forced to close its doors in 2018 because of overwhelming debt. The Indigenous-owned and run grocery store located in Winnipeg’s North End started over two decades ago as a small neighbourhood grocer providing affordable, local food and staple items to residents. 

In 2015, they expanded to a nearby converted warehouse to meet demand, but according to treasurer Russ Ruthney, they grew too quickly without the right managerial resources, leaving the business with no choice but to shutter. 

Last month, the team made an announcement: they’re looking for partners to join them in the co-op’s revitalization. They’re still in possession of the warehouse, and they’re transitioning the space to a not-for-profit multi-stakeholder cooperative model with tenants and community groups.

“Getting ownership of Neechi, of the land there, it’s always been put out there as a very small step of reclaiming land,” Ruthney told The Breach. “And the model has been a deliberate attempt to reclaim self-reliance, but also to restore cooperative sharing cultures in a modern form.”

This time around, instead of trying to compete with big chain grocers, Neechi Commons will focus on their specialities: locally sourced foods from Indigenous producers, including wild blueberries, elk, pickerel, and wild rice.  

The project is ambitious. Ruthney says that in addition to re-opening the grocery store, the warehouse will feature an Indigenous art centre, a daycare, social housing, and—the team hopes—other community-minded businesses. If they’re able to find the right partners and secure all the financing, the new Neechi Commons could be up and running this summer.  

Long histories, staying power

Co-operatives have a long history, and their popularity has tended to rise in moments of crisis. In the 1920s, after decades of economic hardship, a liberal Catholic movement began to form in eastern Nova Scotia. 

Parishioners were struggling to make ends meet—and something needed to change. So they began working together for mutual benefit: fishermen started co-operative lobster canneries, co-operative stores were opened, and communities assembled to build new houses.

In the U.S., after the Civil War in the 1880s, many Black Americans formed worker co-operatives as a way to find financial stability and avoid being exploited by white business owners. 

During the Great Depression, people turned to community-based economies to help families to get meals on the table—with unemployed people partnering with local farmers to exchange labour for food. 

And now, during the pandemic, corporations reaped record profits while laying off workers, decreasing their wages, and subjecting them to dangerous and deadly working conditions. In the first wave alone, one million Canadians lost their jobs and countless workers have died on the job

Meanwhile, worker co-ops pivoted and found alternative means to continue their operations and take care of their workers during the pandemic, like moving services outdoors; implementing safety measures; shifting to provide essential services and moving to virtual operations. 

Worker co-ops in the United States lost an average of 44 per cent in revenue, but only cut employees’  hours by a median of nine hours. And while one third of conventional businesses lost over 50 per cent of their revenue, only one fifth of worker co-ops were subjected to the same economic hardship.

SSG’s Herbert credits worker co-ops’ capacity to weather unprecedented times to their foundation of worker solidarity. 

“We have staying power,” Herbert says. “If you can figure out how to work together, you will be able to do a lot more than you can do as a sole proprietor…I think that’s really powerful.”

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