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Co-ops popular with those who want a stake in where they work or shop

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Stephen Kirk has never liked the idea of slaving away for 'the man' for a living. Instead, the 38-year-old goes to work at a local co-operative where he and five other members are both simultaneously bosses and workers.

As a member of Organic Planet Worker Co-op in Wolseley, Kirk and the other members share in the profits of the neighbourhood grocery and deli that sells organic products.

"You don't have anyone telling you what to do," he says. "You're your own boss, and that means a lot to some people."

As a matter of fact, co-operatives have meant a lot to a heck of a lot of people for a very long time. Co-operatives have been around for more than 150 years and today employ more than 100 million people globally. They also generate a substantial amount of economic activity. The top 300 co-operatives in the world are worth about $1.6 trillion.

Yet, despite the model's longevity and their economic value, many people often take for granted just how much they use co-operatives in their daily lives. When you stop to think about it, they're everywhere, from Red River Co-op to Mondragon in the Exchange to insurance firm The Co-Operators and Assiniboine Credit Union.

"It's a very significant sector of the global economy," says Pauline Green, president of the International Co-operative Alliance. "The problem is that nobody knows that, and the reason is a co-operative is inherently local and inherently sovereign."

Green, a former British member of the European Parliament and one-time leader of the Party of European Socialists, is aiming to boost co-operatives' public profile. After all, 2012 is the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives.

The timing couldn't be better, she says, given the large number of folks who are disenchanted with where the profit-maximizing, corporate model has landed the world economy and the environment. Not only that, many people are also concerned large corporations exert undue influence in our political and social lives.

Look no further for an example of that dissatisfaction than the Occupy tent towns that have sprung up in many cities around the world, says Green, who was in Ottawa and New York earlier this month.

"What we're seeing is people who have had it up to their necks with the present economic and political systems and they're exhibiting a huge amount of frustration," Green says.

"And the key thing for us is that co-operatives are not business as usual. They're actually about local people controlling local services and businesses."

Tens of thousands of Manitobans, however, are already in the know. They're tuned in to co-ops' potential upsides. As of the end of March, there were 464,000 members of 367 co-operatives in Manitoba, not including credit unions and caisses populaires. All told, co-ops have about $18 billion in assets in Manitoba.

The number of co-operatives in the province has grown slowly and steadily over time. But membership and assets owned by existing co-ops have grown substantially, especially among credit unions which, incidentally, will be celebrating their 75th year in Manitoba in 2012, says Andrew Moreau, co-operative officer with Family Services and Consumer Affairs, the provincial department that oversees co-operatives.

Yet co-operatives are not just the purview of left-leaning individuals. They have wide appeal in Manitoba.

"The co-op movement in Manitoba crosses all political spectrums," he says, pointing to recent co-op legislation getting unanimous support from all parties as an example of that non-partisan support.

"It crosses into every industry. There's no person out there who can say they represent one part of the political spectrum. They are everywhere."

Part of the appeal is co-operatives offer a more equitable model for market economics that empowers their members and keeps money spent by consumers in the community, instead of cash flowing out to multinational corporations whose chief concern is to their shareholders -- who could reside anywhere.

What really sets a co-operative apart from a corporation is its governance structure.

Each member of a co-operative is equal and votes on how the co-operative should be run. Corporations also allow shareholders to vote on company affairs, but the largest shareholders often have the most say in the direction of the firm.

"There is no one person who can take control of the co-operatives," Moreau says. "Ultimately, it's not how much money you put into the co-operative that matters. It's the one member, one vote rule."

Many co-operatives, depending on their structure, also pay out profits to members based on the amount they contribute to the business.

While the goal isn't to maximize profits for members, successful consumer co-operatives -- for example -- often provide members with affordable goods and services and a relatively good return on their investment.

Last year, Red River Co-op -- perhaps the most recognizable co-operative in Manitoba -- issued 185,500 cheques for more than $29 million. But co-ops don't just serve retail consumers.

They come in many shapes and sizes, from housing co-ops to workers' co-ops like Organic Planet.

A workers' co-op pays the business's profits to its workers -- often members -- based on the amount of work they put into the business.

Generally speaking, the members aren't getting rich -- as is the case with Wolseley grocery. "Given our size, we're essentially a mom-and-pop grocery," Kirk says. But the business model offers more than monetary returns.

"As a worker here, we make a financial sacrifice in exchange for ownership."

He says co-operatives are also an attractive, alternative business model for many people who long for more democracy in their economics on a local level. Money is less of a concern than having meaningful and beneficial economic participation. It's one of the main reasons why the co-op model is finding fertile ground in the developing world, where individuals often feel the most disenfranchised from the benefits of an integrated global economy, Green says.

Yet, co-ops wouldn't have hung around for so long if they weren't a viable model for conducting business.

"They have to be able to compete in the marketplace," she says. "Otherwise, they just aren't going to get the business."

Sure, many workers' co-operatives aren't wildly lucrative, but Kirk says that's not because the co-op structure prevents them from creating significant value for their members.

"I don't think there's anything in the model that means you're going to be less successful, but people often tend to form them in sectors that aren't high-profit industries," he says. "There tends to be a sense that you have to be willing to be a starving activist to work in one, but I don't think you have to give up all hopes of being prosperous by being a co-op."

giganticsmile@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2011 B12

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