Report highlights advantages of co-op working in tech and culture sectors

The report is based on research carried out in 2019 and 2020 on co-ops in creative industries in Canada, the UK, and the US

A new report by the research collective Cultural Workers Organize found that co-ops hold the potential to “democratically remake work in ways that have yet to be fully realised” in the creative industries.

Based on research carried out in 2019 and 2020 on co-ops in creative industries in Canada, the UK, and the US, the report provides an overview of the co-op landscape in creative industries.

The report points out that the precarity of work in creative industries has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw workers in these industries laid off, losing gigs, or not being taken into consideration for government income relief programmes.

“Co-ops are not a magic solution to systemic work problems,” it says. “Still, we believe that the co-op model, in conjunction with other pro-worker policies and organisations, holds potential to democratically remake work in ways that have yet to be fully realised or widely tested in creative industries.

“As our research participants told us, growing the co-operative economy requires, above all, increased public awareness of the co-op model. We hope this report helps to build that awareness.”

The study highlights some of the sources of financial support used by the co-ops surveyed during their first years in operation, such as revenue retained earnings, online fundraising, loans from members and member shares and foundation grants. The co-ops also relied on several non-financial support mechanisms in their early stages, including member labour (74.4%), other co-ops (13.4%), co-op consultants or developers (10%), governments (9.5%), regional co-operative associations (7.1%), other businesses in the sector (6.09%) and start-up incubators (2.4%).

The report also found that co-ops in creative industries were not immune to the social inequities often seen in cultural and tech work.

“Clearly, co-ops in the creative industries must do more to be accessible to, and retain, racialised members,” it warns. “But our findings also reveal an important practical insight: member diversity is positively correlated with discussion of the co-operative principles. So, the more your co-op engages the co-operative principles, the more likely it is that your co-op will be representative and inclusive.”

More than half of the co-ops reported their pay rates meet or exceed average pay rates for their industry.

More than 90% of the co-ops surveyed also agreed that democratic decision-making was a priority and 86% agreed about aiming to reach consensus when making decisions.

Those surveyed also highlighted some of the benefits of co-op work, with the survey’s most selected benefits being supporting work relationships, a friendly work environment, opportunities for creative self-expression, a work culture that encourages teamwork and co-operation and low hierarchy at work.

The survey found that working hours tend to be flexible; 52.7% of the co-ops strongly agreed that their work schedule is flexible, and 45.5% strongly agreed that they are free to leave early.

However, the survey also found that the longer a co-op has been in operation, the less likely it was that members strongly perceived benefits to working in a co-op. Over 47% of co-ops in the survey reported that they discuss co-op principles frequently or always. A further 44% discuss them sometimes.

Another finding was that the majority of co-ops (54.7%) surveyed did not have a business plan. “Formal business plan preparation often seems daunting – which perhaps explains why the majority of co-ops in our survey did not have one,” says the report.

In light of the findings the report makes several suggestions. To prospective co-operators, it recommends tapping into the co-op support system early on; meeting with credit unions about financing options; embedding diversity and equity-promoting principles into their member recruitment plans and co-op policies from the start; and preparing a business plan.

It also advises existing co-ops to practise the sixth co-operative principle; make a point of regularly talking about the co-operative principles within their co-op; stay informed about employment standards in their sector; meet with a union organiser who has familiarity with co-ops; advertise their co-op status; and explore the possibility of creating co-op networks to enrich structures of mutual support.

Associations are recommended to campaign for the inclusion of the co-op model in curricula and incubator programs; lobby publicly funded small business development agencies to better support co-ops; promote the work satisfaction advantages of working co-operatively; provide business plan consultation, additional legal support, local peer advisors; strengthen this dimension of the co-operative support system; and lobby government for policies that promote and protect co-ops, including advocacy for amending tax structures and enhancing other economic supports in recognition of co-ops’ contributions to local economic development and the amelioration of inequities in our communities.

The full report is available here.