Worker co-op training programmes: key lessons from the US and Canada

UK co-operators heard about worker co-ops’ training programmes and their approaches to inclusion and diversity

The Worker Co-op Weekend, usually organised annually by Co-operatives UK, was this year replaced with an online event that included various training sessions, as well as a pub quiz and virtual campfire in the evening.

One session looked at how to develop training programmes. There is currently no training programme for worker co-ops in the UK, but the movement is keen to explore best practice from other countries, said session chair John Atherton, head of membership at Co-operatives UK.

Erika Gaudreault, project manager at le Réseau COOP in Canada, talked about the organisation’s Parcours training programme, created for entrepreneurs who want to set up worker co-ops. Réseau Coop, which translates as Co-op Network, is a multi-stakeholder co-op with a membership of 60 worker co-ops. Its partners include some of the largest co-ops in the country, who help to fund its training programme alongside some public money.

Réseau asks participants to fill in a survey, so it can make sure the co-op model is suitable for them. It then gives advice on what legal status to adopt and invites the entrepreneurs to a free introductory workshop to learn more about worker co-ops. Monthly training sessions follow, ending with 14 training and networking workshops.

The three main themes of Parcours are collective management, marketing and financial management. It also looks at by-laws, worker organisation within the enterprise, and hierarchical and non-hierarchical models. These are areas of expertise for the tutors, who have been involved in the co-op sector for 20 years.

Between 2016 and 2019 the programme helped to train 183 entrepreneurs and set up 36 co-ops, 22 of which are still active, providing CA$100,000 (£98,356) worth of training and bursaries.

The US Federation of Worker Co-ops (USFWC) runs a similar scheme, Co-op Clinic, which provides assistance to its worker co-op members. Topics covered include anti-oppression, burnout prevention, conflict mediation, transformative justice, and intentional leadership. 

With the Covid-19 pandemic affecting worker co-ops across the USA, the training also helps organisations taking part to access federal funds. The federation works closely with other co-op development organisations and worker councils.

In addition to the Co-op Clinic, USFWC runs a conference every two years, which this year will be held online. Members also receive weekly resources and updates.

Membership director Ana Martina says inclusion is a key element of the federation’s approach to training. Since many worker co-ops are formed by members of immigrant communities, the majority of Co-op Clinic sessions have an interpreter available or are delivered by trainers who speak both English and Spanish. 

Another important element of the training programme is understanding the concerns of each industry and tailoring the sessions to their needs.

Related: Worker co-op sector continues to grow in the USA

Worker co-ops present an opportunity for workers who face different barriers when they try to participate in the economy: these groups include immigrant workers or ex-offenders.

US legislation enables non-US citizens to participate in the market as business owners who pay tax. By setting up a co-op to provide services, they become employee owners and do not need work permits.

The number of worker co-ops in the US has increased over the last couple of years. There are now 465 known co-ops – 40 of which can be found in New York City; in 2015 the city’s mayor launched the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative, which provides funding to help New Yorkers set up co-ops. 

Ms Martina said worker co-op development varies across the country due to the level of funding available. “New York City has more resources available because it benefits from more funding from local government,” she said.

USFWC has not received any funding from the federal government, apart from a few grants for projects in rural areas.