Advantage Workers’ Co-operative
Date of Incorporation: July 2000
Membership: 10 – 25
Type of Co-op: Worker-owned
Activities: janitorial, community gardens, greenhouse, community kitchen
Area Served: Dawson Creek, BC
Early in 1998, students at Northern Lights College, in Dawson Creek, BC, found they experienced barriers to securing employment. They decided that the best way to help themselves was to work co-operatively. Together, they are the Advantage Workers’ Cooperative (AWC).
Advantage Workers’ Co-operative’s mandate is to secure employment and training opportunities for their members who, for a variety of reasons, experience barriers to work. By collectively owning and operating their own business, the members create a work environment that can bend and flex to meet the diverse needs of the individual members. By working co-operatively they have successfully broken down their barriers to securing work.
What are barriers to work?
Barriers arise when workplace environments are not flexible. For example, a workplace that does not have ramps, elevators or adapted bathroom facilities is inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs. There are also many less obvious barriers that prevent people from working. One example is when people live with chronic illness. For months at a time they may be able to work, but they then experience a period of ill health, which prevents them from being able to work. When they have regained their health, they find themselves in the position of looking for work again. Being out of the workforce frequently or for long periods of time are also barriers to work. Situations such as parenting or layoff also keep people out of the workforce for long periods of time and create barriers to work. In many situations, members experience multiple barriers to work. Stereotypes of people living with disabilities can be the last brick in the wall standing between jobs and the people searching for them.
One member explains:
I think, personally, the word disability really bothers them [the members], because it puts you in a corral. The members of Advantage—although I would say all have a disability— all can work. We take people no matter what their disability. We take people whether they’re mentally ill or whatever, because they can work. That’s all that’s required.
Why a Co-op?
“Why don’t we just do it ourselves?” That was what Gordon, a founding member of AWC, said when he heard that after years of planning meetings, a proposed work experience program for people who experience barriers to work had fallen through. A group of social workers, health workers, educators and instructors in Dawson Creek had been negotiating with the provincial and federal governments for this program for five years prior to the formation of the co-op. The group was trying to secure work experience by subsidising wages for graduates of the Northern Lights job training programs. When the province pulled out of discussions with this community, there were 8-12 students who were job ready. It was this group of students that brainstormed the idea of the co-op. “At that time we had no idea what that [co-op] meant,” said Lise Ecclestone, an instructor in the Career Life Training program at Northern Lights College.
During three years of meetings, working, and planning they had their incorporation papers sent back three times. Finally, with the help of DevCo—a worker’s co-op of co-op developers—Advantage Workers’ Co-operative was incorporated July 31st, 2000. There are a handful of young, like-spirited worker co-ops in BC. Each of them has been working in isolation in its respective geographic community. Advantage Worker’s and the others are pioneers in this type of worker co-op. They learned how to start and run their co-op mostly through trial and error. The encouragement they received from DevCo was integral to boosting their confidence and encouraging continued member commitment to the co-op.
The co-op has efficiently drawn on existing resources within the Dawson Creek community. Northern Lights College has played a crucial role in the co-op’s success. The members of Advantage acquire technical skills through the College’s Career Life-Training Program. The curriculum of the Career Life Training program is based on what members of the community need. Lise Ecclestone is the liaison between the co-op and the college, and is also a resource person and member of the co-op herself. One of the current challenges for Advantage is breaking the ties with Northern Lights so that community members and co-op members fully understand that the co-op is a stand-alone business as opposed to a
subsidised project or program.
At Northern Lights College, members of Advantage are trained in janitorial, horticulture, customer service, and food safe skills and knowledge. The program is an important resource that builds capacity among the workers; hence builds the capacity of the co-op. The co-op draws and builds upon resources available in the community. They are not dependent upon external subsidies or grants for their sustainability.
The Business of the Co-op
Since 1998, the co-operative has secured several janitorial contracts. In the summer of 2001 the co-op secured their most significant janitorial contract to date. In the three years leading up to this milestone, the co-op has managed to find temporary, part-time opportunities employing up to 20 members at a time. Recognising that janitorial work may not be suitable or desirable to many people who face barriers to work, the co-op pursues diverse business opportunities for their current and potential members. The co-op has managed and worked in community gardens, a greenhouse, and an ice cream shop. Throughout the year 2000, Advantage Workers’ created part-time employment opportunities for approximately 9 people, paying approximately $17 000 in wages to its workers according to the number of hours worked. $17 000 represents 70% of the co-operative’s income for the year 2000.
In March 2001, the workers enthusiastically agreed to undertake a greenhouse project, committing to fulfil the equivalent of 6 full time workers for the season, knowing that they may receive very little income for their labours. This entrepreneurial spirit—the willingness to take risks and to commit wholeheartedly—is key to the success of the co-op.
An inclusive work environment
The members of Advantage Workers’ have been successful in creating work that is flexible enough to meet the members’ social and economic needs. The co-op has weekly or bi-weekly meetings depending on how busy the co-op is. During the meetings the workers decide what shifts they will work for the upcoming week and make decisions about the future of the co-op, such as whether or not to undertake additional contracts. At this time, workers have the opportunity to voice concerns, discuss workplace challenges and offer support to their co-workers.
The members invited me to one of their regular meetings, which all members are expected to attend. At this meeting 11 members were present. The president presented the agenda, reviewed the minutes of the previous meeting, and management made presentations that were discussed by the group. The people in management positions demonstrated leadership qualities by encouraging and facilitating input from all the members. It was evident from the way the that members interacted with each other that the group had experience in running efficient meetings that allowed everyone to participate. When it came time to commit to shifts for the following week, the meeting became noisy as the details were worked out:
“I don’t like working alone.”
“I’ll work with you that day.”
“I already have 4 shifts this week, does anyone else need to work more?”
“I don’t have a way to get there.”
“Why don’t we work together that day and I can pick you up.”
After 20 minutes, the co-op members had worked out a complex work schedule that suited everyone. This demonstrated an important aspect of the organisational culture of Advantage Workers’ Co-op. Integral to providing employment opportunities to their members was creating an organisational structure that builds trust, respect and mutual help between the workers. The workers provide practical support for each other by respecting each individual’s barriers to work and offering a workable solution.
The responsibility of running a business has had significant personal impacts for the members. It was evident throughout the meeting that they have exceptional listening skills, the confidence to speak their minds, and the conscientiousness to allow others to speak in turn.
At this stage in the life cycle of the co-op the worker-owners and board members are conflated. All board members are active worker-owners. The financial management and soliciting of contracts are managed by a few of the workers who make up an unofficial management team. People who are willing and able to take on more responsibility fill the management roles. The ‘management team’ is not differentiated from the rest of the workers, in terms of pay or decision-making. The management and board have specific responsibilities, but do not make decisions on behalf of the workers. Each meeting includes all members of the co-op.
The co-op also allows for up to 25% of its membership to include resource people. The co-op has recently identified a need for external financial assistance to undertake board and membership development. Worker-members are starting to assume more responsibility for the co-op and the resource people are having less of a ‘hands on’ role. The co-op would like to implement a training program geared at running a co-op for new members as well as for board members.
Policy and Legislative Barriers
One of the ways the co-operative has structured a work environment that is sensitive to the members’ needs is by ensuring that workers work in pairs and for shorter shifts. Generally, 2 people work together for 2-4 hours at a time. This has created some complications with Labour Standards as legislation requires that a person be paid for a minimum of 4 hours, regardless of the hours actually worked. In a worker co-op, the members are both the owners and the employees. The legislation providing for a minimum amount of pay is designed to protect employees from employers. In the unique situation of worker co-ops, the Labour Standards Board does not know how to enforce or apply existing legislation. Currently, the only way to get around this rule is to request a variance.
Other provincial legislation and policy acts as a disincentive to work and creates a challenge for the coop. Most of the members receive income assistance or disability pensions. Current rules allow for people to earn up to $200 per month while on disability pensions, or $100 on income assistance. Some workers choose to work only enough hours so that they earn the maximum allowable amount per month. Many members are not able to work enough hours to eliminate the need for any assistance, so they limit the hours they do work even though they are able to work more. Some members also have very expensive medical and pharmaceutical bills and limit the number of hours worked and thus limit their income so that they do not lose their medical benefits. There is little the co-op can do to alleviate the disincentives to work. However, the co-op is hoping to offer a benefits package down the road when the co-op has enough contracts and revenue.
Social Bottom Line
Not all of the co-operative’s projects generated a surplus. Some initial activities, such as operating the ice cream shop, were barely able to pay the workers a wage. At the end of the summer the shop workers were paid on average only $200 for the whole season. As owners of their own business, they are willing to assume the risk of operating at a loss. Most of the members are on some form of social assistance so they are able to take this collective risk without putting their individual economic security at risk. Members take this risk because it is important to them to be contributing in the community, making friends, being active, and feeling good about themselves. Those who risked working without pay say that it is worth it; otherwise, they would most likely be sitting at home watching television, feeling isolated and depleting their self confidence.
Sara Posmikewich and Brenda Friesen (current president and vice president) credit their experience working in the co-op with improving their interpersonal skills. They are more confident interacting with people in their daily lives as family members, customers, neighbours, clients, co-workers, and friends. The members also feel that their interactions with the rest of the community have had a positive effect on perceptions of people who live with disabilities. An important result of the co-op’s activities is that the members are confident in their ability to achieve their goals and are visibly active in all aspects of community life.
Links to the community—community kitchen
The co-op is also involved with a slew of community development projects. In 2000, members of the co-op had collectively volunteered at least 1000 hours. Residents in Dawson Creek are increasingly concerned about the availability and affordability of nutritious food. As a result, members of the co-op, together with a larger group of students at Northern Lights College have a freezer meal club. One night a month, the club cooks together, sharing knowledge of how to cook nutritious meals, and saving money by bulk purchasing ingredients. Grace Lutheran Church has offered their kitchen; however as news of the project spreads, demand for kitchen space is increasing. The co-op is currently working with five non-profit groups in Dawson Creek with the goal of securing funding for a federally inspected community kitchen.
Links to the community—community gardens
The co-op is a member of the Dawson Creek Community Garden Network. Co-op members plant, maintain, harvest, and sometimes process the produce from several community garden plots around town. Some of gardens are managed as a service to residents who don’t have garden space and some of the produce supplies the freezer meal club and the good food box. The good food box is another community project concerned with the lack of good, affordable food. Users agree to pay $15 per month for a box of mixed, local vegetables. Users increase their savings, support local farmers, and in exchange do not have choice in the vegetables they receive.
Advantage Workers’ Co-op is continually seeking out additional work and new business opportunities. The co-op is not yet able to meet the demand for work among current members and other community members. Some members leave for a period of time because they are discouraged, need a chance to regain their health, or take additional training. When people leave the co-op the cohesiveness of the group is affected. One of the challenges for Advantage Workers’ is maintaining a balance between the needs of the active members and the needs of the inactive or potential members. Another challenge for the co-op is maintaining a balance between having a flexible, sensitive working environment and ensuring the work is completed. One way that Advantage overcomes this challenge is by having great diversity in skills, abilities and in personalities of its members. “You need to have people who are good listeners and also people who will give you a kick in the ass,” said Bill McMahon, a founding member.
Posmikewich and Friesen said that the last three years have been like a roller coaster. They advise others interested in creating a similar business that the key ingredient is commitment. They also suggest finding resource people in the community that can assist and support the new venture. Without the members and resource people being willing and able to commit 5-10 hours per week of volunteer time, the cooperative would not have made it this far.
Recently Posmikewich, Friesen, McMahon and Ecclestone travelled to Prince George to assist a similar group that is trying to start a co-operative. When we went out for coffee in Dawson Creek, I asked Posmikewich and Friesen what advice they would give a new co-op. This is what they shared with me:
“There’s got to be a need.” (Posmikewich)
“I think you’ve got to know the right people to get yourself established faster.” (Friesen)
“Stick with it. There are going to be pitfalls though.” (Posmikewich)
“You can’t be narrow-minded in this. You’ve got to keep an open mind to things, I think, in the co-op.” (Friesen)
“Everybody should have the same vision... A common goal to keep the co-op going.” (Friesen)
Case Study Information
This case study was developed for a report entitled Situating Co-operatives in British Columbia – 2000 - 2001, which was prepared for the Province of B.C. (Ministry of Community Development, Co-operatives and Volunteers) by the British Columbia Institute for Co-operative Studies, University of Victoria. To obtain the information for the case study BCICS and the co-operative entered into a partnership agreement. BCICS is grateful to the co-op members for their contributions and time. The case study is published with the approval of the co-operative.
Researcher: Nicole Chaland
Date of research: 2001
Author: Nicole Chaland
Date of writing: 2001
Editing: BCICS editorial group
Supervision: Kathleen Gabelmann, BCICS Research Co-ordinator