Create A Co-Op: Own Where You Work

Co-operatives are re-emerging as a global movement, as workers around the world – faced with rising unemployment and a slow transition to a sustainable economy – employ themselves in jobs they would rather be doing. Co-op laws provide a flexible framework for members to organise alternative ways to buy, sell, and manage work and pay. While companies benefit shareholders, co-ops serve their members, who participate in the business as suppliers, buyers, workers and/or owners.

The co-op model is a natural fit for a permaculture business – selfdetermination and independence, member participation, integration with other co-ops and valuing diversity are all core co-op principles. A business model that reflects permaculture structure also aligns with the principle of designing from patterns to details – co-op structures are flexible.

CO-OP TYPES

Buyers’ co-ops: customers organise as a buying group. This is a great model for selling local or sustainable food through a local food-box group. Growers and customers can both save time and money.

Producer co-ops: producers market their produce together. This works well for agricultural products, on any scale. Beechworth Honey is an example.

Owner co-ops: members provide capital for an enterprise, and are more involved than in traditional investment. The Hepburn Wind Project is an example.

Worker co-ops: workers own the company where they work – they can often buy in over time through their wages.

Non-commercial co-ops: a useful structure for achieving a common purpose.

PROS AND CONS

Although co-ops have been around since at least the 1830s in Australia, and include some of our biggest and oldest companies, traditional investors can see co-ops as ‘new’ and shy away from them. However, co-ops often have other channels for raising funds, from members and the local community.

Co-ops allow flexibility in organising the workplace. Get ready to live your principles.

Costs to set up and maintain a coop are lower than for a business.

One of the biggest challenges of organising as a co-op is that it doesn’t provide the top-down workplace we’re used to – but that is also a precious advantage!

SEVEN CO-OP PRINCIPLES

Seven principles are applied by the co-op movement worldwide. These were formalised in 1995, based on six principles drawn up in England in 1844.

  1. voluntary, open membership
  2. democratic owner control
  3. owner economic participation
  4. autonomy and independence
  5. education, training and information
  6. co-operation among co-operatives
  7. concern for the community.

STARTING A CO-OP

  • Find a group with a common vision – you’ll need at least five for a board.
  • Make plans for what you’d like to achieve, and draw these out in a feasibility study and business plan.
  • Register. Similar to registering a company, but governed by different legislation – each Australian jurisdiction has or will have law consistent with the Co-operative National Law.
  • Draft rules that comply with the relevant law; model rules are available.
  • Draft a disclosure statement to let members know of their obligations.
  • Once the co-op is registered, and the documents are approved, hold a formation meeting.
  • Sign the rules and you’re in business.

Integrate don’t segregate. Co-op federations operate in most states, and some co-ops support the development of others; for example, the Earthworker Co-operative which focuses on renewable energy enterprises, especially where workers need an urgent exit from the fossil economy (as in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, opposite).

SOME CO-OP EXAMPLES

The Blue Mountains Food Co-op

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Over thirty years ago, a small group of local people joined together to buy and share quality organic food at affordable prices. The Blue Mountains Food Co-op is a not-for-profit community-owned and managed organisation. With well over two thousand members located from Sydney out to Orange, its the biggest little food co-op in the Southern Hemisphere. All co-op members receive a ten per cent discount in the shop and volunteers receive a further discount. They also welcome produce from local growers.

Eureka’s Future Workers’ Co-operative

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This Earthworker co-op emerged from mutualisation of Everlast Hydro Systems, now manufacturing high quality solarready, stainless steel hot water tanks in Dandenong, Victoria. It aims to support a network of co-ops to create a strong economy of jobs with a future. Workers will buy into the business through their wages. Earthworker has responded to industry ups and downs caused by Australia’s indecision on renewable energy by extending the focus beyond manufacturing.

Hepburn Wind Project

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This Victorian wind farm is a trailblazer for community owned renewable energy in Australia – something that’s common in other parts of the world. Members from the surrounding suburbs invested to build the wind farm, and many now buy electricity from an associated power company. Other communities in Victoria are waiting to set up communityowned wind farms; however, current planning laws make this difficult.

Resilient Co-operative Network

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This non-commercial co-op aims to farm across front yards and nature strips in Melbourne suburbs. Members run workshops and fix bikes together, share childcare and have plans for a savings pool, a food processing co-op, and other business ideas to help pay the rent!

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