An Education in Solidarity: Co-ops Make Gains at Concordia University in Montreal

Every weekday, some 200 students flock to the Hive Café for a free lunch.

While primarily prepared for students at Concordia University, the free vegetarian meal, served from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at one of the café’s two locations, almost surely attracts other hungry locals from the surrounding community in Montreal, Canada.

“It’s not like there are questions asked,” said Ben Prunty, one of the Hive’s founding members. Prunty still sits on the Hive’s Board of Directors, the internal body responsible for making major decisions about the co-op.

The Hive Café is one of the three solidarity co-ops – along with the long-running Co-op Bookstore and the recent incarnation of Reggie’s Bar – affiliated with Concordia.

Different Structure, Different Values

A typical corporation is controlled by a Board of Directors. That body is selected by major shareholders. The number of corporate shares one can own is usually determined by the amount of money one has and is willing to put down. More purchased shares then confer one more power to determine who sits on the corporation’s Board. The Board often ultimately decides what to do with the company’s profits and who to hire as the chief executive officer for the enterprise. The CEO, or some equivalent higher-up, then oversees major operations and management, and the managerial employees below make decisions that affect other workers on down the hierarchical chain.

Although a variety of particular ownership and governance arrangements are possible with a multi-stakeholder cooperative model, solidarity co-ops – like the Hive – are not organized like conventional corporate entities. Solidarity co-ops tend to have three types of members who all own shares of the enterprise: user-members, as would be found in a typical consumer co-op, worker-members, as would be common in a worker-owned cooperative, and support-members consisting of allied organizations.

The solidarity co-op model is often adopted, as with the Hive, because of the different practices and values those involved want their business to embody.

So while coffee can cost $5 a cup elsewhere in Montreal, for example, the emphasis on locally sourced food and drinks at affordable prices prompted the Hive to buck that trend.

Monica, a barista at the café who requested that her last name not be used, said the Hive used to offer any size coffee for $1.50 – about $1.25 if you brought your own mug. The price per cup has since increased fifty cents or so, but all of the coffee at the co-op comes from the Montreal-based Santropol, another café and a major coffee provider that interacts directly with growers and sellers in every country they source from.

Prunty said the solidarity model made sense to them from the start, especially given the university context. The founders wanted the people who actually worked there to have a voice. But a worker co-op was not, he said, the most politically responsible decision nor the most appropriate use of public money. Funds were initially provided from the university to support the cooperative start-up thanks to the initiative of the Concordia Student Union, one of the three support-member organizations now on the café’s Board of Directors.

In addition to the three support-member seats, each representing the co-ops three allied support-member organizations, the co-op’s Board is also comprised of several user-members – with three seats in that category reserved for Concordia Students – and four worker-members selected from the almost 30 employees who work at the Hive.

In operation for three years now, the Hive could be considered an offshoot of the Concordia Food Coalition, another support-member organization with a seat on the café’s current Board.

“We wanted to essentially, I guess you could say, re-take the food system on campus and sort of put it into local control, democratic community ownership,” Prunty said about the Food Coalition, which he was active in, and its overarching mission.

The Concordia Food Coalition, another organization now with a seat on the Hive’s Board, formed as an offshoot of Montreal’s manifestation of the 2012 Quebec student movement.

“The student strike was run through direct democracy and so there was quite an appetite and there still is quite an appetite for direct democracy,” Prunty said.

Monica, who has been with the Hive for two years and is majoring in film production at Concordia, said the café started as a political space. Case in point: the launch of the solidarity co-op coincided with the closing of the Java U business previously operating there.

“In a way the Hive is kind of occupying this space,” she said, “which is probably really shitty and annoying to administration people who want to make money off of it.”

While the Java U paid several grand per month to rent the space, the Hive does not pay anything.

However uneasy and fraught with struggle it sometimes has been, the Hive has partnered with the university on multiple occasions.

“Part of the reason too the university was supportive, I think, is because they’re sort of like embracing this entrepreneurial spirit thing and social innovation. It’s all very trendy,” Prunty said, adding that with respect to the space, Concordia is sort of like the landlord, students are kind of like sub-landlords and the co-op itself is tantamount to a sub-tenant.

“It’s quite bureaucratic,” he acknowledges, “but all and all very empowering for students.”

At present, Concordia contracts much of its food service to Aramark, the multinational company also providing food to several hundred prisons throughout the US. Aramark has been the subject of criticism and the impetus for prisoner strikes because of abuses associated with its food service in correctional facilities.

In contrast, some 70 percent of what the Hive serves is organic, and much of it is locally sourced. This includes food grown in the Concordia Green House, the Hive’s other support-member organization.

Andrew Alford, 26, the Four Seasons Growing Coordinator at the greenhouse and a support-member on the Hive’s Board, said his organization provides the café microgreens – namely, sunflower, pea shoots, radish and mustard – essentially, very small potherbs that are 10 to 14 days old, as well as vegetables from rice beds.

Although both Alford and Monica said there are no concrete plans in place for the Hive to totally displace the corporate food service monopoly on campus, Prunty pointed to the steps the co-op is already taking to become the university’s sole food provider. Thanks to intense pressure from students, members at the Hive and other local food systems advocates were able to lay the groundwork for Concordia’s contract with Aramark to be shortened. At one juncture, Prunty said, the administration made clear it was at least a possibility the co-op could buy out previously held locations.

Collectively, he said, “students have the capital to acquire spaces so long as the political will is there.”

Solidarity Co-op History at Concordia: Protracted Struggles, Successes and Divergent Paths

While Hive members might have the most ambitious objectives of the three solidarity co-ops at Concordia, it was not the first co-op of its kind at the university.

The Concordia Community Solidarity Co-op Bookstore, known as the Co-op Bookstore for short, was founded as a multi-stakeholder cooperative on campus back in October 2002.

Larissa Dutil, who’s been with the bookstore since August 2003, said since all the academically affiliated Francophone bookstores in the area are cooperatives – albeit consumer co-ops – it was not an uncommon move to go in that direction, though the multi-stakeholder model added a new twist.

“Knowing that the campus was very vibrant and had a lot of different groups, deciding to use a solidarity model made it so that because of the support-member category it could have a lot more input from these other groups, and therefore reflect better the community that it wanted to serve,” she said.

Some 28 organizations, ranging from Concordia campus associations to groups at nearby McGill University, to others outside academia, are now Co-op Bookstore support-members. The one seat for support members on the bookstore’s Board of Directors just recently became vacant. It had been previously filled by, among others, the Concordia Student Union, by the Graduate Students Association – as well as by TRAC, the Teaching and Research Assistants at Concordia, Local 12500 chartered with the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

The Co-op Bookstore boasts almost 5,000 user-members, and those members also have several spots on the Board. In addition to offering a discount price on textbooks, students have other reasons to become user-members.

“We do a subsidized membership for undergraduates,” Dutil said. “Instead of paying $10 they pay $5, and we match their $5. So the value of the share is still the same. It’s still $10. But they’re only paying $5. So on average, if they’re buying textbooks at the Co-op Bookstore they will recoup that $5 in the first, if not by the second purchase that they’ve made if they’re buying books.”

The subsidized membership and discounted prices for students were made possible in part because the Concordia Student Union approved a measure a few years back, following a referendum, so that the bookstore now receives nine cents per credit from the tuition undergraduates pay.

At the Hive Café, prices were raised slightly and one to two dollar wage cuts were agreed upon last year so as to get beyond reliance on student-allocated public money – a necessary step if the co-op is to present a practical alternative to Aramark.

Reggie’s Bar, another Concordia-affiliated business that reopened as a solidarity co-op in June 2016, does not receive money from the university. The bar was first opened in the late 1990s and operated as a privately-owned business for 15 years. It was closed for two and half years after that before re-opening in November 2015 and then making the conversion to the multi-stakeholder cooperative model less than a year later.

Justin McClellan, a bartender and coordinator at Reggie’s, said the bar is run “pretty much the same” now as it was prior to the transition to a co-op, at least in terms of workplace relations.

The other bartenders and employees all started together and have always worked as a team, he said, although there remains – as in many worker-owned cooperatives – some semblance of a chain of command replete with managerial positions.

“I don’t really act as if I’m above them,” McLellan, 23, said, referring to his co-workers. “But at the end of the day I guess I am, and if I have to say something I will. But for the most part everyone works collectively. I mean, there’s not really too much of a hierarchy.”

The Hive Café and Reggie’s Bar are located near each other, which could contribute to the inter-business competition between the two co-ops that is characteristic of capitalist enterprise.

“We have a full kitchen. We could easily compete with them if we wanted to,” McLellan, who studies public relations at Concordia when he’s not working at Reggie’s, said in reference to the café next door. “But we stay away from the stuff that they serve. We don’t want to create that kind of competition because at the end of the day we’re all here for the same reason.”

Some shared raison d’être notwithstanding, the mode of operation and sense of purpose at each of the three solidarity co-ops on campus differs.

“There are a lot of positive things to say about sort of being our own boss,” Dutil said about her experience at the bookstore, “but also kind of working collaboratively with a group of people who for the most part are interested in the work they’re doing, interested in the reason they’re doing the work. But sometimes knowing about all aspects of the organization can be stressful.”

Monica echoed similar sentiments about her experience at the café.

“I’m working in an organization that shows an alternative structure to shitty capitalist structures that usually take advantage of minimum wage workers,” she said, “and I’ve worked in a million jobs like that. But with this awesome structure it’s a lot of work and a lot of emotional-mental energy that can be difficult sometimes because a lot of us do a lot of unpaid hours. … It’s not a job where you can go work your hours and leave and not think about it. You have to be pretty invested. So while it’s amazing to be part of a really beautiful thing it takes a lot of energy.”

Openness, Monica said, is an important value at the Hive – among employees and the café’s Board but also as regards what information is available to user-members.

“Because it’s a co-op we all kind of have transparency and say on what’s going in the co-op,” she said. The financial coordinator explains to members what is going on with the café’s financial situation frequently, she said, noting that other worker- and user-members are not, however, usually checking on the finances every week.

Monica said workers at the Hive do have bi-weekly worker-member meetings where any issues can be raised and where what is happening “on the floor,” as well as at the administration and financial levels, are discussed.

Like the other baristas, Monica makes $11 per hour plus tips, down a dollar since last year when the co-op opted to make those adjustments to become more independent and financially solvent. Kitchen staff make $12 an hour, down two dollars, and coordinators now make $18 per hour, which is also down two dollars from the relatively low wages for the position paid when the Hive first opened.

At the Co-op Bookstore, Dutil said their part-time workers make between $11.85 and $15 an hour. Dutil, who’s been with the co-op for 14 years in a continually evolving role, makes $24 and the other full-time worker there makes $15 an hour.

“As far as what we pay ourselves,” McLellan, who has a seat as a worker-member on his co-op’s Board, said, regarding Reggie’s, “that’s confidential.”

A thriving local business, Reggie’s Bar has yet to embrace the level of transparency practiced by the two longer-running solidarity co-ops in Montreal.

Melanie Desrosiers, the general manager at Reggie’s since it reopened as a solidarity co-op, said their financial numbers might at some point be made available on the bar’s website.

“We are a new board all working together,” she added, speaking from the office space she and all the other employees at Reggie’s share. “So we have a lot of policies to write. And so we just started last week coming up with some policies. It’s been very difficult to put a board together that rotates constantly, you know? So it’s a lot of work when you work with students.”

Over at the Hive, Monica said it can be equally difficult dealing with that demographic.

“University students are really hard to deal with sometimes and kind of high maintenance – privileged, sometimes,” she said.

Dutil also acknowledged the sometimes entitled attitudes among parts of the student population.

But like the café, the Co-op Bookstore has been getting an ever-increasing amount of undergraduate traffic.

Dutil attributes the bookstore’s growing popularity in part to those professors at Concordia who risk getting bad evaluations from undergrads by ordering textbooks through the co-op and then directing students to the co-op to get the books. But visibility remains an issue for the store.

“I think that the majority of the student body don’t know we exist,” she said, noting that both the rapid turnover rate for students, and the fact that the store is located in a downtown campus location not frequented by pedestrians, exacerbate the problem.

The consignment services offered by the Co-op Bookstore, Dutil said, also bring in a lot of students because they can sell back used academic materials for decent prices – an option not usually available anywhere else nearby.

Although the sale of textbooks puts the co-op in direct competition with the university bookstore, she said those at the cooperative view their own services instead as an alternative because the approach and orientation of the two stores are often worlds apart.

“A lot of what we do here in terms of customer service is actually popular education about the book industry and how things work and how to navigate using older editions and all that kind of stuff,” Dutil said, clarifying that the co-op has no intention of becoming another version of the university bookstore.

“That would be so boring,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Hive has been added to the university’s official caterer’s list recently, and those at the café continue to push to get the co-op on Concordia’s food plan so students could come to the café and swipe their cards to pay for meals and coffee.

“We really want to get on that list so students can go to the Hive and use their monies toward buying goods at our place, and I think that would be a really big opportunity for expansion,” Alford said about the co-op’s efforts to get on the list of approved locations.

Their divergent goals aside, the Co-op Bookstore is still engaged in a struggle with the university similar to the one waged by the Hive. The store has been trying to get textbooks Concordia instructors order through their co-op to be included in the official booklist for courses – a list offered exclusively for texts ordered from the university bookstore, for now.

Solidarity in and with the Community

Reggie’s is a work in progress, but both the Co-op Bookstore and the Hive Café have made the community-based and solidarity-driven principles of the multi-stakeholder model a main priority.

Monica said she’s recently been involved in curating the Hive’s art gallery, in part “to remind people that the Hive’s existence is a political one.”

The Hive and another coffee shop on campus, Café X, worker-student run restaurant, also support each other as needed, she said.

Their concern for community makes worker-members at the Hive uncomfortable with the police.

“I would never allow police in the co-op, and I don’t think anyone would unless we were forced,” Monica said, adding: “I think I would probably lose it if there were police just walking in our co-op.”

The Co-op Bookstore, Dutil said, is grappling with a different issue.

Whether the co-op is a retail space or a community space constitutes a constant tension worker-members at the bookstore continue to negotiate. The community orientation appears to often take precedence.

In February, for example, Dutil was finishing up store business when she received a phone call. It was a volunteer asking for directions about where to do tabling for the bookstore. The volunteer was headed to the documentary screening held every Monday evening throughout the semester at Concordia. The event, hosted by Cinema Politica, an international non-profit media arts initiative with a local presence on campus, has been a regular feature at Concordia for 13 years. The Co-op Bookstore has for some time now set up a table at every screening with a selection of books that go with the topic of the documentary shown that evening.

“These are things that I think are important, like bringing books to where the people are, not necessarily expecting people to come to the store,” Dutil said.

When people do visit the store, though, they are exposed to the sorts of displays one would not likely find at the university bookstore.

One of the first items people encounter when they walk in is a highly visible arrangement of copies of “The Cunt Coloring Book,” a provocative text featuring 40 different “cunts” to color, which Dutil said always piques interest.

In terms of inter-co-op collaboration, the bookstore has a bookshelf in the Hive, and the two share many of the same user-members, but there is not yet much beyond that.

“I wish that were maybe more collaborative,” Dutil said, “but as is with most small enterprises with very lofty goals – and I’m including the Co-op Bookstore in that categorization – we’re all sort of in our own little bubbles [with a] small amount of people power trying to do way too much. … We’re just basically trying to stay afloat and on top of our own shit.”

She suggested a “support membership swap” could be arranged with the café down the road. That is, since both co-ops have a $100 support-member share cost, the two establishments could effectively forge an interlocking Board of Directors arrangement. Someone from the bookstore could have a seat on the Hive’s Board and vice versa.

The collaborative ethic promoted at Concordia by solidarity co-ops, dating back to the bookstore’s founding, has even influenced other organizations there to implement similar models for – and partly run by – the community.

Since 2013, a non-profit real estate platform, UTILE, has been developing affordable housing for and by students. Drawing on a Popular University Student Housing Fund, capitalized with student money allocated by the Concordia Student Union, UTILE is now developing a 90-unit building in central Montreal.

“We do participative design throughout – weekly meetings at this time to collect feedback on the architect’s work,” said, Laurent Levesque, UTILE’s co-founder and general coordinator. “This is prefigurative of the cooperative management structure that will be organizing many of the building’s functions. As students or recent graduates ourselves, we have an idea of the needs, but we don’t want to presume to know what people really want.”

The organization implements solidarity co-op principles in two main ways, she said.

The housing co-ops UTILE develops actually function as solidarity cooperatives with one-third of the board members consisting of representatives of support organizations like student unions, community groups and UTILE itself, Levesque said.

The real estate development project also implemented multi-stakeholder governance in its own non-profit legal structure. While not a co-op in the strict sense owing to the nature of the service the organization provides, UTILE, Levesque said, is run by a Board of Directors split into three categories: individual members who participate in the work – including staff, interns and volunteers; external members selected for their expertise; and partner organizations, like student unions, who are invested in UTILE’s mission.

Like the Hive and the Co-op Bookstore, UTILE is, likewise, Levesque said, deeply embedded in the locally-based social – some would call it “solidarity” – economy.

Solidarity with Present and Future Co-ops

Active members with the solidarity co-ops at Concordia concurred that, when it comes to forming and maintaining a viable enterprise, having the institutional resources of a university – not to mention seminal support from a student movement intent on enabling all those who use and run the institution to have some say in running it – no doubt helps.

Co-ops in Montreal benefited from those perks, but several solidarity co-op members at Concordia said neither university money, nor a militant student movement, are prerequisites for solidarity co-op success.

The existence of multi-stakeholder cooperative models in the US substantiates the claim.

Members of a consumer cooperative in Seattle, for instance, voted in 2015 to turn their community grocery store into a solidarity co-op.

“Our goals in transitioning to the solidarity model were to increase democratic representation for employees in the governance of the Co-op, and give them a greater opportunity for equity in the business and to experience the financial benefits of ownership,” said Suzanna Schultz, marketing director for Seattle’s Central Co-op.

The Central Co-op’s Board of Directors features five consumer-trustees – two appointed and three elected – three worker-trustees and an executive trustee. All members of the co-op get to vote for all of the elected seats, so consumer-trustees vote to elect worker-trustees and vice versa, Schultz said.

Unlike the Concordia co-ops, the solidarity co-op in Seattle does not have a track for support-members.

Weaver Street Market, a grocery store with three main locations in North Carolina, operates on a similar ownership and governance structure, giving both employees and consumers stake in the business.

In the Midwest, comparable attempts have been made with mixed results.

The River West Public House Cooperative, in Milwaukee, Wisc., started as a combination consumer and worker co-op, though it now functions like more of the latter.

That establishment was inspired in part by Blackstar Co-op, a cooperatively-owned and worker self-managed pub and brewery in Austin, Texas. Member-ownership, open to anyone who might visit, vote via the Members’ Assembly at Blackstar to select a nine-seat Board of Directors, which oversees the Workers’ Assembly, the body through which employees democratically run the day-to-day operations of the bar.

A.J. Segneri, an Illinois-based activist who studied Blackstar’s structure and helped form the River West co-op, tried to start a solidarity co-op bookstore in the Chicagoland area – one closer in ownership and governance structure to those at Concordia, minus the campus affiliation.

“One of the membership options we wanted to provide was organizational memberships for various active grassroots organizations and community organizations so they can have a stake in the space – to either reserve it for their events, for their meetings,” Segneri said.

The plan was to have a seven-member Board to handle human resources and the finances, he said, while all active owners would be the ones to determine policy decisions in general membership meetings. Segneri said the by-laws for the co-op also called for a participatory budgeting process that would entail giving all members the opportunity to determine collectively how and where to move the store’s money.

Lots of people put down money to become founding members, but the bookstore never got off the ground. Getting a sufficient line of credit, Segneri said, proved difficult. That was the sort of hurdle those at Concordia could circumvent through the student union’s power to provide fee money allocations.

Notwithstanding the greater ease of access to start-up money a university can provide under popular pressure, Dutil said “a solidarity co-op is the way to go regardless” because no matter what community you’re in or what service you aim to offer, you can better include people and frequently still secure a lot of funds to begin with for that very reason.

Prunty said the local emphasis and democratic thrust of these kinds of co-ops could even change the discussion around nationalization. It could prompt people to consider, he suggests, just who owns what and who should be making decisions about enterprises that serve, or could better serve, the community.

Alford and Dutil both encourage those interested in starting a co-op to get in touch with people who have experience with the model and to really put plans and policies in place prior to launching because, they said, that becomes exceedingly difficult to do after taking off.

“I liken cooperatives – newer cooperatives – to being like … trying to construct a plane while it’s flying. You’re already off the ground. You have a space. You have some haphazard policy developed,” Alford, said, before switching vehicle metaphors to drive home a related point: “It’s super tough to keep the wheels turning while you’re trying to change those flat tires.”

As for the Hive, whether it can be steered in the direction of becoming Concordia University’s primary food provider or not, Monica said she nevertheless wants it to expand and would love for the co-op to be a new and transformative experience for future generations of students as it was for her.

“One of my biggest fears is going back to visit the university [after graduating] and there’s a Java U there again. I would be so heartbroken,” she said. “As much as I hope it stays like it is I hope that it evolves.”


James K. Anderson, PhD, is a déclassé writer, journalist, scholar, social theorist and adjunct professor who teaches classes, when he can get them, at Mt. San Jacinto College and California State University San Marcos. He will be teaching a course in media studies at the University of California Riverside during the summer of 2017. He was born and raised in the Midwest but now struggles to live in Southern California.