Democracy–practice makes perfect?

It is election season for a couple of cooperatives that have me as a member*. One is a worker coop and one is a consumer coop. In both, the main aspect of democracy is voting for the board of directors. this seems to be the one time of the year when the membership acts as a group and makes its will known. Our process seems very similar to the democracy practiced in our towns and on the national level. Once every couple of years we have a “meeting” of sorts and cast our vote for Mayor, Representative, Governor and President. Then we get  back on with our life (and maybe even kvetch about the people that we elected).

This seems to me a rather weak form of democracy. In my work with St. Mary’s University, I have been writing about measuring democracy (and other coop principles) in worker cooperatives. In everyone of our discussions about membership, the incidence of voting seems to be a minor or unimportant issue.  Instead, the measurement of democracy in a cooperative centers on worker development, communication and feedback systems, education of the membership about the business and the cooperative model, transparency, a humane and safe workplace, and the level of mutual respect between the internal stakeholders (managers, leaders, members, employees, insert-a-label-here, etc.).

Elections, I think, represent the worst form of democracy. It really works against building communities by creating winners and losers. At its worst, it creates cults of personality while repressing real issues that face the cooperative. This summer we have witnessed how people act when they feel that they have lost. Whatever you think of the angry mobs appearing at town halls (I don’t quite care if they are grass root or astroturf) the energy isn’t too far from the mobs in Seattle several years ago chanting the slogan “This is what democracy looks like!” Neither groups were building a lot of community or true democracy. In Seattle, at least, other groups were trying to engage in something other than shouting and building coalitions to oppose the forces of globalized capital. I can attest to having seen a few membership meetings in my 21 years as a coop member reach those same levels of frustration, so I know that coops aren’t immune to the problems of electoral democracy.

The solution, of course, is participation, transparency and building safe areas of communication. This isn’t easy though as our society seems determined to act differently and create a paradigm of democracy that is the opposite of these qualities. All we can do is practice what we preach. Practice making democracy a living thing that expresses itself each day in the work place. This might create some difficult and even heated conversations at first, but practice make perfect and eventually it might even seem quaint and odd to take a vote of the membership to find out what they think.

*As a disclosure, I got my butt handed to me last night coming in 12th out of 13th at the consumer coop–ouch!

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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