#1 Identity Statement vs. “Rochdale Principles”

This is a weekly series on The Workers’ Paradise in 22 parts (or so). A new segment will be posted each Monday. It is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion on the Statement, but to provide a nominal understanding of the Statement on the Cooperative Identity and how it affects Worker Cooperatives.

In 1995, at the 100th anniversary meeting of the International Cooperative Alliance, the delegates met, debated and passed the historic Statement on the Cooperative Identity. It was and remains a historic event of immense proportions in the cooperative movement. The Statement provided for the first time a clear definition of cooperatives along a unifying set of values, ethics and principles. The Statement provides a clear path for cooperatives to follow whether they operate in the United Kingdom, the United States or Argentina and India. The statement covers unites the sectors of the movement. Workers, consumers, producers, along with those in the housing and financial industry operate under the same identity. No other business organization has such an international set of standards.

The global reach of the Statement was the primary point of its creation. In 1988, as the Eastern Warsaw Pact countries foundered during the collapse of the Soviet Union’s empire and of the USSR itself, the cooperative movement found that the misuse of their model in those countries left the cooperatives with a poor public image. ICA President Lars Marcus called upon the cooperative community to rise to this challenge and re-define the cooperative movement for the age of globalization so that cooperatives could regain their advantage and compete. In 1992 at the Tokyo conference led by Sven Ake Book of Sweden the first major work began.

But before I get too far into those discussions, it should be noted that the creation of the Statement was not the first effort to define the movement. The actions of 1995 followed a pattern of revisiting the Cooperative Identity that has occurred several times since the founding of The Rochdale Society of Pioneers in 1843. Until 1995, the statement was known simply as The Rochdale Principles in appreciation of the Pioneer’s attempt to establish the rules of their fledgling cooperative. The Principles have been re-written, amended, and debated with each new generation of cooperative leaders. As the times have changed, the principles have grown to express the changes in society. In the last century, the principles were amended in 1937 and again in 1966 before the final undertaking in 1988-1995. However, as Ian MacPherson has commented, the principles did not “offer any understanding of their intellectual or philosophical roots.” This is important because the cooperative incredible suffered damage during the Cold War of 1945-1988 as governments across the world used the cooperative model for their own political ends. As the command economies fell apart in the late 1980 and early ‘90’s this muddled view of coops created a clear danger for cooperatives as many saw the commanding heights of the economy being left exposed only to the views of the neo-liberals without the counter-weight of either Keynesian theory or Command Economy. Cooperatives were at risk of being swept aside with Communism and Keynesianism into the ash bin of history.

The Statement has three distinct parts: a definition, values, and principles. While the principles are known to most, the other two play a key role in the creation of the modern cooperative movement. The key idea that links all three parts together is democracy. It is mentioned through the three parts which is both ironic and symbolic of the roots of the movement. It is ironic since the original principles or “rules” of Rochdale do not mention democracy at all. It is symbolic in that the Pioneers who founded Rochdale were leaders in the Universal Suffrage Movement.

The Statement is a living document. It is not intended to sit idly on a wall in an office (although I have it positioned directly above my computer). It is meant to energize our policies, procedures, and strategic plans. It should be seen a catalyst for our cooperatives. Dr. MacPherson argues, “if the International Movement is to meet its potential, it will only be done if co-operaters, each and every one of us, continually strive to make our co-operatives more effective.” That is precisely why I keep the Statement close. With each decision, I consider how that decision might be influenced by or conform to the Identity. My cooperative adopted a “social note” to accompany the “fiscal note” in policies sent for Board approval. Essentially, the Board seeks the fiscal note to clearly spell out the financial implications on their decisions. The social note explains the implications of the proposal on our identity as a cooperative. If the social note cannot connect the policy to the Identity Statement and our core values, then maybe it should not be enacted. To me, that is one way of making the Statement a living thing with the power to shape our cooperative.

For all cooperatives, the identity statement provides a “true north” when there is a discussion or argument over the direction of the cooperative. In addition to the principles, the statement gives coops that sense of ethics and values that, quite frankly, sometimes fails to be part of the discussion. For worker coops which, due to the nature of the sector, have a tendency to navel gaze, the statement helps pull them into the larger world by arguing for a place, if not at the table, then in the debate for the other stakeholders of the cooperative (the consumers and the community).

In today’s economy, worker cooperatives are needed more than ever. In the 15 years since the ICA meeting to codify the Statement, globalization has run amok destroying societies and economies to the point that even the United States was cannibalized to maintain the unrealistic and unethical profiteering of the globalized capitalists. The statement lives and speaks to us today. To make our cooperatives stronger and better able to compete and survive, we need to embrace our identity.


MacPherson, Ian            (1996) Co-operative Principles, ICA Review 1995 (pdf)

For more extensive reading on the Statement on the Cooperative Identity, please visit the International Cooperative Information Centre through the UW Center for Cooperative’s website.

Next Week: The Definition of a Cooperative

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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