#2 Identity: Definition of a Co-operative

The definition of a cooperative is “A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.

Of course, this is the “social” definition determined by the International Co-operative Alliance. There are also legal definitions that vary depending upon where you live. To me, the point is that this definition exists regardless of what the law says a co-operative is (or isn’t).

It seems fairly straight forward. Much of the language mirrors that expressed in the values and principles that follow the definition. To a large extent, the key purpose of the definition is to provide a brand, if you will, for co-operatives. This had to be done in 1995 because the people emerging from the Eastern command economies experienced co-operatives that were mandatory, corrupt, and anything but focused on the needs of the members.

I think that even for those of us in the West with mature co-operatives have a lot to learn from this definition. For worker cooperatives, the concept of a common economic, social and cultural plays a significant role in the strength of the social cohesion of our communities. Worker Coops need to hire workers who can perform the work of the cooperative and also blend in with the culture of the cooperative. Of course, our hiring has to be done in accordance with the law and nondiscriminatory.

The members of co-operatives also self-select to a certain respect. As I learned in the 90’s, even the job of driving has its cultural nuances. Cab drivers and School Bus drivers have very different cultures and the people who gravitate to these jobs have different aspirations. But our worker co-operatives also need to meet demand. This may cause some conflict with the definition as we may need people who are willing to work regardless of how well they fit into the social and cultural aspects of the co-operative. Likewise, the economic needs can vary dramatically based on a worker’s life habits, the presence of dependents, and health care needs (health is particularly an issue these days and the importance to a worker depends on a lot of issues).

That conflict can create serious problems within the co-operative, but the solution lies in education and organizational process. Some co-operatives work hard to develop anti-oppression mechanisms to overcome cultural differences and even create the sense of diversity as part of the culture of the organization. The solution also comes from the democratically controlled nature of the organization. What democracy means varies greatly. Some worker co-ops seek to eliminate hierarchy and create strong participatory democratic mechanisms while others see democracy solely as an action of voting.

The term jointly-owned is also a neat addition. We all know that co-ops are “one member, one vote”, but the concept of jointly-owned takes it a step further. It should remind us that these organizations are “ours” only in the collective sense. I only own my co-operative in a collective sense with my fellow members. Regardless of how important a member might feel to their co-op (or even how the other member feels), they are still one of the whole. This should remind us to work to avoid the evils of the political and corporate and even non-profit world: personality cults and win-lose coalitions. It speaks to the sense of achieving consensus over simple electoral supremacy. It is, at its heart, an associations of “persons” of equals.

This is why the definition is important to us. It keeps us focused on the True North. It reminds us of the key aspects of the cooperative difference: voluntary membership, democratic control, benefits to the members.

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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