#4 The Value of Self-Responsibility

The second value of the co-operative identity also refers to the individual. I think that this is important. As the old saying goes, “you can’t do for others until you do it for yourself.” Therefore, it is with cooperation. We really cannot co-operate unless we come to that idea through our personal development and take personal responsibility for it.

In the background paper, the concept of self-responsibility is laid out as follows:

“”Self-responsibility” means that members assume responsibility for their co-operative—for its establishment and its continuing vitality. Further, members have the responsibility of promoting their co-operative among their families, friends and acquaintances. Finally, “self-responsibility” means that members are responsible for ensuring that their co-operative remains independent from other public or private organizations.”

The first idea to pop into my head after reading this statement is that this is the one point in the co-operative identity mentions the importance of the sustainability of the organization. Often, it is common to hear managers (and members) argue for fiscally stable decisions even at the expense of social issues due to the need to keep the cooperative a float. This can degenerate into a division between the needs of the business outweighing the needs of the members; however, sustainability or vitality is a very important part of the cooperative. On the other hand, if the co-operative is only about profit margin, then, as Sidney Prohubischy* noted, “why work so hard to be a capitalist?”

In our workers cooperatives, self-responsibility has many dimensions. Often, we do not have the need for our cooperative’s products or services. Sometimes, we might need them, but cannot afford them and neither can our friends. However, we all need to take responsibility for promoting the cooperative. Despite how the organization is set up, it is every member’s role. Of course, the issue of slackers always comes up. Every business has workers who shirk their duties. In the capitalist world, this is part of the labor-management antagonism. In a worker co-operative it is a failure of this value and not just counter-productive but an act of hostility against the co-operative. At the same time, worker co-operatives also need to be humane workplaces that understand the human experience, not Tayloristic dystopias.

In the larger sense, self-responsibility is not only taking on the responsibility of ownership, but also expecting other members to also act as owners. It is about accountability, not in the sense of being called before a tribunal, but in a very personal sense or putting the co-operative’s interest above one’s own interest. This is not something that we are trained to do in this country. To accomplish this value, worker co-operative need to build infrastructure within their organization. We need to understand the worker come to the co-operative from the larger society. They need to be educated about self-responsibility. At the New Orleans conference, a co-operator referred to this group as “recovering wage slaves” and we need to instill into them a sense of co-operation. We cannot simply assume that people “get it” and that is part of self-responsibility: to look after the members of our co-operative and help them understand the Identity. This can have many forms but should include some method of peer support to allow workers to engage each other and themselves in being responsible to the co-operative and to each other.

Next week: Equality

*I never met Sidney (he was too ill to participate in the MMCCU’s orientation when I attended and has since passed). He, however, a lion of the Maritime Co-operative. I do not have a link to his writings on the identity statement, but he was one of the main participants in the lengthy discussions leading to its creation.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-op in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University and hopes to finish his Ph.D. in Business Administration soon. He has served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Board of Governors for the Democracy at Work Network. He currently sits on the Co-op Circle and Mission Circle for Sociocracy for All. He teaches on worker co-operatives and democratic management in the summer at The Evergreen State College.
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