#12 The Principles of Co-operation

The Co-operative Difference, which creates the Co-operative Advantage, results from the creation of the Co-operative Principles.

The Principles have been with the Co-operative Movement since the success of Rochdale Society of Pioneers. Most of us know the story, after several attempts to create an ethical market enterprise; the organizers of Rochdale tried a different tactic. They created a set of rules that would govern the co-operative. Among these included the prohibition of credit to consumers and other tactics used by markets to control consumers and workers. Many of these principles and practices (such as food at meetings) have passed through the generations to our co-operatives today.

The Background Paper on the Identity Statement makes this point about the principles:

“Many people understand principles as iron-clad commandments that must be followed literally. In one sense, that is true in that principles should provide standards of measurement. In another sense, they should restrict, even prohibit, certain actions while encouraging others.”

“Principles, however, are more than commandments; they are also guidelines for judging behaviour and for making decisions. It is not enough to ask if a co-operative is following the letter of the principles, it is important to know if it is following their spirit, if the vision each principle affords, individually and collectively, is ingrained in the daily activities of the co-operative. From that perspective, principles area not a stale list to be reviewed periodically and ritualistically; they are empowering frameworks—energizing agents—though which co-operatives can grasp the future.”

In many of our co-ops, we ask if our choice of action is financially feasible. How many of our choices are socially feasible when compared to the principles? Everyday managers need to make key strategic decisions without the luxury of a consultant. The principles should guide their decisions along with the values and ethics of the Identity Statement. The teachings through the Masters of Management: Co-operative and Credit Union program focus on the merging established management practices with co-operative principles. When these two diverge, the goal of the MMCCU candidate will be to find a way to amend the practices to fit the principles. This is the key difference between programs such as MMCCU and other educational programs that utilize co-operatives as part of a large toolbox to reform capitalism (non-profits, ESOPs etc).

They also make us strong. They cause us to spend money on things that our competitors don’t. I think, however, that expense on the principles creates a competitive advantage not a disadvantage. Sometimes, when times get tough, co-operatives have to make decisions that may cause the principles to get “set aside”. In other co-ops, the lack of a clear co-operative identity may cause the principles to be co-opted as something else. In either case, the path to demutualization may be built by small decisions to ignore the principles.

The history of the principles is interesting. The Identity Statement, like the Rochdale Principles, is a living document. Since 1844, co-operative leaders from around the world have reviewed and amended them. The changes reflect the generation of co-operators that existed at the time as well as honoring the history of the co-operators that have gone before.

In 1844, Rochdale had a lenghty list of “laws” detailing every aspect of the co-operative. By 1860, the list of “Rochdale Practices”* had been whittled down to nine many of which sound quite familiar:

  • That capital should be of their own providing and bear a fixed rate of interest.
  • That only the purest provisions procurable should be supplied to members.
  • That full weight and measure should be given.
  • That market prices should be charged and no credit given nor asked.
  • That profits should be divided pro rata upon the amount of purchases made by each member.
  • That the principle of “one member one vote” should obtain in government and the equality of the sexes in membership.
  • That the management should be in the hands of the officers and committee elected periodically.
  • That a definite percentage of profits should be allotted to education.
  • That frequent statements and balance sheets should be presented to members.

As they have evolved, they have become integral to each other. In 1937, the seven principles were officially created as the Rochdale Principles:

  1. Open membership
  2. Democratic control
  3. Distribution of the surplus to the members in proportion to their transactions.
  4. Limited interest on capital
  5. Political and religious neutrality
  6. Cash trading
  7. Promotion of education

The seven principles that most of us know came into being in the late 1960’s and reflected the new ethos of that era. They continued to evolve to the Identity Statement of 1995. Today, there is a strong effort to add an 8th Principle called “Ecological Perspective”.

As the Background Paper continues:

“The principles that form the heart of co-operatives are not independent of each other. They are subtly linked; when one is ignored, all are diminished. Co-operatives should not be judged exclusively on the basis of any one principle; rather, they should be evaluated on how well they adhere to the principles as an entirety.”

Is it possible to have democratic participation without education, information? The first three principles “voluntary and open membership”,  “democratic member control” and “member economic participation” are collectively known as The User Principles by the US Department of Agriculture. They detail the internal dynamics of the co-op while the last four deal with the operation and external relationships

Over the next few weeks, I will consider the seven principles of the Identity Statement as well as three principles of Mondragon that I think should be part of the identity statement (or at least part of our identity as worker co-operatives).  Mondragon’s principles focus on the elevation of the worker over capital and social cohesion of the co-operative.

Here is a great video on the principles of co-operatives:

Next Week: 1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership

Source and Reading Recomendation:

*Fairbarin, Brett  The Meaning of Rochdale: The Rochdale Pioneers and the Co-operative Principles, Centre for the Study of Co-operation, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.

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.
This entry was posted in Identity Statement Series and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to #12 The Principles of Co-operation

  1. Great blog. Interesting points about the principles being both a governance framework and an enabling code, the spirit being as (perhaps even more) important than the letter. Here in the UK, neoliberal (Thatcherite) business ideology is so entrenched that even sympathisers seem to blanch in fear at the apparent prescriptiveness of the 7 principles, the first time they encounter them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.