#13 Voluntary and Open Membership

The principle of voluntary and open membership has always held problems for co-operatives. It is a very important part of co-operatives that keep them community based and relevant; however, it can also challenge founding members when late-comers express their rights (and their generational view). It can also challenge governments that want to have an alternative to capitalism, but only in a way that they can control.

Let’s start with the Identity Statement’s definition:

“Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.

In this statement is the echo of the definition of a co-operative. More importantly, the language reaches back to the founding members of Rochdale who were universal suffragists and included women in the rights of membership. Notably, too, the membership is about the ability of the member to use the coop’s services and accept the responsibilities of membership. Nothing else really matters–even the political affiliation of the individual must be excluded.

This statement, however, should not be considered static. In a society which remains dominated by specific cultures, gender and class, co-operative must do more than simply ensure the policies and membership are neutral. Co-operatives should strive for communities that look like the larger community around them. They should develop program to encourage leadership development throughout the membership with special encouragement to those groups that normally don’t get promoted in society as a whole.

The Background Paper makes the following point: “Co-operatives should also reach out, either through their own activities, or through assisting in the development of new co-operatives, to all evident population groups and minorities able to benefit from co-operative enterprise. The basis for this involvement should not be charity; it should be the result of a careful, practical and innovative assessment of the possibilities for co-operative action. “

I don’t think that this statement should be seen as a call for “affirmative action” as much as it is for understanding the historical methods of exclusion that have been internalized by populations in the majority and the minority. This principle does call for us to understand the concept of oppression and take action to develop anti-oppression tactics in our co-operatives.

The Worker Co-operative Dilemma

For worker co-operatives, this principle might seem problematic. We limit the number of members for reasons of maintaining a living wage. Even though this is called one of the “user principles” by the US Department of Agriculture, it is only happenstance that the worker-members use the co-op’s services. In some cases, the workers might not be able to afford the co-op’s services.

The Background Paper refers to one point of the worker co-op problem in a discussion: “The phrase ‘open to all persons able to use their services. . . ‘ acknowledges that co-operatives are organised for specific purposes; in many instances, they can only effectively serve a certain kind of member or a limited number of members. For example fishing co-operatives essentially serve fishing people; housing co-operatives can house only so many members; worker co-operatives can employ only  a limited number of members. In other words, there may be understandable and acceptable reasons why a co-operative may impose a limit on membership.”

For worker co-operatives, members must also be able to do the tasks assigned. Cab drivers must be able to operate a vehicle in city traffic safely. Engineers need the education and training to design the machines. Grocery store workers need the skills of retail. Bike shop workers need to know how to repair bicycles.

Another dilemma involves the responsibilities of membership. Often, our co-ops grow faster than we can find bonafide co-op types to work for us. We then hire and membership people who really just want a good job. This seems a large contradiction of the principle. What if our members aren’t willing to accept the responsibilities of membership? The other method would be to allow workers to not join the co-operative and simply serve as hired guns until such a time as they chose to embrace the co-operative model.

The Closed Shop

I support a closed shop. I believe that all workers in a worker co-operative must be members of the worker co-operative. I liken it to the concept of a closed shop within the labor union movement. The workers all share in the benefits of a collective bargaining agreement, so they should all support the labor union that speaks for them in bargaining. If they have problems with the leadership of the labor union, they can engage the membership and run for stewards, officers, and even the bargaining team. However, they need to support the infrastructure from which they benefit. Likewise, members of a worker co-operative enjoy the benefits of co-operation and should bear the responsibility of membership to support that beneficial working environment.

I think that the CICOPA Declaration on Worker Co-operatives presents a workable compromise, but 50% is too low of a threshold. It allows worker co-operatives to create plantations and two-tier worker classes. I won’t even refer to co-ops under 50% ownership as a worker co-op. At that point, they are employer co-operatives and the workers should unionize to protect their interests. There are some that don’t agree. Often the argument runs along the lines of “workers not being intellectually ready for co-operation” or that the culture doesn’t support co-operation. These all tend to be the same arguments that supported anti-democratic governments throughout history. They were wrong then and they remain wrong today. Worker Co-operatives cannot, however benevolent, be economic imperialists.

The voluntary nature of this principle is the basis for the argument of an open shop. People shouldn’t be forced to join the co-operative if it is voluntary. One could point to this cogent argument of the Background Paper: “People cannot be made to co-operators. They must be given the opportunity to study and undestand the values for which co-operatives stand; they must be allowed to participate freely.” This sounds like a great argument for an open shop, but it isn’t. In fact, allowing this argument in a worker co-operative creates a method to use the ideal of “voluntary and open membership” to restrict workers’ rights. If we simply say “well, these workers don’t want to join!”, then we must also ask
“Why don’t they want to join?” What is creating the barrier? Is is a gender gap, a racial divide, a class division? Are the workers only there for the money and nothing else? Do we really want hired guns representing our co-operative?

Of course, the authors of the Background Paper focus on consumer, producer and housing co-operatives. I think that worker co-operatives have a unique situation. While their discussion concerns the role of governments in pushing people into joining co-operatives, it applies here as well: “In those instances co-operatives have a special responsibility to ensure that all members are fully invovled so that they will come to support their co-operatives on a voluntary basis.”

Worker Co-operatives have a special duty under the first principle. They must activate the other principles to an even larger degree that non-worker co-operatives. They must educate the workforce on the benefits of co-operation. They must work to develop their members as human beings. They must actively encourage participation among the workforce. Worker Co-operatives must be about worker liberation and human dignity.

Coming Up Next: Democratic Member Control


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.

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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2 Responses to #13 Voluntary and Open Membership

  1. MJ Ray says:

    Do you have any handy tips on reviewing, accepting and inducting new members into a worker co-op? I’d like to avoid reinventing the wheel, but so far I’ve not even seen a wheel that’s close to the right shape.

    PS – what’s with “} catch(err) {}” at the bottom of the page?

  2. In general, we hire for people’s ability to drive, operate the equipment, and generally do the job well. During the probationary period, (3-6 months) we work on the co-operative angle and membership.

    I have no idea what that is at the bottom of the page or how to get rid it!

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