#14 Democratic Member Control

After missing my Monday morning deadline due to a funeral, Mother Nature has given me the gift of a day away from the office (I really haven’t anyway to get to work) so I can at least catch up on the series.

The Identity Statement created the following definition for the Second Principle of Co-operatives:

Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organised in a democratic manner.

This principle acts as the second of the “User Principles.” In this case, the users of the co-operative control the co-operative. In a worker co-operative, it is the workers who are using the co-operative in order to earn a fair living.

The Identity Statement Background Paper makes the following point about this principle: “Within co-operatives, ‘democracy’ includes considerations of rights; indeed, rights and responsibilities. but it also means more: it means fostering the spirit of democracy within co-operatives, a never-ending, difficult, valuable, even essential, task.”

In general, this principle leads to the membership empowering a board of directors to make decisions who then often empower a manager to make operational decisions. However, in many worker co-operatives, this principle comes to life with non-hierarchical structures in which all decisions (the big strategic and philosophical to the small operational) allow input and decision making by the collective. There is a basic concept that for a collective to truly operate as a collective it needs to stay under forty members. Obviously, the larger and more spread out the operation, the more likely it is need levels of hierarchy to manage effectively.

This principle brings up one of the more exciting differences between worker co-operatives and other sectors. Because the users/members are the workers, the function of democracy takes a significantly different role. Even in large co-operatives, the operational issues get debated by the membership. Management generally involves working with people to develop a consensus as opposed to barking orders. It also involves clearly defined roles for those times when someone does have to bark orders.

Mondragon has a famous saying that “there is no democracy on the shop floor.” I understand that concept, but disagree to a point. Obviously, every decision cannot involve a consensus of the majority. People have to be assigned roles with authority to act and have those decisions respected. However, there are ways to build in a sense of democracy into the operations. To me, that is one of the challenges of worker co-operatives. As stated earlier, we have a responsibility to foster the spirit of democracy throughout our actions. For those of us who have hierarchy in our co-operatives (especially those of us who have the title of “manager”), we need to find ways to manage that reflect the spirit of the principles. We cannot simply model our competitors and say that we have democracy because their is an annual meeting and board of directors.

Another key point in the discussion of democracy involves the middle sentence of the principle description: “Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership.” The Background Paper makes the following concept: “This sentence reminds elected representatives that they hold their offices in trust for the immediate and long-term benefit of members. Co-operatives do not ‘belong’ to elected officials any more than they ‘belong’ to the employees who report to these officials.” In a worker co-operative, the sense of ownership is vital to its success. However, we must remember that we are a democratic organization and while we may be owners, our control is collective. To paraphrase Chief Seattle, “We belong to the co-operative, it does not belong to us.” As a result, it is our duty as leaders, directors and owners to take care of the co-operative for the generations of workers who will be looking to it for their healthy workplace.

Next Week: Member Economic Participation–the last of the user principles.

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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