#21-Autonomy and Independence

This is a good week for a discussion about the 4th Principle of Co-operatives. On my other blog, Breathing Lessons, I discuss the role of co-operatives in the race for Governor in Wisconsin. We, in the co-op movement, get pigeon-holed pretty quickly. Even amongst ourselves, worker co-operators get slammed as “commie hippies”. Even Michael Moore expressed shock on numerous occasions that the workers of Isthmus Engineering looked “like Republicans”.  I imagine that  lot of us in the worker co-operative world see farmer co-operators as red-necked, right-wing social conservatives. Of course, there isn’t any sort of litmus test for any sector. I’ve seen anti-choice and even “W” bumper stickers at the food co-op and even in the parking lot of Union Cab and the long haired George Siemon, “C-E-I-E-I-O”* of Organic Valley certainly changes the image of Ag Coops.

Of course co-operatives aren’t so monolithic, however, they do comprise themselves of self-selected members who have common social, economic, and cultural needs and connections.  They are also organizations that should have a degree of independence and autonomy from other groups. The 4th Principle of the Co-operative Identity says this:

“Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organisations controlled by their members. If they enter to agreements with other organisations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.”

Depending on the memberships interpretation of this principle, it might mean that the co-operative focuses internally and severely limits its effect outside of the membership. For worker co-operatives, which already have a tendency to focus too much on internal issues to the negation of customer service and market forces, this can be a dangerous sentiment. Our boards, however much they may want to feel the power, can’t really tell other organizations what to do. They generally cannot dictate terms to the banks or (for those in government regulated industries) to the government. In terms of the Federations, well, if one co-op dominated the Federation, then the other member co-operatives would be violating the principle just by joining, right?

Ian MacPherson wrote on this principle: “In a way, it is a restatement of the Rochdale commitment to political neutrality with an added emphasis on autonomy, whenever co-operatives associate themselves with other organisations. It is a reminder of how necessary it is for co-operatives to guard at all costs their capacity for independent action. It is only when co-operatives are genuinely autonomous that they can follow the wishes and meet the needs of their members energetically.’

The desire for autonomy and independence runs deep within us as humans. It drove the expansion of Europeans into the Western Hemisphere and beyond. It is, perhaps, the driving force of conflict between peoples as one group seeks the resources of another. Sometimes, once autonomy and independence are obtained, the oppressed too often become the oppressors. The following clip is  a nice discussion about the role of autonomy and indenpendence in a community (and I recognize for my UK friends that this only tells one side of the story):

Being Master of our Destiny is the heart of the co-operative movement. From the first Pioneers of Rochdale, the drive to throw off our economic and political masters became the motivating force to establish an economic system respectful of individual autonomy as well as the democratic decision making process required for group action. Co-operatives, by nature of their identity, exist as peer organizations. Regardless of our standing outside the co-operative, within it we are equals. Barack Obama is the President of the United States and a member of Seminary Book Co-operative in Chicago. His membership in the co-op makes him an equal member of the co-operative entitled to the same dignity as any other member regardless of his other job.

The point is, that we want to control our destiny but to succeed we also have to find a way for our organizations to work together. Autonomy and independence are important parts of the co-operative movement, but so is the root word, “co-operate” or “work together”. Our co-operatives gain strength from respecting our individuality while also requiring members to participate. The movement gains strength from respecting the autonomy of the organizations, while developing ways for them to work together and create synergy.

As Dr. MacPherson notes, our actions as co-operatives need to express the will of our members and protect the co-operative from co-optation by other sources. For worker co-operatives, this can be significant as they could easily end up as the employees of an organization rather than the owners, or so associated with political or social movement that they begin to falter as a business. It is important for us to consider these issues as we interact with other co-operatives and non-co-operatives. It is a lot easier to keep one’s co-operative autonomous and independent than to get that independence back.

*If you don’t get it, simply refer to the song.

Next Week: #5 Education, Training and Information

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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