“It is said that co-operation is an economic movement that utilizes educational activities, but it can also be said that co-operation is an educational movement that utilizes economic activities.“–Don José María Arizmendiarreta
A fun exercise, well maybe interesting more than “fun”, at co-operative gathering centers around the principles. Ask the co-operators present, “Which is the most important principle.” If there are more than seven people in the room, you will likely get about eight different answers.
People often focus on the user principles and democracy as being the principles that separate co-operatives from other businesses. Of course, in my opinion, the best answer is that they are all equally important and feed into each other. Case in point: how strong can democracy be if the electorate isn’t educated or informed?
Education, training and information play a vital role in co-operatives. It requires transparency. It requires honesty and openness. These three qualities feed the democratic nature of the co-operative as well as informs the abilities of the members to maintain economic control. They help the co-operative movement grow. The Statement on Identity describes this principle as follows: “Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.”
In the background paper, Ian MacPherson focused on the role of educating the youth:
“The Fifth Principle refers to the long-standing and vitally important commitment to education. In many ways it is similar to the 1966 version except that it specifically mentions the need for co-operatives to inform young people and opinion leaders about ‘the nature and benefits of co-operation’. The reason for making this addition was a perception that the Movement was limiting its future by ignoring youth and failing to explain well enough the values and purposes of the Movement to such people as politicians, public servants, educators, and commentators; the result has been a decline in the public understanding of the organised movement.”
I have to tell you that attending conferences, one can really see what Dr. MacPherson was talking about. In 2008, I was a panelist for the Co-operative Issues Forum and then a week later I went to New Orleans for the US Federation’s Democracy at Work Conference. The first event was a cross-sector (which in Wisconsin means Ag Co-ops and everybody else), the second was mainly for the worker co-operatives. With the exception of a handful of people (mostly from my co-op), I was one of the youngest people in the room for the Wisconsin conference. Looking out over the audience, it was a sea of gray and graying heads! In NOLA, I was one of the oldest.
Fortunately for me, my age in the worker co-op movement is matched by 21 years of experience. That isn’t always the case. Often older workers coming into a worker co-op are recovering wage slaves and have to unlearn all of the bad habits from the other economy. We need to have strong methods to re-orientate new (older) workers as well as to orientate workers new to the workforce. Hiring from the outside in a worker co-op means hiring someone without the culture of co-operation in the workplace. It means bringing in bad habits and misdirected fears from other work places. These issues have to be dealt with, but can be even more dramatic if the person is being hired into a position of power and authority. This is just one unique way in which ETI plays out in worker co-operatives.
As the good people of Mondragon point out: “Co-operation emerges therefore as a defense of its own identity, determined that the social model which arises from its principles shall not be erased by the insensitive penetration of other forms of social behaviour in which profit is the central motive.” All worker in a worker co-operative need to learn their industry, the history of the co-operative movement, and the means to answer their questions.
Another issue for worker co-ops comes from our need to hire internally and manage our own company. A consumer or ag co-op can hire from outside the co-operative world and still get an effective manager for their industry (see The Wedge in Minneapolis). This is much harder to do in a worker co-operative and might even be impossible. If we are going to manage ourselves, we need to educate ourselves on how to do it properly. At this point, there is only one viable means of receiving a formal education in co-operative management through St. Mary’s University. Too often, hiring a consultant means training the consultant in the nature of worker co-operatives. Worker co-ops need to develop education and training programs that unique for the industry and co-operative structure. Fortunately, the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives, through the Democracy at Work Institute will be creating a peer advisory system. This low-cost system will allow worker co-operative to gain from the experience of other worker co-operators. It is an exciting project and will begin this year. Check out the US Federation’s web site for more information.
I haven’t spoken a lot about information, but transparency should be the watchword in a worker co-operative. The members must have full access to the co-operative to make good decisions. Without it, rumor mills run wild and suspicions mount. In other sectors, there might be a “need to know” level of secrecy. I still disagree with that concept. I think that any member of any co-operative should have access to any information about the co-operative that they feel is important for their ability to understand how the co-op operates. Just Coffee in Madison takes this concept to the highest level that I have seen. I have written about this before, but Just Coffee has eschewed “fair trade” for “transparent trade”. They post their contracts with the farmers on their web site and dare their competitors to meet their price. Maybe all worker co-ops should do that.
While the principles of co-operatives work together, the role of Education, Information and Training provides a means for members to understand and to grow. Members may come into the co-op with little more than a “you’re not the boss of me” attitude. Through education and access to information, they can move along the maturity curve to understand the unique society that they have joined and how that society interacts with similar societies in their city, state, region, nation and even across the world. A strong commitment to this principle keeps the co-operative spirit strong and vital. A well trained, informed and educated workforce may be the best marketing decision for any co-operative. For worker co-operatives, these qualities build solidarity and a commitment to the success of the co-operative and its members.
There may not be a “most important” principle, but Education, Training and Information certainly provides an undercurrent vital to expressing the others.
Next: Co-operation Among Co-operatives