#23 Co-operation Among Co-operatives

I usually make the snarky comment that the only time that I hear about this principle is when some slacker co-op wants a discount or donation. . . that is horribly unfair, of course. Also, we should discount each other—we need to do what we can to keep the money inside the co-operative community!

This principle, however, brings the value of solidarity, caring for others and social responsibility into the principles. Co-operation provides the basic form of human survival. The Folks at Sesame Street get it right: Co-operation Makes It Happen!

The Statement on Co-operative Identity uses the following definition: “Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.”

This, of course, means that those of us in the North America should all join either the National Co-operative Business Association or the Canadian Co-operative Association as well as our sector. In the US, that would be the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives and in Canada, the Canadian Federation of Worker Co-operatives. We shouldn’t just join, but should actively engage these organizations. We also should put aside some biases.

One of the moments in my life that proved (to me) that I would never be a tele-marketer was when I fulfilled my duty as a USFWC director by calling members and checking in. This one high-tech co-operative contact told me that he wasn’t going to renew because he attended the New York Conference and thought that the workshop that he attended was allowed to be taken over by Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) ideologues. It didn’t matter to him that this was a third party organization or that other attendees should have the right to express their views. He wanted a workshop that talked about business, not this political crap.

Well, I couldn’t help but notice that he seemed to be speaking for the entire co-op even though I doubt that he actually presented a fair view of the federation to the other six members. I wonder if he even mentioned it. My interaction made me think that it was a “co-op” but that this guy was really the boss—which then makes sense that he didn’t want to hear from the IWW lest his fellow members catch on that co-ops should be a democracy.

In any event, the point of building the movement isn’t to bring immediate gain to one’s co-operative. It is to build the co-operative image as a valuable community asset. Arizmendiaretta noted, “It is a mistake to each a co-operative a closed world. We must consider inter-cooperative solidarity the only resource to be used to forestall other problems of growth and maturity: we must consider a growing development adapted to circumstance.” The reality is that we (worker co-operatives) have a lot to teach each other. Mondragon speaks of the concept of Inter-cooperation. They define this principle as a specific application of solidarity and a requirement for business efficiency. While it is great to be able to do business with each other, it is even better to support each other by trading concepts, trainings, and skills.

When I was younger (pushing 30) and president of Union Cab. I remember proclaiming that worker co-operatives in the US co-operative world and a blue-collar cab co-op was unique among worker co-ops. The upshot is that there was nothing to learn from the other co-ops. We were alone in the world and had to find our won way. I was young (and arrogant)—and there weren’t a lot of other worker co-ops known to us in the early 90’s. I hear our young leaders say that today and make a mental note to take them aside and have a talk. I also hear people lament our membership dues to NCBA and USFWC and The Co-operative Network wondering what our co-op gets out of our membership.

Well, we (individually and through our co-operatives) help build the movement. We help government officials understand what a co-operative is. We help each other learn how to co-operate better. We help other co-op sectors understand the importance of treating their workers well. We get back what we put into these organizations, but even if all we do is write a check, we help build the movement. This doesn’t have to mean just giving each other discounts. We should share our policy manuals, help each other find new ways of working together. In the US, we need to find a way to pool resources to provide some of the things that our individual co-ops cannot achieve on their own: affordable health care, pensions, retirement plans, etc.

I think that this principle needs to be expanded. Yes, the apex organizations can do a lot. However, we need to create local networks, marketing campaigns and even our own banking system. Even the casual observer of Mondragon recognizes that the Caja Popular had a significant (if not vital) role to play in the rise of Mondragon. The Cooperative Warehouse Society and the Co-operative Bank clearly played the same role in making The Co-operative* the largest consumer co-operative society in the world.

We all need each other to make the co-operative model succeed. I don’t want to limit this to just the co-ops either but to the other legs of the stool as it were. We need the academics who study and propose new concepts in management, who help educate as developers, or teachers, or professors. We need the politicians who help protect the co-operative model.

Co-operation among co-operatives starts with the individual but quickly moves on to the entire world. Our co-operatives need to educate the membership and help them to realize that they, but joining their co-operative, have joined an international movement of 800 million people. We aren’t in this alone, but together. If we can’t see the commonality between our worker co-operatives and the consumer co-ops or large Agriculture co-ops such as Land o’ Lakes, then we aren’t really seeing the co-op movement in its entirety.

When we take the time to understand the dynamics of a water co-operative in rural India, we make our individual co-operatives stronger. When we support the efforts of defending the co-operative movement in Bolivia and Argentina, we make the co-ops in the United States and Canada stronger. This isn’t a zero sum game where we take resources from our co-ops to give to other co-ops. Social capital, like fiscal capital, gains velocity as it travels. Both forms of capital, in the famous quip, are like manure, they only create something worthwhile if they get spread around.

*Normally, I hate it when organizations use a definite article in front of their name. I refuse to call Ohio State University, “The Ohio State University” and not because I’m a Badger through and through. However, if any organization deserves to use the definite article it is The Co-operative.

Next Week: #24 Concern for Community

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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1 Response to #23 Co-operation Among Co-operatives

  1. Pingback: The Open Door Policy of Worker Co-operatives « The Workers' Paradise

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