#25: The Internationalist Nature of Co-operatives

Over the last 6 months,  I have been working my way through the Statement on the Co-operative Identity that the International Co-operative Alliance adopted at the 1995 meeting which also commemorated its first century of service. This statement solidified the Rochdale Principles as well as adding a list of values and ethics. In part, this was done to assure countries emerging into the world after decades of the Cold War, that co-operatives were not co-opted. That co-operatives that they experienced behind the Iron Curtain or as part of an attempt to shore up a rulers power in an emerging nation were not a true representative of the co-operative model. The Identity Statement also was a challenge to the western co-operatives as well. It was, and remains, a challenge to not rest of the laurels of the past, but to constantly struggle to improve our co-operatives and credit unions. The ICA created a true touchstone by which every co-operative and credit union in the world could be measured. That 1995 meeting may be the most significant moment in the movement’s 167 year history.

Dr. Ian MacPherson made these salient points in his background paper to the Identity Statement:

“It was a task much more difficult than the delegates of a hundred years ago knew. Overcoming the differences created by national perspectives and histories, coping with the ideological cleavages that swept the world in the Twentieth Century, recognising the biases each of us possesses, understanding empathetically the nature of co-operative experiences in non-European societies has not been easily accomplished. In the important book she prepared for Congress, Rita Rhodes has explained the deep tensions that made progress in creating a strong international Movement for most of the Twentieth Century difficult to achieve. It is a story worth pondering as we seek to understand how we can forge even stronger links among co-operative organisations spread around the world.”

In my days college days, we often challenged ourselves to “think globally, act locally”. We needed to recognize that the struggle of people is an international struggle but that we also aren’t saviors for those in other countries. To fix the world, we need to fix our local communities and share our story with the world. The Identity Statement embodies that ethos. As MacPherson notes, the co-operative movement exists as an international movement. The creation of the International Co-operative Alliance in 1895 was to help co-operatives world-wide and to share their stories. When workers in the Argentine factories succeed as running their own plants, they create a better environment for cab drivers in Madison, WI (and vice versa) by showing that workers can manage themselves. When Equal Exchange workers broke the Reagan Quarantine on Nicaragua with Café Nica. they helped farmer/workers the world over know that cold war politics could be defeated by workers and farmers uniting in a common cause.

The Identity Statement is our touchstone as a co-operative and credit union. It is an international document that makes our individual membership in our co-operatives and credit unions an international act of solidarity. Our membership in our organizations and our support for the ICA and the Identity Statement force us to “think globally”. By striving within our co-operatives to bring the Identity Statement to life, to “operationalize” the statement, we act locally. One of my projects over the last couple of years has been assisting in the development of something called the “Co-op Index.” It is a diagnostic tool to measure an individual worker co-operative against the Identity Statement (and the Mondragon principles). Ultimately, it will create a maturity index for worker co-operatives world-wide but in the short run, it will provide worker co-operatives with the information and tools that they need to become stronger co-operatives and create “best practices” for worker co-operatives in particular. It will be a means of improving our workplaces and the world at the same time.

The Identity Statement cannot just hang on the wall. We need to teach it in our co-operatives. We need to connect our actions to it. At my co-operative, we attach a “policy note” to each measure before the board that connects the proposed action to the co-operative’s vision, mission, core values and the Co-op Identity. It is a useful exercise that I think all co-operatives should adopt. The basic premise is that if we cannot explain why the proposal works from the vantage point of the Co-op Identity, then maybe it isn’t a proposal worth adopting.

On a final note, the Identity Statement is not a final document. It is, like the Rochdale Principles that it replaced, a living document. Each generation since 1843 has re-visited the co-operative identity and made adjustments appropriate to their time and place. In 1995, a strong movement existed (but eventually lost) to include a principle of co-operative management that would instruct co-operatives to manage in a different way and to create co-operative management schools. That effort didn’t fail, but continued and my imminent graduation as part of the 4th Cohort in St. Mary’s MMCCU program shows the power of that principle. It may be that the next incarnation of the statement will include management as stronger educational efforts on co-operative management have sprung up throughout the US and Canada to join existing programs at the UK’s Open University, Cooperative College and Spain’s Mondragon Univeristy. (These include the recent creation of an undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, the CooperationWorks! Program, the Southern New Hampshire University program and the USFWC’s Peer Assistant Network).**   In addition to educating ourselves to manage from a co-operative framework, there is also a growing effort to expand the ‘concern for community” principle by adding a new principle specific to the protection of the environment.

The Identity Statement will celebrate its 15th anniversary this year. It has changed the dynamics of co-operation; it has given us an international touchstone that tells us that a co-operative in Sapporo, Buenos Aires, Winnipeg, Manchester, Madison, Bilbao, Bologna, Gdansk, Tel Aviv, Kiev, Dar es Salaam and Sydney all act under the same set of principles and values. The co-operative label is a label of trust, honor, and dignity for working men and women.

Next Week: This ends the series on the Identity Statement. I hope that people enjoyed it. I appreciated the comments on this site (and on Facebook where it mirrors). Feel free, as always, to use or redistibute my posts. I intend to keep the Monday entries going. The next series will be on a document that is just as important but little known: CICOPA’s World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives. Thanks for reading.

***Sadly, I have heard a rumor that there is some sectarian attacks on the Canadian programs coming from south of the border. The attack is jingoistic in nature (that the Canadian programs aren’t “american” and therefore not appropriate for US co-operatives. I haven’t had anybody say that to me directly (most likely because I would correct their opinion). It is a shame. Each program offers a means to manage our co-operatives according to the principles. I personally, would love to see the day when a co-operative undergraduate degree and the MMCCU are as ubiquitous in our universities and colleges as the business degree and MBA. We shouldn’t be fighting each other over our turfs, but co-operating to expand the educational opportunities for co-operative managers, directors and members. I chose MMCCU because it fit my life at this moment. In a different scenario, I might have elected for Mondragon, the UK, or SHNU. Had any of these programs been available to me when I was in college (1982), the path that my life took would be amazingly similar and different at the same time! It is my hope that in my lifetime learning of a young co-ed can earning their undergraduate degree in co-operative administration while working at a co-operative becomes a normal expectation and doesn’t require moving to specific part of the world.

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 #25: The Internationalist Nature of Co-operatives

  1. Jane Livingston says:

    Thank you so much John, for going so far above and beyond your various job descriptions and the expectations others place on you. I have been accused of thinking of the ID Statement as ‘gospel’ and of being a ‘co-op crusader’ (I say, it’s not a religion, it’s an ECONOMIC SYSTEM). So it is a great comfort and motivates me to keep on keeping on, to read about the men and women who worked so diligently to bring the statement into being. Yes, it may change over time. Meanwhile, I will keep answering almost every question I am asked about co-operatives with the initial reply, “Let’s take a look at the co-op statement of identity first, and see if the answers are there.” And personally, it was only after I took the step of committing it to memory that I began using it in my own work. I heartily endorse the idea of memorizing it, carrying around cards with it printed on them, displaying it prominently in one’s co-op or credit union, passing it on to members (and customers) regularly, focusing on it at every board and member meeting, and generally injecting it into co-op culture at every opportunity. And I think it’s important not to pick and choose parts of the statement to iterate, when presenting it. Specifically, there seems to be a penchant for choosing some values and not others, or for re-wording principles to better fit the capitalist (a different ECONOMIC SYSTEM) worldview. If one is setting up a tripod and only opens two legs, when the thing falls over, it’s not fair to say “Tripods are an unstable structure. They don’t work.”

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