CICOPA: Relations with the Co-operative Movement

The remaining sections of the World Declaration on Worker Cooperatives focus on the rest of the world and suggest how they and worker cooperatives should interact. The first of these include six “invitations” for the cooperative movement to consider.

The declaration suggests that the development of worker cooperatives should be a priority for the rest of the movement. The international coop movement should help finance worker cooperatives through strategic alliances and the development of capital funds. They should also help develop laws that protect worker cooperatives. Last, but not least, every cooperative should integrate the wage-earning workers of their coops into worker-members.

It is the last one that I find the most interesting and exciting. I believe that the primary stakeholder of every co-operative is the worker. I would go further and say the primary stakeholder of any business is the worker. If a consumer cooperative shuts its door, the consumers can move on to the next store on the street. They may have to learn a new floor layout (and might have to re-fight old battles to get their favorite items), but  they can still consume uninterrupted. Farmers will still be able to get to market and purchase seeds. The workers, however, lose their jobs. They may not be able to find a job immediately. They could end up being evicted from their homes, losing their healthcare, and any number of things. With the once exception of housing co-ops, the closing of a co-operative would be most devastating on the workers serving that co-operative.

I think that the worker cooperative should also reciprocate where possible. I don’t think that worker co-ops should immediately throw open the membership rolls and allow consumers to join en masse. When developing, however, organizers should consider multi-stakeholder models as Black Star Co-op in Austin, the Rainbow Bookstore Coop in Madison and People’s Food Co-op in Portland. Existing worker co-operatives should find methods of creating a sense of solidarity with the consumer. After all, the consumer plays a very important role in every worker co-operative.

The co-operative movement gets caught in its sectors, at times, but the movement, as Don Jose is social one. It doesn’t exist in sections, but in people. One could argue, as the Fabians did, that membership should exist on the commonality of people (we all consume); however, it seems more appropriate to create membership on the basis of the stake that we have in the enterprise. I’ve found it pure folly when some consumer co-op decides to allow the workers (who are also member) the pleasure to serve on their board but only if they ignore their interests as workers. How inhumane and patronizing! As if the workers don’t have a vested interest in the success of the co-operative that pays their rent/mortgage and puts food on their table.

We all need allies as we work to create a better world. Just as worker co-ops should recognize that their customers will be their best allies, so should the other co-ops recognize that the workers are their strongest and most loyal stakeholder group (sometimes even more loyal than their membership).

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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