Over the last couple weeks, cooperators across North America have been meeting and discussing the state of cooperatives and the future. I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in a number of those discussions. Despite the geographical, sectorial, and ideological diversity, a couple of common themes ran through all of the discussions. As I start to filter through the presentations and key notes, I will share with you what I heard and how I heard it.
Time and again, we discussed in Canada and the United States that we need to build our “movement”. We need to be a bigger part of the economy. The oft-quoted number of “1 billion members” by the International Cooperative Community sounds great, but ignores the multiple memberships that people hold (for example, I am a member of four credit unions, a worker cooperative, two consumers cooperatives, a developer’s cooperative, and the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. I was recently a member of a healthcare cooperative. I represent 10 of those 1 billion people).
More importantly, we allow our message to be usurped by others. Cooperatives are the original sharing economy. Today, investor-owned tech companies operating on purely neo-liberal principles have managed to co-opt that idea to make profit by using other people’s capital and labor. We need to reclaim what a “sharing economy” really looks like. It shouldn’t be a person sharing their labor and capital to a tech firm so that the tech firm can take a 20-30% share of the revenue. It should be an organization where all the members share their capital and labor and equally share the surplus value that they create.
The cooperatives that do exist, need to be more visible. They need to make noise. They need to let their local, state and federal elected officials know who they are and tell their sotry. This has to be a part of the expression of the 7th Principle of “Concern for Community”. They also need to engage the “cooperation among cooperatives” in a meaningful way by helping to grow the Federation through membership and promoting sustaining memberships among their members, diverting funds towards the Worker Ownership Fund, and providing resources to the Federation to assist getting the message out.
Enhancing our visibility must involve measuring our impact on the community. We need to be able to show how a worker owned business does more than provide a decent wage. It builds resilience within the community by developing leadership, educating people, and creating added value for all the stakeholders, not just the members. This may mean developing skills in members that allow them to successfully serve of community boards and committes, it may mean working to create strong and vibrant neighborhoods, and it may mean building local and regional alliances as needed to create sustainable economies built around social justice.
It was pointed out that worker cooperatives, even at a high estimate, represent about 0.03% of the businesses in the United States. To get traction, we need more worker cooperatives. We need to stop seeing growth as a problem. Rather our cooperatives need to address the demand for our goods and services. We should be happy that consumers like the goods and services produced by worker cooperatives. This doesn’t mean a wild expansion of individual coops to the point that the community is lost and democracy reduced to electoral politics. As we scale up our businesses to meet the demand of consumers, we must also scale up our governance models to meed the demand of the cooperative principles and our members right to a truly participatory democratic workplace. A nine-member board that works for a hundred members may not be enough for a three hundred member coop, let alone a thousand member coop.
More than Money
We must commit to being about social justice and creating a world based on our values, ethics and principles. If we are only about creating jobs with decent pay and benefit, then our success will be illusory and subject to the whims of a marketplace in which our businesses will eventually succumb to the downward pressure on wages and benefits that is built into the investor-based market economy. As the Rev. Martin Luther King jr. is often quoted as saying, “we must be the change that we want to see.” Arizmendiaretta also saw the role of the cooperative as a means of assisting people to their full realization as a human beings (perhaps-riffing off of the movie Little Big Man–that is the real term that we should use instead of worker-owners or members).
These four themes were present and actively discussed and debated at all three conferences that I attended (in three different cities and two countries) between May 22 and June 1). We clearly acquired a lot of energy from the Year of the Cooperative in 2012, and that energy is pumping through our organinzations. We need to harness it. The ICA has called for creating the Cooperative Decade. This must happen or we will watch this energy siphon off to who knows where. For it to happen, we need to begin using it now, today, in our coopertives, our cooperative organizations, our local networks and community organizations and with our policy makers at all levels.
I hope you join me as I start writing up my notes form the conferences. I have always wanted this site to be a discussion, not just my musings and rants. You are welcome to submit your own posts (just let me know and I will give you access). We need a national discussion that is outside of the annual conferences or only among a small group of people.