Co-op Wars: Lessons for the Future from the Past

During the 1970s, I was a child and missed most of the craziness of that era. I only received driver’s license after the election of Ronald Reagan in the fall of 1980 which largely marks the end of the ’60s. I was too young to understand or even remember the murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, jr, Bobby Kennedy and many, many others, the Watts Rebellion in 1965, the Democratic convention of ’68, Kent State murders, the Sterling Hall bombing, and the war between Irish and Italian mobs in nearby Cleveland, OH that resulted in a record 36 bombings in 1976.

The ’60s and ’70s was an era of national upheaval that makes even 2020 seem a bit tame by comparison (which is not to diminish the real pain happening to people in 2020, only to acknowledge that the 70s were extremely violent). According to my math, which might be in error, in comparing 1975 to 2019, there is a 35% drop in violent crime and 56% drop in property crimes.

What does this have to do with co-ops?

Last Friday, through the Cooperative Management Education Alumni and Student Co-op, I has the opportunity to screen a new film about the “Co-op Wars” that happened in Minneapolis in the 1970s. Producer Erik Esse, himself a former member and workers at the North Country Co-op Grocery, presented the film and led a discussion about the film and the moment. The film is directed by Deacon Warner, edited by John Dilley, and features Peter Coyote as the narrator. Radical Roots Films offers a preview as well.

The film does a wonderful job of documenting the events and speaking with the different actors between the groups vying for control, one of which is the “The Co-operative Organization” or CO. I don’t want to give the documentary away, I think that everyone should see it. I do want to talk about some of the lessons that I took form viewing it and chatting with my fellow alums.

Lesson One: Unplanned Growth Leads to Chaos

The first takeaway that I have is how unplanned growth and scaling can be disastrous for a socio-economic movement. In the US, the oldest co-ops tend to be producer co-ops in agriculture and credit unions. The rise of consumer and worker co-ops came out of the New Left and social movement related to the Civil Rights, Anti-War, and Environmental movements of the 1960s. People dove in and made up the rules as they went. The network of co-op developers that exists today was largely non-existent and the few centers that did exist worked with farmer and didn’t necessarily know what to make of urban counter-culture organizers.

This may seem like an overstatement, but even if the early 90’s when I attended my first director training with the Wisconsin Federation of Co-ops (now Cooperative Network) we were the only non-farmers in the room. It isn’t that there aren’t similarities, but a farmer’s co-op is about benefiting the producers and not the workers (or consumers for that matter). Things like “living wage jobs” and “humane work places” didn’t really resonate as board matters.

The result, in the Co-op Wars, was an ideological war that focused on power instead of creating a co-op difference. The wars also created a stifling effect on the memberships and this fueled the isomorphic tendencies of consumer co-ops to look like their non-coop competitors leaning on the natural and organic foods as the core competitive difference. It also reinforced the space of consumer co-ops as white spaces and largely mid-to-upper class spaces, which remains to this day.

Lesson Two: Consumer Co-ops Needs to be More Focused on Membership

The second take away is how consumer co-ops need a different means of engaging their membership. Being a member should involve more that paying a share fee. Especially given that only a small percentage of consumer members vote (around 6%). Yet, often, these co-ops are one of the largest democratic organizations in the counties that they serve (out stripping small cities and towns).

As my mentor Tom Webb often says, if a consumer co-op shut its doors, the next day, its former members could find places to meet their nutritional needs, but the workers would not necessarily be able to find new employment. The workers, as stakeholders, have more at risk as unemployment may lead to houselessness, divorce, physical and psychological illness, and other risks. In a worker co-op, before someone becomes a member, there is usually a probation period, training on being a member, and other steps (such as attending a board meeting).

Should consumer members be expected to undergo a similar process prior to becoming voting members? I subscribe to software applications that offer an orientation. Perhaps that could become a thing for consumer co-ops? A monthly orientation for new members that explains membership, the bylaws, etc. Perhaps even a screening of Co-op Wars would be useful to help new members understand their role. A monthly or quarterly training program to help people understand the roles of different parts of the co-op (directors, management, staff, labor unions), decision making processes (and why the co-op uses the one it does).

Lesson Three: Community Development Needs Support

As the Co-op Wars demonstrate “building the road as you travel” can only take us so far. To create a socio-economic enterprise that serves the entire community where it is located, requires thoughtful planning, testing models, engaging everyone in the community, and baking the co-op values and principles into the co-op’s DNA. As a socio-economic entity, however, the development never really stops. Each new member, brings new perspectives. Arizmendiarrieta like to say that co-ops are both economic vehicles with an educational purpose and educational vehicles with an economic purpose.

Today, there is a vibrant community of experienced and skilled co-op developers. I don’t really like that term, I prefer cooperative organizer. However, no one has to invent the co-op model or guess at what to do. Co-op developers even have their own code of ethics and values, The Madison Principles. With assistance, people can be very intentional about creating their co-op’s culture and practices of engagement that honor the participants as human beings with respect and dignity baked into the core.

The Co-op Wars provide a lesson that our co-ops are not just businesses and they require nurturing and support to meet the mission and provide a true human-centric difference in the economy. The 70s were a time of heightened calls for change and aggressive organizing tactics. We need to be careful not to fall into that trap as we try to rebuild our economies and communities today.

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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