The Workers' Paradise A Discussion of Workers Cooperatives and Building the New Economy

February 9, 2017

CICOPA’s Declaration on migrants and refugees

Since my last post on January 23, I had been wondering how to address some of the actions that have happened since in terms of the worker cooperative identity. Fortunately for me, my friends at the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation posted the following (adopted April, 2016) The International of Industrial and Service Cooperatives (CICOPA) put forth the following Declaration on Migrants and Refugees:

According to the United Nations, the number of international migrants increased by 41% over the last 15 years, from 173 million in 2000 to 244 million in 2015;1 the UN also point out that the main reasons for migrating include conflict, poverty, inequality and lack of decent jobs, and that the distinction between countries of origin, transit and destination is becoming increasingly obsolete.2

According to the UNHCR, refugees reached an estimated 15.1 million people in mid-2015, up from 10.5 million in 2012, 3 namely an increase of 40% in only 3 years, the vast majority being hosted by low or middle income countries.4

This massive increase in the flow of migrants and refugees is bound to increase over the next few years, both because the present reasons for such an increase have not been solved and because new phenomena are beginning to impact on migration, such as climate change.

Europe in particular is facing the gravest migration and humanitarian crisis since World War II, bringing into light its own paradoxes and inabilities to apply its constituent values such as solidarity, respect for human dignity and liberty.

It should be pointed out that, when they are able to survive during their exodus, migrants often face difficulties in accessing employment opportunities and basic social and health services. Furthermore, migrants are among the most exposed to working in low-paid precarious jobs and potentially exploitive conditions in the informal economy.

CICOPA is fully aware of the complex reality which migrants are facings around the world and that it is, at times, a difficult or perilous path.

As an organization active globally, CICOPA strives to change this paradigm through the development and growth of industrial and service cooperatives, in compliance with the first cooperative principle according to which “cooperatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination”.

Industrial and service cooperatives contribute to a decent and dignified life and to the social and economic integration of refugees and migrants in various parts of the world. 5 They are also used as a tool by migrants and refugees themselves for developing entrepreneurship initiatives together with other members from the community, thus increasing autonomy, solidarity and human development while at the same time contributing to a sustainable economy both globally and locally.

Industrial and service cooperatives are the natural allies of international organizations, regional organizations and national governments in carrying out inclusive policies that provide basic services and socioeconomic inclusion for migrants and refugees. Cooperative entrepreneurship is a valuable tool to maximize the developmental benefits represented by migrants and refugees for welcoming countries, in terms of human resources, competences and skills.

Through this Declaration, CICOPA wants to express its commitment to fight for an equal access to services and work opportunities provided by cooperatives, allowing for a decent life and increased opportunities for the entrepreneurial projects to be initiated by workers and producers in the migrant and refugee communities around the world.

Cooperatives are based on the principle of equality, whereby all human beings are equal in rights and remain at the heart of all policy concerns. This is why cooperatives in industry and services commit themselves to fight against discrimination, stigmatization and exclusion which refugees and migrants are facing all around the globe.


1 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2016) International Migration Report 2015; New York: United Nations, p. 5

2 Ibid.

3 UNHCR (2015) Mid-Year Trends 2015 ; Geneva : UNHCR

4 Ibid., p. 7 2 CICOPA – C/O European House of Cooperatives – avenue Milcamps 105 – BE-1030 BRUSSELS TEL. (+32/2) 543 10 33 – WWW.CICOPA.COOP– CICOPA@CICOPA.COOP 5 For example, Si, Se Puede! (Yes, it is possible!) Women’s Cooperative was founded in

5 For example, Si, Se Puede! (Yes, it is possible!) Women’s Cooperative was founded in New York in 2006, with the mission to bring together immigrant women to create a women-run, women-owned, eco-friendly housecleaning business. The cooperative Nor Bum, established in 2011 in La Plata, Argentina, groups 7 construction workers coming from Bolivia. Social cooperative Camelot established in 1997 in Ferrara, Italy, by

January 2, 2017

A New Year with Feathers

Filed under: Year of the Co-op — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 3:04 pm

The coming year brings, as always, hope. Given the rhetoric of the last year, that might seem a rather odd statement, but even if you feel that the abundance of hope has diminished, it still exists.

Indeed, in some of the darkest hours, hope has moved people through cooperation to create great things. On the craggy shores of Newfoundland in a place where in the 1920’s “the Great Depression” simply meant a normal life. Father Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady worked with the people to create economic opportunity and power. In a small industrial basque town under the iron heel of the fascist Falange Party and its Caudillo, Franco, a Jesuit priest, José María Arizmendiarietta, spared execution founded a small school for the children of workers which would eventually give rise to the much-lauded Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. In 1843, when Capitalism was truly unfettered with children laboring 12 hour days and any resistance met with imprisonment or forced relocation to Australia, workers and socialist came together in a small textile mill town to form the first modern-era cooperative store, Rochdale Society of Pioneers, known today simply as The Co-operative.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Hope, of course, does little without action. As we venture into the future, we must have hope, but also resilience and the willingness to act.

Rochdale, Antigonish, and Mondragon came into being through the hard work of their creators and members. They did it often in spite of the lack of political power held the participants.

So, too, we can take our worker co-op movement in the US and Canada and everywhere to new levels. Keeping our hopes alive through our individual efforts to support and build co-operatives along with raising the awareness of co-operatives must be our mission for the coming years. We need to truly make this the Cooperative Decade.

I am planning on returning to a weekly post on this site (along with urging you as a co-operative activist to join in posting your thoughts–just sign up and send me an email that you want to be a contributor). I also plan on writing each of my elected officials from my council person in Olympia to the President pertaining to the role of co-ops in his/her district, why these models are important, and how they can further support their constituents to engage in mutual self-help. I will post the letters here (and I will post yours if you send them to me with permission to post).

It is a bit fitting that the Chinese New Year (beginning with the New Moon on January 28th) is the Year of the Rooster. While there are many interpretations, let’s simply use the phrase, “the early bird gets the worm”–hard work and attention to principles will bring reward. This bird, a thing with feathers, is the symbol of the French Revolution whose motto remains “liberty, equality, fraternity” (the latter of which I interpret as the gender neutral “solidarity”. The values of the cooperative economic movement match the political values of people who seek freedom. They match the values of the Declaration of Independence.

Our movement has never depended on elected or appointed politicians–our hope lies within us. Let’s make 2017 the new Year of the Co-operative.

September 25, 2015

Worker Development Brings a Better World

Filed under: Human Relations,Pensimientos,Reflections,Society — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 11:17 am


Work is the attribute that gives a person the highest honor of being a cooperator of God in the transformation and fertilization of nature and in the resulting promotion of human well-being. That people exercise their faculty of work in union with others and in a noble regime of cooperation and solidarity, gives them not only nobility, but also the optimal fertility to make every corner of the earth a mansion that is agreeable and promising for all. This is what work communities are for and it is them who are destined to make our people progress.


Work, in the modern era, may be seen as, and often is, as a drudgery. This is, I think, because work rarely has meaning for the individual (unless they are lucky enough to be in a profession). The effect of scientific managment (Taylorism) has been to deskill work to the point that there is little for workers to care about. It is an assembly line world and without ownership, it is no wonder that many feel like a cog in the machine. It places the individual worker alone and only motivated by self-interest.

Arizmendiarrieta saw work as an enobling act through worker ownership. It was a means to an end and the end was a fully developed human and community that would, in turn usher in world of peace and harmony. In acting in unision, collectively, people not only prosper but care for the environment in which they live. The pursuit of wealth includes a healthy ecological enviroment in which all prosper together. Lofty goals to be sure.

Today, Pope Francis, hit similar a theme in his speech to the United Nations. He said, “It must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prduential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our pland and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women whove, struggle and suffer and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.” 

He also quoted his predescessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The econoligical crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species. the baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismangement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for walth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflction on man: ‘man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Mand does not create himself. He is a spirit and will, but also nature.’ Creation is compromised ‘where we ourselves have the final word. . . the misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognizes any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.'”

There are, of course, many contradictions within the Catholic church and the Co-operative movement. Despite the lofty values of solidarity, social responsiblity and caring for others, many co-operatives do not engage them. Even Mondragon, has its troubles from time to time. Likewise, co-operatives are willing to engage in unsustainable ecological practices as well.

The words of Arizmendiarrieta, on the hundreth annivesary of his birth, resonate today because his work is not done. As Pope Francis concludes his visit to the US, on the even of National Co-operative Month, it is worth taking into account the nature of co-operation and how our co-operative movment, especially the worker co-operative movement engages our values and principles. Are we just about “getting to scale” or do we want to create a just and ecologically sustainble world that allow workers dignity and opporutnity for growth?


September 21, 2015

Pope Francis and Co-operatives

Tomorrow, Pope Francis arrives for his first visit to the United States. This pope, hailing from Argentina, brings with him a message for all of us in terms of building our economies–the quest for wealth needs to be more than monetary. In this, the Bishop of Rome has found the co-operative economic model to be one that can go beyond materialism and help lift people up.

In March, as reported by  The Cooperative News, he spoke directly about the co-operative model:

“‘The leader of the Catholic Church also argued that co-operatives could enable people to achieve all their potential. He said: ‘A member of a co-operative must not be merely … a worker … but must instead always be a protagonist, and must grow, through the co-operative, as a person, socially and professionally, in responsibility … an enterprise managed by a co-operative must grow in a truly co-operative way, involving all’.”

This language resonates with those of us who have studied Mondragon and the teachings of Don José María Arizmendiarietta. It is the 100th anniversary of the Basque priest’s birth. In celebration of this centennial, I engaged his writings in my classroom. Each class, students were asked to bring a quotation from this collected musings Reflections” available on-line.

In the coming days and weeks, I wish to bring that experience on-line. The following is a quote from Reflections. I will add my comments below, but I encourage you, dear readers, to add your own reflections or to find quotes from the web site that resonate with you and share them here.

Let’s honor the visit of Pope Francis by honoring the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Mondragon’s spiritual founder and engage in a discussion about co-operation, values and the development of the human.



This experience corresponds to a new spirit of trust in human beings and in their capacity. It revives in this case the sense of freedom, dignity and justice, evidently accepted in the traditional and democratic institutions in our land, this acceptance being manifested in the idiosyncrasy of our people. One of our characteristics has been our practical sense, knowing how to act in the milieu of possibilities, without renouncing or being indifferent to our ideals. We have known how to muster and not waste our opportunities to improve the common good. Our processes of association are not viable without moderation and the consenting of all of our people, who usually have to sacrifice personal positions. Radicalizations are contrary to the human and social virtues as well as to the most constant qualities of our people.

I decided to start with a rather chunky quote and one that some might find a bit controversial. The first part that struck we was Arizmendiarrieta’s faith in the method (or experience) of worker ownership through co-operation. It is more than simply creating a job with slightly better pay or a retirement plan. Although those aren’t bad things in and of themselves, the current dogma or “getting to scale” with a focus on size and ESOPs rather than on worker control and teaching workers how to manage seems short-sighted to me and lacking the key thing that makes worker co-operation so exciting.

Co-operation must also be about creating new human relationships in which we learn to value each other as human beings, as individuals, even while engaging each other for our co-operative ends. It is about embracing the idiosyncrasies, being able to see disagreements as a pathway to development and consensus. Falling into the money chase and big is better camp seems counter-productive to me in that even if the organization succeeds as a business, it ends up looking and feeling just like any other large business. Co-operatives need to break up this isomorphism.

The second part of this quote counters calls for radicalization. I imagine many (regardless of political affiliation) will question the Don of Mondragon as the political environment in the US and many countries seem to have become polarized with calls for dramatic action (and even military action) to deal with political and economic frustrations. Yet, too often, the goals of these movements get co-opted by their leaders (see Greece for the most recent example) as the trappings of power for the leaders become more important than the cause of the followers. Is this because radicalism focuses on people frustration and anger instead of the human and social virtues? I think that is the message in this statement. Co-operation, especially that espoused by Arizmendiarrieta tends to avoid the limelight of the political debate and alignment with political factions by focusing on education, information, and communication among its membership. By focusing on humans, not as pawns for larger political moves, but as the central raison d’etre, co-operatives can keep plugging along even as the countries bounce from one ism to another (See Italy and Spain). A revolution of spirit is needed that sees all of us as connected–I guess to some that may be radical, but to me it is a key part of co-operation.


September 1, 2014

We Need to Reclaim “The Sharing Economy”

There has been a lot of discussion of late regarding the so-called “sharing economy”. This phrase refers, generally, to organizations such as Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, and others that provide an on-line broker service so that people can monetize practically everything in their life. The term sharing economy is a great marketing ploy to suggest that this practice engages the voluntary actions of the participants who just want to earn a little extra money from their assets. On the face of it, it makes a lot of sense–if someone wants to pay me $10 bucks to use the lawnmower that I am not using, why not? If I can give someone a ride to work on my way to work and it pays for my gas, that is a great deal and I am helping out a fellow human who may need that ride due to lack of access to public transportation or a personal vehicle. However, that isn’t what these organizations are really doing and I would argue that the the people engaging in it do so because they are rather desperate in a late-stage capitalist economy taking full advantage of having largely crushed the labor unions.

The New York Times recently ran a “balanced” article chronicling the days of a couple of workers. In this article, the workers seem content and like the variety and hustle-and-bustle of the life of managing multiple phone apps, 10-14 hour days, and not being able to spend time with their family to earn about $10 an hour after self-employment taxes and expenses. They would probably be better off with a menial minimum wage job, but that would limit their total hours or require them to maintain multiple jobs such as the women who recently succumbed to fumes and died while taking a rest break in her car. The non-sharing economy doesn’t have a lot to offer to workers today either.

Maureen Conway, of the Aspen Institute, sums up the reality of this new effort by capitalists to avoid any responsibility to the communities from which they extract wealth:

“In the end, the sharing economy is nice words for what is really more of the same. More money going to business profits held by a few, and less money going to the labor income that is the primary means of support for most Americans. What we need is a sharing economy in which working people share in the wealth that their labor creates. Unfortunately, this version of a sharing economy does not promise that. “

The “sharing economy” is about workers “sharing” their labor and capital with venture capitalists for a percentage while also accepting 100% of the risk (expenses, accidents, taxes, etc). This isn’t a new effort. Last week, (August 27, 2014), a Federal Court finally ruled in a long-running dispute that FedEx improperly classified many of its employees as “independent contractors”. FedEx has tried to claim that its drivers were independent contractors mainly because it has shifted most of the expenses on to them (they have to buy the truck, rent the equipment to track deliveries, etc). I remember one argument that FedEx made in a similar case that is still to be decided that the drivers could use the truck to run other deliveries provided that they removed all the FedEx decals first and then reapplied them in time for their next shift. Seriously. Had FedEx won this case (and it might still go to the Supreme Court), it would have been a watershed moment that would essentially bring us back to the early days of 1800. What company wouldn’t love to reclassify its workers as independent contractors and immediately save on payroll taxes plus other items? However, that is essentially what the sharing economy is hoping to do.

There is a real sharing economy, however. It has existed (as an on-going concern) since 1844 and in different forms for many years before that such as the first mutual insurance company founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1752. Cooperation brings people together to share their capital for the common good. Instead of groups such as Uber or AirBnB in which people provide their labor and capital to provide wealth for a third party, the labor and capital provided to a cooperative benefits the users of the cooperative–the members. Further, in the true concept of sharing, democratic decision making allows the opinions of the different people sharing to be expressed on an equal basis (Uber, Lyft and others essentially present the terms of service to the workers and either they accept or quit working for them). Any surplus generated from the cooperative sharing economy gets distributed according to the inputs into the enterprise.

One thing that Taskmaster, Favor Delivery, Lyft, et al have pointed out is that a market exists for connecting people with others. This can and should be done in a cooperative format that doesn’t exploit the people providing the labor. Dane County Timebank has made a start, but seems to come up short. This needs to be national, it needs to be modern (phone apps), it needs to engage more than bartering. I realize that Timebank seeks to demonetize society as a key part of its mission–it is all about getting off of the currency addiction. Unfortunately, for many working people, money comes in pretty handy. Landlords don’t accept barter and neither do health clinics, gas stations, and a host of other places that provide vital goods and services. Until they do, a “sharing economy” needs to provide the means for people to earn a decent a living and maintain a quality of life.

Cooperatives need to reclaim the concept of the “sharing economy”. We need to help people struggling to find work, make ends meet, and otherwise seek their dreams understand that they don’t have to rent out their bodies and everything they own (is their a site where someone who likes parenting, but doesn’t want the hassle of a full-time kid, rent somebodies child for an afternoon?). Cooperatives (worker, consumer, producer and financial) need to challenge these profiteers by helping people combine their resources to create dynamic cooperatives that can provide the things that the “sharing” apps provide which is essentially services for people who need them.

There is also a role for labor unions. SEIU, CWA, USW have all been engaging worker cooperatives of late. This “new” economy offer them a real opportunity as well. Through the creation of a “union coop” of drivers, they could help Uber and Lyft workers negotiate better terms. This would be similar to the Campbell’s union drive in which Campbells’ claimed the farmworker’s conditions weren’t their responsibility since Campbell’s only contracted with the farmers and didn’t employ the farmworkers. Unions could also organize the “favor” workers to negotiate better terms. There really isn’t anything new in the “sharing economy” model, but it needs a response.

Sharing constitutes the basis of cooperative life and economics. As cooperators, we share our labor, our capital and our knowledge with each other to create a resilient and sustainable economy and environment. Over the years, many times, the selfish economy have borrowed our ideas to advance their personal goals. Today, the investor class corrupts the very concept of being a good neighbor by using the noble concept of community to extract wealth in a one-way relationship. Cooperatives have always offered an alternative to the selfish economy but have generally operated under the radar. We need to stop doing that. We need to quit being the world’s best kept secret. We need to claim the “sharing economy” as the “cooperative economy”.

March 10, 2014

The Things We Know

Filed under: The Things We Know — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 7:00 am

This weekend I noticed a posting from a friend, colleague and mentor of mine: Tom Webb. He had found an old write up called The Things We Know. I am not sure of the source of this document, but if it comes from Tom, it probably has a rich history within the Canadian Maritime Cooperative Movement. I am sharing it today, but will spend the next few weeks, discussing each bullit point in more detail. So tune in, comment, and let’s have a great discussion about our coops (warts and all).

  • The successful cooperatives of the world are those that have grown out of the efforts and determination of the people themselves. It is not enough that coops be for the people, they must be of and by them as well.
  • The best coops are those that had dedicated and courageous leaders either in the very beginning or in their early) history
  • The capital created within the working of the cooperative is vastly more important than the financial resources of the members in the beginning
  • Coops make their best contribution to human welfare and social progress when they initiate policies and practices different from those of old line businesses
  • There comes a time in the development of every cooperative enterprise when it must have managerial ability of a high order
  • Coops that stand for something more than financial gains have amazing powers of survival in times of stress and difficulty
  • Coops that isolate themselves from other coops and refuse to join the bigger cooperative movement tend to shrivel up and die
  • Coops can withstand prolonged attacks from without, but they can’t survive weak or dishonest leadership within
  • Too much aid from government or paternalism of any kind will blight cooperative effort
  • Cooperatives with weak leadership resist change
  • There is no type business too big or difficult for the cooperative way
  • Too rigid a structure in organizational set up is a serious obstacle to progress in cooperative development, especially in a period of rapid change
  • Coops in which control narrows down to fewer and fewer hands tend to behave more and more like old line capitalism
  • A cooperative with no education program is in mortal danger

February 13, 2012

Markets Can Be Healthy

Filed under: Education,Movement — Tags: , , , , — John McNamara @ 12:12 pm

As part of my studies this semester, I am reading the English edition of Cooperative Enterprise: Facing the Challenge of Globalization* by Stefano and Vera Zamagni.

In their opening chapters, they lead a discussion about the nature of cooperation (from their Italian perspective), the nature of competition and the nature of the market.

For decades, Stefano has argued that capitalism has been incorrectly used as a synonym for “free market.” Indeed, that connection is so embedded in our culture in the United States that anyone suggesting anything else often gets labeled a socialist. The dominant paradigm sees the dichotomy of the planned economy of socialism and the market economy of capitalism. There isn’t any other means except the historically defunct feudalism.

Today isn’t about getting into the argument about State Capitalism of the former Soviet Union and modern China, rather, it is about debunking the intimate connection between a free market and capitalism. The Zamagni’s carry this thought throughout the introduction to their book.

Essentially, they argue in the language of Flora and Fauna taxonomy. If we consider the “marketplace” to be the Genus of this particular economic strain, then capitalism is but one species within it. Co-operation, they argue is a unique species within the free market. Cooperation is not opposed to the marketplace, but utilizes it in a manner that seeks to maximize the benefit for the community. Capitalism utilizes the market to maximize the benefit for those owning the capital. Both are subject Adam Smith‘s invisible hand of the marketplace that provide the mechanism for each type of business to make adjustments. Both seek to use government (although capitalism is much better at it) to ameliorate the effect of the invisible hand towards the benefit of their shareholders or stakeholders as the case may be.

As a condition of this, competition plays different roles. In the capitalist species, competition is expected to be a ruthless Darwinian arbitrator determining the most fit organization (again for the benefit of the narrow group of stockholders). In the Co-operative species, however, competition plays a much different, almost helpful, role. The authors argue that the root word for competition is cum petere (“literally, tend together toward a common goal”). It is the basis of a free market. This is the antithesis of “creative destruction”:

“We are well aware of the many economic advantages created by this mechanism. But we are equally familiar with its brutality, its harmful social and political reprecussions. And it is clear that creative destruction may enjoy some legitamacy as long as the value of what is created is grreater than that of what is destroyed, that legitamcy ends when–as is the case today–the relation is inverted. We call the specific form of competitive practiced by cooperatives ‘competitive cooperation’, which is a powerful antidote to the damage that would be done by positional competition. “(Zamagni, 2010, 4)

A competition to see who can best serve the community is part of a truly free market. Further, a free market also requires an educated consumer. In the cooperative species, this means much more that printing ingredients on labels. For one, it means that the consumer (in the broadest sense), must be able to read and understand that label! It means that the consumer must posses the analytical skills to discern between products and services and the related price. During this election year, we will hear a lot about paying for education and the free market, but we will likely not hear about how they are connected. We can’t have a free market if we don’t have a populace educated to a level that allows them to make informed decisions.

Of course, this is one of the key traits of the Co-operative species as espoused by the 5th Principle: Education, Information and Training. The principle states: “Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.”

Co-operation, not capitalism, embraces the free market. Capitalism uses a vicious form of competition, the type found in nature by parasites, to stifle other actors in the market. The Zamagni’s quote economists Rajan and Zingales’s work Saving Capitalism from Capitalism (2003, University of Chicago Press):

“The worst enemies of capitalism are not union agitators with their corrosive critique of the system, but the managers in pinstriped suits who sing the praises of competitive markets in every speech while they try to suppress them with every action.”

The next time you hear someone trying to red-bait our movement, you could have a lot of fun pointing out that the practice of modern capitalism is much closer to the Kleptocracy of Russia and the party contolled economy of China while the true competitors and champion of the free market are, in fact, co-operatives.

*The only place that I have been able to find an English copy of Cooperative Enterprise has been through Abe’s Books, however, if your local book coop has a good search engine, they might also be able to find it.

August 22, 2011

The Open Door Policy of Worker Co-operatives

Filed under: Pensimientos — Tags: , , , , , — John McNamara @ 7:00 am

The 6th Principle of Co-operatives is called, somewhat reflexively, “Co-operation Among Co-operatives.” I have talked about this in a previous post. Today, I want to focus on it from a different perspective provided to us by the spiritual guide of Mondragon, Father Arizmendiaretta. He wrote: “It is risky to make each co-operative into a closed world.We have to think of the inter-cooperative solidarity as the only solution to other problems of growth and maturity. We must think about a vital space appropriate to our circumstances.” (Reflections, 488)

In difficult economic times, it is tempting to close our doors and focus internally. Sometimes the argument is made that very survival of the co-operative is at stake. This is exactly the wrong time to close doors. It is the most important time to open them. It is only through solidarity that we find our strength as workers. This is true to for the entire labor movement whether they are using the traditional Wagner labor union (in the west) and social labor unions elsewhere, or the collective and cooperative model. We need each other to survive. Don’t think that the people who actually control the economy don’t know this–they engage in their own form of solidarity and destroy ours. They take great pains to convince our fellow workers to act against their class interest.

We need to engage each other more than at the regional, national and international conferences; however, these are important events. These events help us to start talking and formulating the physical structures that we will need to make cooperation among cooperatives more than a marketing tool. Why is that important? Look at the so-called P6 Cooperative Trade Movement. It sounds nice. It sounds co-op. It even uses the .coop internet suffix. But notice how the definition turns the co-operative movement into something else–the way that a product gets a P6 designation isn’t by being produced by a co-operative:

“Any P6 member can nominate products that meet at least 2 of our 3-point criteria:

  1. Small farmer or producer
  2. Locally grown or produced
  3. From a co-operative or non-profit organization”

Under this concept, privately owned farms (and what constitutes a small farmer or producer) or locally grown products  have an equivalence with co-operatives. More importantly, non-profits, which are notoriously undemocratic, have an equal stature with co-operatives. While this may work as a marketing tool for the food co-ops and the coffee roaster (a worker co-op) involved, it unnecessarily waters down the co-operative identity which, in the long run, allows Nestle and other corporations to easily co-opt the movement by creating non-profits to compete (and even join the P6 movement) with bona fide co-operatives. In my community, each and every one of my co-operative’s competitors would qualify despite not being a co-op.

The P6 model works for the consumer co-op world (and those providing it with goods) despite its inherent flaws; however, what should worker co-ops do to promote solidarity amongst ourselves in a way that builds our movement not sow the seeds of our destruction? Here are a few ideas:

  • Join your apex organization: in the United States, it is the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. In Canada, it is the Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation.
  • Get involved in your organization: form work groups, communicate with directors, ask them to speak at your co-operative meetings.
  • Join the Worker Co-operative Federal Credit Union (unchartered). This has an incredible potential for our movement. When a worker co-operative joins, then all of its members may join as well. This could become our Caja Popular Laboral.
  • Shop Worker Co-op: I can tell you that I only buy Worker Co-op Coffee (Just Coffee and Equal Exchange). In Madison, I can buy worker co-op bread and granola, shop at a worker co-op pharmacy (Community Pharmacy), support a worker collective community supported radio station (WORT-FM), buy books from a multi-stakeholder bookstore (Rainbow Bookstore Coop).
  • Join your local network of worker co-operatives or help to create one.
  • Work with the WCFCU and local, regional and national networks to create a solidarity fund. Imagine if the 80 member co-ops of the US Federation committed 10% of their annual surplus to a solidarity fund and another 10% to a development fund as the Mondragon co-operatives do? Our co-ops would be able to navigate the tough times and take advantage of development funds to expand when the market beckons.

The co-operative community sees solidarity at a value. Workers see solidarity as a value, but also as an integral part of building a better world. We don’t support each other because we want to make money or define a difference between us and Whole Foods. We support each other because we are trying to build a better world, because we are engaged in social transformation and because, ultimately, our movement (whether you consider it part of the labor movement or the co-operative movement) is ultimately about the individual humans in our lives and helping each other to survive and expand, not just be cooler capitalists.

March 1, 2010

#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.

November 23, 2009

#12 The Principles of Co-operation

Filed under: Identity Statement Series — Tags: , , , — John McNamara @ 12:44 pm

The Co-operative Difference, which creates the Co-operative Advantage, results from the creation of the Co-operative Principles.

The Principles have been with the Co-operative Movement since the success of Rochdale Society of Pioneers. Most of us know the story, after several attempts to create an ethical market enterprise; the organizers of Rochdale tried a different tactic. They created a set of rules that would govern the co-operative. Among these included the prohibition of credit to consumers and other tactics used by markets to control consumers and workers. Many of these principles and practices (such as food at meetings) have passed through the generations to our co-operatives today.

The Background Paper on the Identity Statement makes this point about the principles:

“Many people understand principles as iron-clad commandments that must be followed literally. In one sense, that is true in that principles should provide standards of measurement. In another sense, they should restrict, even prohibit, certain actions while encouraging others.”

“Principles, however, are more than commandments; they are also guidelines for judging behaviour and for making decisions. It is not enough to ask if a co-operative is following the letter of the principles, it is important to know if it is following their spirit, if the vision each principle affords, individually and collectively, is ingrained in the daily activities of the co-operative. From that perspective, principles area not a stale list to be reviewed periodically and ritualistically; they are empowering frameworks—energizing agents—though which co-operatives can grasp the future.”

In many of our co-ops, we ask if our choice of action is financially feasible. How many of our choices are socially feasible when compared to the principles? Everyday managers need to make key strategic decisions without the luxury of a consultant. The principles should guide their decisions along with the values and ethics of the Identity Statement. The teachings through the Masters of Management: Co-operative and Credit Union program focus on the merging established management practices with co-operative principles. When these two diverge, the goal of the MMCCU candidate will be to find a way to amend the practices to fit the principles. This is the key difference between programs such as MMCCU and other educational programs that utilize co-operatives as part of a large toolbox to reform capitalism (non-profits, ESOPs etc).

They also make us strong. They cause us to spend money on things that our competitors don’t. I think, however, that expense on the principles creates a competitive advantage not a disadvantage. Sometimes, when times get tough, co-operatives have to make decisions that may cause the principles to get “set aside”. In other co-ops, the lack of a clear co-operative identity may cause the principles to be co-opted as something else. In either case, the path to demutualization may be built by small decisions to ignore the principles.

The history of the principles is interesting. The Identity Statement, like the Rochdale Principles, is a living document. Since 1844, co-operative leaders from around the world have reviewed and amended them. The changes reflect the generation of co-operators that existed at the time as well as honoring the history of the co-operators that have gone before.

In 1844, Rochdale had a lenghty list of “laws” detailing every aspect of the co-operative. By 1860, the list of “Rochdale Practices”* had been whittled down to nine many of which sound quite familiar:

  • That capital should be of their own providing and bear a fixed rate of interest.
  • That only the purest provisions procurable should be supplied to members.
  • That full weight and measure should be given.
  • That market prices should be charged and no credit given nor asked.
  • That profits should be divided pro rata upon the amount of purchases made by each member.
  • That the principle of “one member one vote” should obtain in government and the equality of the sexes in membership.
  • That the management should be in the hands of the officers and committee elected periodically.
  • That a definite percentage of profits should be allotted to education.
  • That frequent statements and balance sheets should be presented to members.

As they have evolved, they have become integral to each other. In 1937, the seven principles were officially created as the Rochdale Principles:

  1. Open membership
  2. Democratic control
  3. Distribution of the surplus to the members in proportion to their transactions.
  4. Limited interest on capital
  5. Political and religious neutrality
  6. Cash trading
  7. Promotion of education

The seven principles that most of us know came into being in the late 1960’s and reflected the new ethos of that era. They continued to evolve to the Identity Statement of 1995. Today, there is a strong effort to add an 8th Principle called “Ecological Perspective”.

As the Background Paper continues:

“The principles that form the heart of co-operatives are not independent of each other. They are subtly linked; when one is ignored, all are diminished. Co-operatives should not be judged exclusively on the basis of any one principle; rather, they should be evaluated on how well they adhere to the principles as an entirety.”

Is it possible to have democratic participation without education, information? The first three principles “voluntary and open membership”,  “democratic member control” and “member economic participation” are collectively known as The User Principles by the US Department of Agriculture. They detail the internal dynamics of the co-op while the last four deal with the operation and external relationships

Over the next few weeks, I will consider the seven principles of the Identity Statement as well as three principles of Mondragon that I think should be part of the identity statement (or at least part of our identity as worker co-operatives).  Mondragon’s principles focus on the elevation of the worker over capital and social cohesion of the co-operative.

Here is a great video on the principles of co-operatives:

Next Week: 1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership

Source and Reading Recomendation:

*Fairbarin, Brett  The Meaning of Rochdale: The Rochdale Pioneers and the Co-operative Principles, Centre for the Study of Co-operation, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.

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