Natural Life Magazine

Cooperating Through Co-ops

Cooperating Through Co-ops
By Wendy Priesnitz

Ever since the first issue of Natural Life Magazine in 1976, we have published articles about intentional communities. The principles of sharing embodied in the intentional community experience are part of a broader international cooperative movement. Cooperatives provide many of the convivial and sustainable benefits of community.

Simply put, a cooperative is an association of people who come together to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise that focuses on the people and their community rather than on capital or profit.

The cooperative model can be applied to any activity. Co-ops exist in traditional economic sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, consumer and financial services, housing, and production (workers' cooperatives). However, cooperative activity includes car-sharing, child-care, health and social care, funeral, orchestras and philharmonics, schools, sports, tourism, and renewable energy.

Co-ops range from small-scale housing, food, and worker co-ops to multi-million dollar businesses. According to the International Cooperative Alliance, over 800 million people around the world are members of a cooperative and co-ops provide 100 million jobs worldwide, 20 percent more than multinational enterprises.

History

Most cooperatives started out as small grassroots organizations in Western Europe, North America, and Japan in the middle of the twentieth century. However, the it is the Rochdale Pioneers that are regarded as the prototype of the modern cooperative society and the founders of the cooperative movement. In the 1800s, workers in the cotton mills in the town of Rochdale, in the north of England, faced miserable working conditions and low wages, and they could not afford the high prices of food and household goods. So, in 1844, a group of twenty-eight weavers decided that by pooling their scarce resources and working together they could access basic goods at a lower price. So they established the first modern cooperative business, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, initially selling only four items: flour, oatmeal, sugar, and butter.

The Pioneers decided it was time shoppers were treated with honesty, openness, and respect, that they should be able to share in the profits and have a say in the how the business should be run. Every customer of the shop became a member and so had a true stake in the business. Those principles are still accepted today as the foundations upon which all cooperatives operate. (See the end of this article for a statement of the agreed-upon principles that underpin the modern cooperative movement.)

Housing Cooperatives

Housing cooperatives provide not-for-profit housing for their members. Because co-ops charge their members only enough to cover costs, repairs, and reserves, they can offer housing that is much more affordable than average private sector rental costs. The members do not own equity in their housing. If they move, their home is returned to the co-op, to be offered to another individual or family who needs an affordable home. Some co-op households pay a reduced monthly rent (housing charge) geared to their income. Government funds cover the difference between this payment and the co-op’s full charge. Other households pay the full monthly charge based on cost. Co-op housing also offers security, with members having a vote in decisions about their housing. There is no outside landlord and members tend to feel like they are part of a community where neighbors look out for one another.

Cohousing is a type of cooperative housing that has gained in popularity over the past few decades. In many ways, a cohousing project resembles condominium ownership, except that its basis is shared common facilities and resources designed to facilitate community participation. In a cohousing neighborhood, each family or individual has their own private home, but some facilities are shared. These could include a common gathering or dining area, playground or playroom, daycare, vegetable garden, office equipment, or workshop.

Creating a cohousing neighborhood can be as simple as taking down the fences between existing homes, or as complex as designing and constructing a new development from scratch. Benefits include cost savings, availability of shared facilities, and the safety and support of friendly neighbors.

Worker Co-ops

Worker co-ops are businesses that are owned and democratically controlled by the members. They provide employment for their members, a service for their communities, and increased workplace democracy. To create their worker co-op, members combine their skills, interests, and experiences to achieve mutual goals. Virtually any enterprise can be organized as a worker cooperative, the variety of enterprises operating as worker co-ops is very broad, and their sizes differ vastly.

Each member pays a membership fee, or purchases a membership share, and has one vote, no matter how many shares they own. Through the democratic governance of the co-op, all members have equal opportunity to affect the way the business is run and to offer input on the decisions affecting their everyday work lives. Because they develop the policies that determine the cooperative’s daily and long term operation, trust, communication, and co-operation are vital to the co-op’s success. The co-op’s assets are collectively owned and surplus earnings are allocated to the workers according to the bylaws and policies established by the co-op.

The Seven Principles of the Cooperative Movement

The International Cooperative Alliance is the global steward of the Statement on the Cooperative Identity – the Values and Principles of the cooperative movement. Its Statement on the Cooperative Identity contains the definition of a cooperative, the values of cooperatives, and the seven cooperative principles as described below.

Voluntary and Open Membership
Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, 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.

Democratic Member Control
Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary cooperatives, members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote), and cooperatives at other levels are also organized in a democratic manner.

Member Economic Participation
Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their cooperative. They usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their cooperative; benefitting members in proportion to their transactions with the cooperative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.

Autonomy and Independence
Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy.

Education, Training and Information
Cooperatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their cooperatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of cooperation.

Cooperation Among cooperatives
Cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional, and international structures.

Concern for Community
While focusing on member needs and wishes, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of their communities.

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's founding editor. She has been a journalist for over 40 years and is the author of 13 books. She helped found a consumer co-op in the 1970s and has since belonged to others.

 

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