What is a Co-operative?

[What follows is the Introduction to “Tasty Platypus,” a ‘blueprint’ for improving the democratic structures of Weaver Street Market Co-operative, which I submitted to a Task Force of Owners of WSM, on which I served from January to March 2008. The Task Force had the remit of considering new rules for WSM Board elections and devising strategies for increasing voter turnout by stimulating Owner interest in the affairs of WSM.]

“A quote (slightly amended) from an article that was presented to us earlier in our process:

‘The premise that a Co-operative consists of a group of people coming together to solve common problems [associative definition of ‘Co-operative’] has shifted to the concept that Co-ops can be organizations that simply supply goods and services to individual consumers to meet individual needs.’

I think both viewpoints exist in Weaver Street Market Co-operative (WSM). I think the frustration that expresses itself in WSM from time to time is reflective of a clash between those two viewpoints.

Simply put (and bluntly so), the first viewpoint says that we are a social Co-operative first. We have decided to be a Grocery Store. The Store is subservient at all times to the Co-operative.

The second viewpoint says that we are a financial Co-operative first. Everything is subordinate to the financial bottom line. Once we get that right, then we can hand out checks to social causes. Over-simplified. But it will do.

I think both viewpoints can and should co-exist.

I believe that “long-run economic success and long-term democratic processes” can and do complement each other.

I believe that, as we move to be a larger, multi-unit organism that we need to re-discover the informal intimacy we had when we first began 20 years ago, and that can only be done by formalizing the democratic processes, and by keeping decision-making as close as possible to all employees and owners.

Another quote:

‘As Co-ops grow larger, it becomes more and more challenging to maintain the “associative” side of the Co-operative. Many Co-ops are experimenting with ways to compensate for their larger size in order to remain more participatory and democratic.

Some of these include: wider sharing of responsibilities and skills, developing a member relations committee or team, providing Co-op education, rotating leadership tasks, discussing business imperatives and a variety of ways they can be met, and articulating and following a Co-operative vision.’

If we are agreed that it would be in the best interests of our Co-op that we allow the “associative’ or the democratic or the social side of the Co-op to ‘catch up’ with the financial or economic side, then it follows, as night follows day, that the economic or financial side will have to ‘give up’ some of its ‘power.’

No one likes to give away control. No one likes to be told they have to pause and consult before taking decisions. No one likes to be told that they may not be able to keep all the resources to themselves – that they may have to share. So, there will be tension. And there has been. Even during the time of this current Elections Task Force.

It will simply require that we all exercise those values which, frankly, we should want to be the hallmark of our new economically and democratically successful Co-op going forward, and which, conveniently, you can find listed as the values in which we want to find our new election processes grounded.

*****

On this last note, let me just set out below two paragraphs I drafted for myself at the beginning of our deliberations on values.

It had been my intention to submit them. But then, you guys got the ball rolling, and the need never arose.

What we ended up with covered everything I wanted – and so much better! And that has pretty much been my experience with all of you throughout this process – I thank you:

‘I want a Board election process that is equitable, transparent and accessible; that is conducted according to the generally-accepted norms of election propriety, without inappropriate or irregular interference from any entity or individual inside or outside of our Co-op; that leads to a Board which is recognized as the pre-eminent decision-making authority within our Co-op, to which any and all entities and individuals within our Co-op are fully accountable, and which is itself democratically accountable to the ownership of our Co-op.

I want strategies for improving voter turnout which maximize the opportunity for owners fully to access and to be meaningfully involved in the primary decision-making processes of our Co-op.'”

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Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 10:42 am  Leave a Comment  

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