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Board of Directors: The more things change, the more they remain the same PDF Print E-mail

The more things change, the more they remain the same.
–French proverb

by Mike Szostak
March 2012

In last month’s Food for Thought our board president, John Hatton, reminded us that the United Nations has declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives.  Across the globe, co-ops employ more than 100 million people, with more than 800 million members.  In the United States, there are nearly 30,000 coops, serving more than 25% of Americans. In Vermont, more than 300,000 residents are member-owners of co-ops; that’s almost 50% of our population!

A bit of history helps to understand how we got to where we are today.  The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) defines a co-operative as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” Using this definition, there were undoubtedly co-operative-type organizations in existence when people started working together in joint ventures, long before the term “co-operative” came into being.  Although sometimes disputed, the Shore Porters Society of Aberdeen, Scotland, formed in 1498 claims to be the world’s first co-op, providing transportation services.  Other early co-op pioneers include: The Fenwick Weavers’ Society, formed in 1761 to sell discounted oatmeal and to provide assistance with savings, loans, emigration, and education; Robert Owen (1771-1858), a social reformer and developer of co-op ideas; and William King, who in 1828 set up a newspaper, The Co-operator, to promote Owen’s thinking.
 
Then in 1844, a group of 28 English artisans formed the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. The Pioneers decided it was time shoppers were treated with honesty, openness, and respect, that they should share in the profits, and that they should have a democratic right to have a say in the business. The seven principles developed here, with only a few updates, remain the foundation for all cooperatives today:  

• Voluntary and open membership
• Democratic member control
• Member economic participation
• Autonomy and independence
• Education, training, and information
• Cooperation among Cooperatives
• Concern for community

Today’s co-ops can be categorized into four types: worker, producer, purchasing, and consumer.  Many examples of each can be found on the following websites: www.go.coop/co-op-stories and www.stories.coop/stories.  Some examples of each type that I found particularly interesting:

Producer: At the beginning of the 20th century, the cost of farming was low, and most farmers produced far more milk than they could market. So in 1919, 94 farmers from the Cabot, VT, area joined forces to turn their excess milk into butter and market it throughout New England.  In 1992, Cabot’s farmer-owners merged with the 1,800 farm families of Agri-Mark, a southern New England co-op dating back to 1918.

Consumer: The Group Health Cooperative of Seattle, WA, is one of the few health care organizations in our country governed by consumers rather than external executives. Its eleven-person board of trustees, all cooperative members, works closely with management and medical staff to ensure policies and direction put the needs of patients first.
It’s also worth highlighting that the Neighboring Food Co-ops Association in New England, of which we are a member, has over $290 million of annual economic impact in our region.

Worker: The San Francisco Bay Area has the largest concentration of worker-owned co-ops in the country. Woodshanti is a furniture-building co-op, which considers itself to be “deep-green.” Not only do they use recycled and eco friendly products, but they have built ethics into the fundamental structure of how they do business by giving workers democratic control over their economic reality.

More locally, we have the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops, which is dedicated to building a sustainable local economy by facilitating the support, development, and promotion of worker cooperatives in Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont.

Purchasing: What helps Brattleboro’s very own Brown & Roberts compete with the big box stores like Home Depot is that it purchases some of its products through Ace Hardware, our country’s first hardware store cooperative.

So what is the common thread that existed hundreds of years ago and remains today, driving the ever increasing desire to form cooperative enterprises?  When people feel disenfranchised, face difficult financial hardships, and feel they have no control on what is happening to them, cooperatives become the most effective and long-term means to these ends. Although the specific products and services that we need have changed over time, our necessities for living remain the same. Co-ops are flourishing today because they meet our basic human needs. As a member of the Brattleboro Food Co-op, I am proud to be a part of an organization that is a recognized leader among food co-ops across our nation.