by Tom Franks
As I write this one month before the national election, and about the same before BFC’s annual meeting, there is a lot of talk, both implied and explicit, about principles. As cooperators, we are very lucky. We have a set of clearly stated, tried-and-true principles that have endured for decades. We create, through daily shopping, an economic alternative to what is aptly described as “a hyper-virulent form of capitalism-run-amok,” an exclusive system with the sole operating principle of short-term gain for those playing, no matter how achieved.
Our inclusive system puts a priority on common, not individual, welfare and in doing so promotes the wellbeing of all of us. In the flurry of daily living, I find it worthwhile to step back occasionally and take a look at the principles that make cooperatives such an important part of my life. Perhaps by sharing, I’ll be able keep them more firmly in mind. Thus, a brief history of the cooperative principles follows.
A Condensed History
The mechanization of what had been skilled work and the shift of wealth acquisition from those doing the work to those controlling capital had created circumstances where working for the company, and shopping at the company store, was a path to poverty. In 1844, a small group of artisans in England came together to improve their lot. They drew on the experience of other cooperative attempts as they formed the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, and opened their first store in December to sell items they could otherwise not afford. The original rules of conduct for the society, called the Rochdale Principles, were:
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 credit neither given nor asked.
That profit 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 officers; that committee to be elected periodically.
That a definite percentage of profits should be allotted to education.
That frequent statements and balance sheets should be presented to members.
–Rochdale Society, 1844
In 1895 the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) was created. As the recognized custodian of cooperative principles, the ICA has issued three revisions to the International Cooperative Principles (1937, 1966, and 1995).
Crafting the latest statement of principles (see Pamela Regan’s article in the October 2012 FFT) was an international, multi-year process that addressed moral, ethical, social, cultural, economic, and political issues. The objective was to build international consensus on the role of cooperatives in a fast-changing world. The principles are built on a set of values (Self-help, Democracy, Equality, Equity & Solidarity). I find it enlightening to consider this basis for our Co-op in light of what I know, or think I know, about the rest of the business world. Perhaps you will too. Space limits the discussion to only one principle, so I’ll take the first for now and leave the rest for future FFT articles.
First Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership
The ICA statement includes the following: “Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all people able to use its services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political, or religious discrimination.”
Here at BFC, membership is not a requirement for shopping, and anyone, anywhere, can become a member. We have no exclusions. Theoretically, membership in a cooperative entails both benefits and responsibilities. Our Ends Policies describe the benefits we seek to provide. There are other benefits some of us find in cooperatives, such as working to build a sustainable economy. The point is, there’s much more than just good food at the BFC.
The responsibilities are less often discussed, but equally important. The first responsibility is to contribute to shareholder equity. At BFC, we try to make it easy for all to do this, both by offering payment plans, and for those of very limited means, with subsidies.
To realize the full potential of cooperation there are other responsibilities that we might meet to the best of our own abilities, such as:
Clearly understanding and supporting the values of the Cooperative (see our Ends Policies)
Participating in the governance of the Cooperative through voting and serving on the board
Advocating for the Cooperative in the broader community
At BFC not too long ago we changed the descriptor of our cooperators from “member” to “shareholder.” From my perspective, this change was an important shift from a perspective of entitlement (my membership in a club entitles me to certain things) to responsibility (as a shareholder in a business I have a vested interest in the success of that business).
Shareholders are not the only category with responsibility beyond those of shoppers at a non-co-op business. Elected leaders, managers, and staff have responsibilities beyond those at they would see non-co-ops. They all must provide shareholders with the information they need in order to meet their responsibilities. They also must elicit information, with the bulk of this burden falling on your elected leaders, from the entire membership body to make sure the cooperative continues to understand and meet their needs.
The degree to which we as individuals and as a cooperative meet our responsibilities and enjoy the benefits of cooperation can vary greatly. An objective for me, and one of the reasons I chose to serve on the board, is to try to help increase both over time.
Check back for more discussion on the cooperative principles in future issues of FFT, as we practice the fifth principle of “Education, Training, and Information."