The Past as Prelude
During the 1960s and the 1970s, when "new wave" co-ops were thriving, one other consumer goods co-op all by itself probably exceeded all of them put together in number of members, lives touched, sales volume, social and economic impact. The motivations of its 1930s founders: greater honesty in merchandising; more wholesome foods; a more ethical way of doing business; and at root, most important and often most neglected, ownership by consumers.
In the 1980s, it too was in trouble. In a broad sense, its problems of managenent, board decision-making, democratic control and weak member ownership paralleled those of "new wave" co-ops. It too saw a considerable part of its consumer and social activism disappear. However, unlike the failed "new wave" co-op's, this one co-op still has an organized foundation on which to build new and stronger development. It continues now at about the size operation it had back in 1960. I refer, of course, to Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley.
Is there a parallel here? Is there a lesson to be learned from all this? I think so, and it underscores part of what Dave Gutknecht emphasized in his February-March (1987) article: the absolute necessity of close-knit federation or chain organization if anything much is to survive in times of stress. The bitter infighting in California between the local retail and regional wholesale cooperatives, the drastic weakening of the once strong regional, and the failure of what many of us considered our strongest example of "cooperation between cooperatives" still has left behind a foundation to build from, and I am confident that future generations will do just that. Perhaps next time around, the importance of insulating against that ever-threatening "we-they" disease will be recognized. Perhaps next time the wholesale operations will be an integral division of the multi-unit consumer-owned cooperative -- as was proposed by the managers of the three larger cooperatives back in the 1960s and opposed by myopic volunteer leadership.
Consumer cooperatives, like other businesses, fail (as both Jesse Singerman and Dave point out) because of incompetent management, inadequate equity capital, weak decision-making by leadership -- not for ideological reasons. That weak and superficial article in The Progressive in May 1986 did us all a disservice. Yet I, like most others deeply committed to consumer cooperation, am not interested in organizations that have only the legal form and not the spirit and the substance. (I am very active today in one such "legal form" cooperative, and there I and others are trying to revive that spirit.) It's clear that we have not yet developed a workable balance. Perhaps we need a national federation of consumer-owned cooperatives that can carry forward our social and political objectives, independent of, but controlled by delegates from, the cooperatives that comprise its membership. I don't know; I do believe this should be explored -- even now, when we are perhaps at our weakest point.
As both Dave and Jesse urge, we need renewed emphasis on consumer ownership, for that and that alone is the thing that sets us apart from other forms of social and business organization. All of the Rochdale Principles are designed to make that one rock bottom concept work. In large part, we have ignored that, and we have suffered setback and failure as a result. (The larger cooperative in which I am currently active almost suicided as a cooperative, in large part because it substituted a nominal one dollar membership for consumer ownership. It is now trying to correct that error of past leadership.)
I have never belonged to an organization -- church, cooperative, social or political -- that did all it might have done to achieve its objectives. Few such programs ever maintain for the long haul the undiluted early enthusiasm of their founders. Yet as long as it lives, there remains an opportunity for activists within it to rekindle some of that drive. Not so, if in excessive commitment to those objectives it dies entirely -- like many of our "new wave" co-ops.
My greater concern is this: What do we start to do now, in the midst of all our pressing problems and our lack of national and regional programs, to get ready for the "new new wave"?
For there will be another "wave", as there has been every time a social or economic crisis hit our country or any country. And there will be another crisis. Excessive third world (and indeed, American) national debts guarantee that. So does the excessive burden of "defense" spending all over the globe. So does our current irresponsible piling up of a national deficit because of that same excessive "defense" spending. Entirely apart from moral concerns, the poor, the farmers, minority groups and the elderly cannot absorb that deficit by themselves. Slow and inadequate response to these massive problems will guarantee a crisis. Consumer-owned cooperatives can provide a significant part of the answer if they are soundly financed, competently managed, effectively led -- and linked strongly together for both economic and socio-political objectives. The alternative will surely be some form of political or economic dictatorship.
What will it take to get ready? Without question, a framework for regional chains or close-knit federations, and probably a national federation, as mentioned above, to work toward social and political objectives. This federation could include other kinds of consumer-owned cooperatives (housing, rural electrics, credit unions, health care, child care), but not producer-owned cooperatives, whose social and political goals are usually opposed to those of consumer groups. We've been down that road already!
Clearly our agenda should include developing programs within the schools, modelled after the Michigan curriculum program. Of course we need regional co-op libraries and study centers. We also need more training for board and committee members and for management. We need to develop adequate accounting and data processing and legal structures. We need some strong alternative member equity programs as guides. We need some succinct and highly readable cooperative education materials; many of our local co-op papers have virtually dropped this kind of content.
We especially need an emphasis on consumer ownership that no national organization gives now. We need all of this in the context of a coordinated national program -- to be ready for that "new new wave."
And there isn't a thing on that list that wouldn't strengthen our consumer-owned cooperatives right now!
See the June-July 1987 issue for a dedication to Art Danforth, who died shortly after the above article was published.