Cooperatives and Democratic Challenges

In October, the world witnessed the International Climate Summit in New York City, sponsored by the United Nations, and an International Summit of Cooperatives in Quebec, sponsored by the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA). We could say that these extended sessions, respectively, gave testimony to our deepest global crisis and to some of our best tools for addressing many critical social needs.
The ICA “Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade” proposes in its first near-term goal that co-ops become “the acknowledged leader in economic, social, and environmental sustainability.” ICA proposes equally, along with a theme of sustainability, that co-ops become identified with participation–for widespread participation is essential to making progress towards those forms of sustainability. As cooperatives and citizens, we all must step up.
The global cooperative leadership that ICA proposes is a tall order, given (among other factors) the concentrated capital that competes with cooperative capital and with nearly all wealth-sharing campaigns in North America. Nevertheless, here and across the globe, cooperatives are expanding their impact, despite strongly competitive pressures and challenges in building cooperative capital.
However, the most important feature of cooperatives may be their democratic nature. It’s likely that the urgent need for “economic, social, and environmental sustainability” cannot be met without democratic movements and institutions. There is too much at stake, and too many millions of people affected for any other solutions to actually work.
Cooperative principles shape the democratic structure for cooperative practice, but those experiences have power well beyond the co-op. The examples provided by cooperatives demonstrating democratic business and organizational lessons extend to other arenas where participatory solutions are needed.
While co-ops do influence many others around them–citizens, other businesses, public perceptions and policy–they also need to more aggressively offer their model for conducting business and meeting needs. Better telling of the co-op story is a major part of the ICA’s “Blueprint.” That call certainly includes food co-ops, and we have much to offer.

Democracy and democratic means
Within the world of cooperatives, it is common to point out that if business and ownership are not shared and democratically based, then our country cannot be democratic. Yet the ideals of democracy are powerful enough that even the politically powerful pay lip service to them.
In these pages, Art Sherwood says: “My sense is that we are at a crossroads regarding how we approach economic enterprise. Conventional approaches to business and how we solve our social challenges are being called into question in ways we have not seen for 50 years. Assumptions that ‘someone’ will take care of things are no longer valid in peoples’ minds, as government, business, and even traditional not-for-profits too often fall short.”
I found what I suggest is a parallel statement from the Quebec cooperative summit in a panel on family farming and food security issues, Amy Coughenour of NCBA CLUSA made this point: “We cannot address the stunting, malnutrition and food security needs of smallholder farmers, with a purely economic growth strategy around agribusiness and large-scale commercialization of staple crops.” Coughenour added. “We have to incorporate the pillars of food security through smallholder farmers.”
The heart of that statement about food security and food justice is democracy–it must be brought about through means that are consistent with the purpose. Formal democracy that does not address ownership and economic sharing has thoroughly demonstrated its failures. If you don’t want to hear further on that topic, pass on to elsewhere in these pages for practical wisdom on implementing cooperative democracy.
For the North American political scene at large, let’s not make a discussion about its façade of “democracy” overly complicated. Democracy as participation and control is not available here, despite the official story. We have an enormous machine for manufacturing consent and for domination and the extraction of wealth, with both trends deepening–continuous over time and now in deep trouble.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: “Democracy is one person, one vote, and a full discussion of the issues that affect us. Oligarchy is billionaires buying elections, voter suppression, and a concentrated corporate media determining what we see, hear, and read.” Most economic gains go to the .1 percent, and average CEO pay now is 350 times full-time worker earnings.
Former Vice President Al Gore: “The U.S. Congress, the avatar of the democratically elected national legislatures in the modern world, is now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances.” Something more than elections will be needed.
And here is another kind of inconvenient truth, from President Roosevelt in the 1930s: “We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace, business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.” Look around and tell me who is winning.

Bringing democracy to life
There are formal democratic “institutions,” and there is democracy as an active verb. Actual democracy within our society is a guttering light, given the extreme concentration of wealth and powers, along with perpetual war and massive surveillance. However, while we still are able, we can point to cooperatives as a proven method though which to build common assets and to own and control them democratically. There are many cooperative examples, and we need more. In responding to present and future crises, the ability to get most people to work together is essential. Securing that ability to work together requires trust–built on elements such as transparency, articulated goals and means, and accountable leadership. In all these respects, the accomplishments of cooperatives, through growth as well as failures, have much to offer by way of valuable lessons and examples.
Democracy within cooperatives is a prime value and is reflected in the ownership structure. But that’s just the beginning of bringing democracy to life within a cooperative. From member-owners to staff and management to the board of directors, each has an essential role and the cooperative opportunity (in the new mantra) to own, use, serve, and belong. This edition’s section on democracy and healthy co-ops has good discussions about those elements and on managing a democratic organization in an ever-changing environment.

Healthy workplaces
There’s no doubt that the operating environment for retail food co-ops is increasingly challenging. Overall, recession and uncertainty continue, and a review of the current situation of wage earners by itself makes it clear that we now are in different times. Despite much sugar-coating of the economic news, the total labor force participation rate is lower than in decades; and real median household income is the lowest since 1994 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 “Income and Poverty Report). These are the conditions of business in the U.S. at large.
Additionally, in a very competitive grocery sector, food co-op operations are under increasing pressure to maintain sales and profitability. The double-digit sales growth typical of a decade ago has shrunk, but so has expansion by their competitors in private stores and chains. Yet new competition in the natural-organic grocery niche is stronger than ever, given that the niche overall has an attractive record of growth in a sluggish grocery industry. In such market conditions, having a high level of democratic participation–again, manifested through owning, using, serving, and belonging–can be key to the co-op’s surviving and thriving.
An obvious point should be noted: there are a lot of expectations and tensions, both external and internal, that food co-op leaders must manage. Quite prominent, but hardly the only strong concern, is not just workplace performance but workplace satisfaction and conditions. Co-ops do well by comparison with other grocery retailers–but is that comparison sufficient? Many food co-ops have sought a higher standard through a “livable wage,” and their experiences and current considerations of livable wage and of minimum wage are discussed in our cover section on healthy workplaces and cooperative democracy.
Democracy within cooperatives is a prime value and is reflected in the ownership structure and cooperative principles. Workplace democracy, on the other hand, is a different value and a different challenge. In addition, unionization drives at a few food co-ops have raised workplace issues, sometimes with good results but other times with much rancor. Is a healthy workplace a unionized workplace? Is a unionized workplace a healthy workplace? Looking only at food co-ops’ experiences, neither statement is uniformly true. A positive workplace culture, as discussed in this pages, is a critical element in either case. We are sure to visit these issues again in the near future.
Democracy outside our cooperatives is in dire straits, but our cooperative examples point the right direction and the right process, however difficult and unfinished.

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