Addressing the “it’s not really a co-op” problem

24 Dec

A question pops up all too often in the world of co-ops: when is a co-op not really a co-op?  This is a long-running, nagging question that reared its ugly ahead again the other night.

Friday I ventured to the local specialty foods store.  The cashier noticed my CO+OP Stronger Together branded jacket and asked if I worked for the local food co-op.  “Nope, I am a researcher studying the co-op model’s impact on development.  Why do you ask?”  His response took me back: “co-ops aren’t really good for the community, y’know.  The food co-op caters to a small niche of white, upper-middle class consumers and drives out the competition.”  Before I could respond, a line formed behind me.  So now you, the reader, will be at the receiving end of my deconstruction of a local stranger’s takedown of the co-operative model.

Why would a cashier working at a specialty foods store make an effort to rail against the local food co-op when this community is littered with Wal-Marts, Kroger’s, Target, Starbucks, and McDonalds?  What the Hell is a co-op?  What’s its purpose?  Does a co-op have a responsibility to build the community it’s positioned in, and is it doing that?  If the food co-op is doing that, then where does this focused angst arise from?

More than any other type of co-op, food co-ops are on the frontline of the movement.  Food co-ops promise food with integrity, quality jobs, local economic investment, and participatory democratic ownership.  These features in action would to me seem to provide more community impact than any of the other box stores.  Yet why is it that I seem to find more critics of food co-ops than of Target?

My hunch?  Co-ops are held to a much higher standard.

The box stores promote a downward spiral, singing a “siren’s song” of low-priced consumerism.  Workers are treated poorly, sweatshop jobs are proliferated, and the environment is destroyed.  Just head out to any of your suburban strip malls on a Saturday afternoon and you can feel the misery ooze through your car’s windows as you look at the telltale CheeseCake Factory, Apple Store, and Chipotle.  

This is to be expected, though.  We all accept this nasty reality.  But I think those of us with a fondness for co-ops aspire for so much more.  We reject the notion that the economy is without social values, that store “associates” are to be treated as the property of the job creators.  We want a new, humanized economy, and we want it now!

But “now” ain’t gonna happen.  This isn’t an economy-question so much as a democracy-question.  We have to change things, and collective, democratic action has never been easy.  We live in a top-down world.  A purpose of the co-op movement is to pull the hierarchy downward so that it’s flatter, more horizontal, and accessible to the everyday person.  But that purpose in embedded in a world that teaches us that solutions can only come from the top of the pyramid.  Citizens are supposed to be voters or consumers, not do-ers or public entrepreneurs.   

Our capacity for democracy is sadly diminished.  Unfortunately citizens don’t really know how to “do” democratic governance or public entrepreneurship.  But when an institution like a food co-op takes center stage and implies they are creating new venues for participatory democracy, they are left wide open for criticism.  

Why?  Because people are hungry for change.  They want it now.  But they have also been taught that it is up to someone else to hurry it along and do it for them.  It follows that if a co-op exists, and the world is still full of centralized corporatism and bureaucracy teeming with alienation, then to many the co-op has failed.

We need time.  It takes tireless energy and the efforts of many who previously never “did” democracy.  Co-ops must drive this point home.

And yet I don’t think we can be dismissive of this criticism that our local co-op “isn’t acting like a co-op.”

Co-ops are great at extolling the value-added to their goods and services (electric co-ops provide competitively priced, reliable energy, and food co-ops give us amazing, fresh, local foods).  But they have yet to really hammer home what it means to be a co-op!  

Co-ops must promote themselves as co-ops involved in the great experiment of citizen democracy, not merely as a great provider of a competitively priced good or service.  They must drive home the proposition that they exist to democratize (or humanize) the economy through the infusion of values into their business model.  And the marketing isn’t enough; co-ops have to back up their claims of empowerment with substantive action.  Co-ops must provide venues for direct democracy by their member-owners.  Member-owners, the citizenry of the co-ops, must feel as if a hand is extended to them, inviting them to participate in meaningful democratic discourse, lest they feel they are being taken for fools (and as Elinor Ostrom was fond of saying, “no one likes to be a sucker!”).  In other words, citizens must feel as though they have a stake, they must be engaged, they must be listened too, and they have the opportunity to act upon their voice.

I take the criticism as a constructive challenge.  Should the participatory democratic features of our co-ops become more pronounced and obvious, I believe that the criticism of co-ops not acting like co-ops will diminish (and more importantly level a challenge of legitimacy at corporations and corrupt governments).  We are in a sense striving to make people feel as if they belong to something, that they need not feel alienated, and the co-op is the model best suited to do so.  We are attempting to move beyond a system that fosters passivity and artificial structural dependence, to one of individual empowerment through collective action.

Our mission is to prove the critics wrong!  But we don’t do so through a critical, pointed finger; we do so through an extended hand, an open mind, and a caring heart.  That is a social vision worth the wait.  That is a co-op.



Posted by on December 24, 2012 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , ,

11 responses to “Addressing the “it’s not really a co-op” problem

  1. adamcooperative

    December 24, 2012 at 2:36 am

    One of my favorite quotes about our movement is from Jean Jantzen formerly of CHS. During her induction speech into the Cooperative Hall of Fame said, “cooperatives give ordinary people the opportunity to do extraordinary things.” Co-ops will accomplish more when we reach out to more “ordinary” people such as that cashier and the many many more like him.

    • Keith Taylor

      December 24, 2012 at 2:41 am

      I agree wholeheartedly, adamcooperative. Co-ops have done a wonderful job honing their core competencies. Now it’s time to make >being a co-op< one of the core competencies and do it well. But it's also up to those of us who are passionate about co-ops to push our brothers and sisters to do this as well. If we are passive bystanders, then we probably deserve the criticism heaped upon us. But if we actively push for participatory democracy that meets member-owner needs, then we are also doing our part to make this a better world.

  2. Matt Ludt

    December 26, 2012 at 3:06 am

    A relavant social movement truth that jumps to mind is the notion that Democrats eat their young, being so concerned about purity they destroy future leaders. The basic question of what to do with co-ops guilty of unbecoming behavior may prompt values-adherence maintenance/denunciation. But a eat our comrades approach is both un-cooperative and hurts the Movement more than affects change. It’s a sad fact that co-ops won’t be co-ops.
    A great alternative is retaliating against the social perspective with more clearly articulated cooperative identity: “Hi, We’re a co-op and we believe that our joint venture to serve our community’s needs should be open to our community – we may have some rich white people in our membership but we also have others, we have you hopefully, and we give no one more than one vote. We have some other principles too. Wanna hear them?” Rather than preaching let’s set a good example. The high road that’s befitting co-ops.
    Lastly on the matter of the outsiders’ perspectives, Keith, what’s the one line that would have shaken that clerk’s base paradigm about co-ops?? We have to remember that no matter how cool we find co-op Narnia to be, it just looks like another wardrobe to those we haven’t made a proper introduction. We need more time and attention on our messaging.

  3. sasha

    December 26, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Hey Keith, Nice write-up on an important point. However, there is an important scale issue implied by the cashiers comment and your answer which seems key to understanding why I think you’re both partially correct. It’s all good to have participatory democracy within the context of managing a food retail environment. To be sure, food co-ops and grocery stores have far reaching spatial connections. These connections matter. How a store itself is managed does have impacts beyond the community. However, in my experiences (many of which have been at a co-op that we’ve both belonged to), members perceptions of their impacts in the world are extraordinarily out of line with actual impacts. There is a fine line between empowerment and delusion. There is also a fine line between empowerment and condescension.

    When members of co-operatives mistake their involvement at the scale of the co-operative for an impactful involvement in their own “community” too often the cashier is going to be correct. The co-operative model is really good at making wealthy, white people feel good about their general lack of involvement in broader community struggles (many of which are also about access to democratic processes and institutions). And it does this primarily through market-based exchange…

    As to your question about why food co-ops are bigger targets, I think it is, in part, because food itself is ideological. And the type of food sold at most co-ops is explicitly marketed through the promotion of particular ideologies (which are often very white and very condescending). When you follow the value chains and find that much of this food is produced using volunteer labor (internships and the like) performed by white people who hail from privileged class positions, it become very problematic to claim that food co-ops are as progressive as their members tend to believe. But it doesn’t have to be this way…as always, the devil is in the details.

    • Keith Taylor

      January 3, 2013 at 5:17 pm

      Sasha, very thoughtful comments, particularly about the market-based exchange. It’s a REAL trick, isn’t it? I think that the processes of democratic participation have been damaged immensely in the USA. This makes it hard for us to adapt standard models, and innovate them toward real participatory empowerment, don’t you think?

      And know that I am not being an apologist, so much as problematizing the situation. I might say it’s someone cultural at this juncture.

  4. Concerned Co-op Member

    December 28, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    A co-op in not a co-op when Cooperative Principle #2, Democratic Control, is suppressed by the board of directors in an effort to keep members from having decision making power. When a board no longer adheres to its own governing policy or follows the bylaws.
    When the board extends expired terms of its directors clearly in violation of written bylaws, instead of counting the votes to see if they were re-elected there is no co-op.
    When the same board steals the ballot box and refuses the annual board of directors elections to be validated there is no co-op.
    When the board restricts a member’s privileges because they speak out against the boards violations of the bylaws and governing policy, or worse when the board revokes a membership and removes a director also for speaking out against violations there is no co-op.
    When board members vote to sue volunteer members elected to manage the board elections and those same board members do not read the legal complaint before committing tens of thousands of member/shareholder dollars, then there is no longer a co-op.
    When the board refused to answer questions from members there is no longer a co-op.
    When the board refuses to allow the members to decide if there is/or NOT an elections controversy and “Count the Ballots” there is no co-op.
    When the board has its legal counsel tell them to illegally stay in power thereby forcing the members to file a lawsuit that will drag on for months well past the next scheduled election, there is no co-op.

    If you think this could not happen. It already has. Look up Sevananda Cooperative in Atlanta Georgia.

    • Keith Taylor

      January 3, 2013 at 5:19 pm

      CCM, I agree, those all sound like disturbing trends. Do you have any news or blogs linking to this chain of events? I would be interested in reading more.

      • Anonymous

        January 5, 2013 at 2:39 pm

        I’ll send you a personal reply with some contacts. There is a Sevananda Concerened Memeber Facebook page, plus meeting minutes and info are on the cooperative website. The nominating committee meeting minutes are especially enlightening, see May 31st minutes for a detailed rebuttal to the board president complaints.

      • Concerned Co-op Memeber

        January 5, 2013 at 11:34 pm

        Please send me a personal message so I can provide you with direct contacts to the most active members affected by this crisis.

  5. Kath Duffy

    April 30, 2013 at 4:31 am

    CCM, I am a little uncomfortable with the way you have presented your story here. Problems within a specific co-op need to be corrected by collective action of that co-op’s voting members – why are you bringing this to a national audience, and anonymously to boot? What do you expect anyone who is not a voting member of that particular co-op to do, exactly?

    • Concerned Co-op Member

      June 5, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      My tale of woe should be an alarm to all members of retail co-ops. Stay active in your co-op and exercise your member/owner privileges. Don’t let this happen to your co-op. the Sevananda board knows member participation barely meets the minimum quorum or less at meetings. They are using this to destroy democratic control. They have accrued approx. $80,000 in legal bills to violate the bylaws with a legal firm that is unwilling they are in violation of our bylaws. Why? Because they create more billable hours defending against a member/owner lawsuit than telling the board they are in violation of the bylaws and need to step down. They claim to work for the co-op, but in reality only work for the board leader. They taunted the members at the faux mediation, which the bosrd demended, telling us they have nothing to mediate, the bosrd will stay in power and the member/owners can sue, we’ll drag this out for months or years and there will be no counting of the votes or a new electioon.

      The members filed a complaint asking for removal of the expired term bosrd members and a return of the ballot box so votes would be counted. The co-op law firm removed themselves just days before the scheduled hearing as attorney of record. The board insurance lawyer, apparently unaware of the court date, has no clue to the situation having never read the complaint or any relevant documents. The board insurance lawyer seemingly intend to do as little as possible to resolve the matter. The next court date could 2-6 months.

      Meanwhile the board has delayed the required Sring member meeting, one of two annual meetings where members allegedly can come to consensus on bylaw changes and other required business. The board, as usual, hijacked the Fall meeting with two mediators that refused to give the meeting over to the member services leader and instead tried to impose thier own consensus process against our traditions and bylaws. Needless to say only half of the agenda was complete before frustrated members left and a quorum was lost.

      Do you really want any co-op to endure such a violation of co-op principles? Shouldn’t concerned co-op member want to look at their own organization to insure such anarchy does not occur in their co-op?


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