Co-operatives – business as unusual

Not Business as Usual

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 3rd March 2012

The United Nations General Assembly, at its 65th plenary meeting on 18 December 2009, adopted Resolution 64/136, which proclaimed 2012 as ‘the International Year of Cooperatives’. This was in recognition of the role played by cooperatives in ‘promot[ing] the fullest possible participation in the economic and social development of all people’, as well as their growing emergence as ‘a major factor of economic and social development’ and their ‘contribut[ion] to the eradication of poverty.’

To talk of the ‘growing emergence’ of cooperatives as major economic players is somewhat misleading. Cooperatives as business entities have a history dating back to the 18th century in England and France. The modern ‘cooperative movement’ as a distint entity dates to the formation of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844, in Lancashire, England. Building on the ideas of factory owner, social reformer Robert Owen, and Dr William King, the Rochdale pioneers were motivated by the simple philosophy of self-help: they wanted access to quality (i.e. unadulterated) food at a fair price; and so they opened a member-owned food co-op.


Trying to learn the lessons of the failures of many of the earliest cooperatives in the first decades of the 19th century, the Rochdale Pioneers set down a series of principles, which have formed the guiding compass of the cooperative movement ever since. They constitute what’s termed ‘the cooperative difference’; what it is that distinguishes cooperatives from traditional, privately-owned and operated, businesses.

As restated by the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) in 1995, the key principles are as follows: open and voluntary membership, based on non-discrimination; democratic member control (one member, one vote); member economic participation, and reinvestment of the surplus to develop the cooperative and the cooperative movement; autonomy and independence, based on the value of self-help; education of cooperative members and the general public about the benefits of co-operation; co-operation among co-operatives – strengthen and build the movement; and concern for their communities.

From humble beginnings, the cooperative movement spread rapidly, and was widely embraced by farmers in Australia from the 1880s, beginning with dairy farmers on the NSW South Coast. However, for reasons I’ll look at it in a subsequent column, the cooperative movement in Australia never reached the high ideals or the vision of the Rochdale pioneers to ‘create a “Cooperative Commonwealth”, a democratic, social-economy rising from a decentralised network of consumer cooperatives (shops) linked to primary producer cooperatives through a giant wholesale trading entity creating capital to fund other cooperative enterprises in the services, manufacturing and tertiary sectors, coordinated and governed by a Cooperative Union, a grand “parliament”, of democratic organisations.’*

That said, the cooperative movement now numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and embraces over 1 billion members across the world, with over 100 million employees, more than all the transnational corporations ‘put together’, according to Dame Pauline Green, President of the ICA and currently in Australia promoting the International Year of the Cooperative. She adds that the  300 largest coops are together worth an impressive US$1.6 trillion.

The ICA’s aim is to make cooperatives ‘the fastest growing business model in the world by 2020.’ Encouraging trends, says Dame Pauline, include the 79% switch in deposits to the UK Cooperative Bank from the major high street banks ‘in the last two years’, a rapidly emerging cooperative renewable energy sector, and cooperatively-run schools. Dame Pauline speaks of a ‘cooperative renaissance’, led by ‘community-based cooperatives, people coming together and saying actually we can deal with this, we are going to lose our village shop if this goes on so let’s all fall in together as a cooperative and let’s keep our shop going.’**

What are the prospects for this renaissance in Australia? In a later column I’ll look at a project for a grower-worker-community-owned cooperative based out of a recently-closed Heinz plant in Girgarre, Victoria.

* This quote is from from Gary Lewis’ 2006 book, The Democracy Principle, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in the history of farmer coops in Australia. It’s held in the Coffs Harbour Library.

** The quotes from Dame Pauline Green are from an interview published on The Age’s “The Zone”, on February 27, 2012:

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