Autonomy and Independence
At the General Assembly of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) held in Manchester, England in 1995, the old cooperative principles got a face lift. They now rest within "The Statement on the Cooperative Identity", complete with a definition and a values statement. Two of the old principles were rolled into one, and two new ones added.
The new fourth principle states: "Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members. If they enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their cooperative autonomy."
More than a few of us in the natural foods retail cooperatives probably said "Huh?" in response to that statement. Large cooperatives in the agriculture or housing sectors are more likely to enter into agreements with other organizations, including governments, than our small grocery co-ops. I believe the new principle is meant to remind all of us that cooperatives are not supposed to surrender their fundamental identity in order to get money or business partners.
Underlying this thought is the basic concept that cooperatives exist to serve the interests and needs of their member-owners, period. They do not serve any ideology whether defined by politics, religion or business theory! The cooperative principles outline a basic framework without specifying goals or purposes. If there is any such thing as one overarching goal of cooperatives in general, it is to provide goods and/or services to the member-owners who participate in it, and to do it in a manner consistent with the cooperative principles.
The new definition statement states: "A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise." Notably absent from the definition is any ideological statement such as "Co-ops must eliminate the bosses and pay everyone the same wage" or "Co-ops are vegetarian, pacifist social service organizations" or even "Co-ops must maximize profit (or reduce costs) for member-owners."
Members of co-ops may define their organizational goals in any way they like (including the above) and set policies aimed at achieving them. The fourth principle makes it clear that democratic governance by the members is such a fundamental part of cooperatives that it is not to be surrendered for any reason, even for business partnerships or capital. This also echoes the third principle, member economic participation, which makes indicate that in cooperatives, unlike profit-driven organizations, money does not buy control of the business.
As food cooperatives grow and expand, values that have guided the co-op movement for over one hundred and fifty years will be critical guideposts. If our organizations choose to remain separate we must respect each other's autonomy, and the decisions that each group of member-owners makes. If we someday decide to merge, consolidation must be done with respect for the process from all parties, including co-ops that choose not to take part in the change. That is one of the conclusions that flows from the principle of autonomy and independence.
Cooperative Education Column for Co-op Consumer News Nov/Dec 1996
Member Services Director, Wedge Community Co-op