Cooperative Principle #2

Democratic Control

Cooperatives are sometimes called "economic democracy in action". The pioneers of the movement hoped their co-op would begin a restructuring of society, and that included the idea that each person should have a vote regardless of the amount of money a person controlled.

In 1966 the following wording was approved by the Congress of the International Co-operative Alliance: "Co-operative societies are democratic organizations. Their affairs should be administered by persons elected or appointed in a manner agreed by the members and accountable to them. Members of primary societies should enjoy equal rights of voting (one member, one vote) and participation in decisions affecting their societies..."

This principle is often abbreviated "one member, one vote", and that is a most critical way to differentiate co-ops from other business forms, in which voting rights relate to investment (one stock, one vote). But the above statement is also a strong statement of the independence cooperatives have in choosing their form of governance.

The co-op principles broadly sketch out the practice of cooperation, but do not specify a type of governing body (board, trustees, central committee), method or frequency of selection, nor the number of representatives. There is no "one right way" to which co-ops must adhere. Each co-op is free to choose the method of governance and management desired by its own membership.
Within the cooperative "family" in our area, boards of directors range in size, term of office, and decision making methods. Some boards are very "hands-on", while others are not. Management structures, which are created and supervised by boards, include individual managers, teams and collectives.

A democratically selected body that protects the interests of the member-owners and ensures compliance with law, good business practice and cooperative principles, is legitimate regardless of the particulars of the selection process. However, as with all governments, a board is only as good as the people who run for it and only as representative as the proportion of voters who actually vote. If member-owners do not take their duty seriously, democratic control is only theoretical.

Co-ops nationwide practically have to turn somersaults to get a quorum of members for elections. It is shocking that so many people fail to exercise their franchise. Perhaps this is because, when private businesses offer the same products, people forget why co-ops are so important. Co-ops pioneered ingredient disclosure, unit pricing, and nutrition information, and reintroduced organic food to the marketplace. Private business was dragged into these practices to compete with co-ops.

Our co-ops are in danger of losing the distinction between consumer-owned businesses and other stores. Participation is the lifeblood of democracy. Without your willingness to participate, your stores will become pale imitations of the private chains (co-ops are not richly funded by Wall Street investors). Co-ops work when you go beyond being a consumer and become an owner. Educate yourself about the history and practice of cooperation. Run for the board of directors, read the newsletters, attend meetings, talk to fellow members, and vote!

Cooperative Education Column for Co-op Consumer News Nov/Dec 1996

Elizabeth Archerd,
Member Services Director, Wedge Community Co-op