Saturday, March 5, 2011

Co-operatives Are People Power In Action ... Unless

All across the world, we see protests by ordinary people demanding they once more be permitted to control their own destiny.

Even if others do not, I see the connection between those fighting for union rights in Wisconsin, and those Wisconsin taxpayers who say those same rights infringe their own liberty, by potentially increasing their taxes.

I see the connection between those who asked Obama to change the US, and those who, two years later, looked to John Boehner to do the same for them.

I see the connection between the devolution of power proposed by the British Prime Minister with his 'Big Society,' and the budget today announced by the 'new' Governor of California, Jerry Brown, which budget also details a decentralization of powers.

I see the connection between protests in support of democracy in the Middle East, and demands by me and my fellow workers in Weaver Street Market Co-operative for more democracy and more input to the financial decisions that affect our everyday lives.

They are all connected. Even if others do not see the connection.

One of the surest ways of ensuring true people power is through co-operatives. People of like mind coming together to provide to themselves and by their own efforts the products and the services they want. From groceries to banking services; from political action to public services, such as education, housing and even welfare.

The essence of the true cooperative is that it works because all are equal; all have a say in the decision-making; all have an equal opportunity to share the benefits on an equal basis; there are no extraneous or hidden agendas; and there are no profit-seekers, to introduce these hidden agendas.

I interpret 'profit' in the widest sense. It is a surplus factor, extraneous and unnecessary to the central purpose of the co-operative, introduced improperly to 'enrich' certain of the co-op members, at the expense of the general membership, and to the detriment of the central purpose of the co-operative.

Thus, 'profit' can be financial. An attempt to distort the natural and sustainable financial performance of the co-operative, to produce a surplus, which is then made available to a few, generally outside the co-operative.

Or, 'profit' can be political. A different sort of attempt to distort the normal activity of the co-op, to produce a result which massages the political ego of one or a few.

I mention this in respect of my own co-op, Weaver Street Market Co-operative, where, insidiously, individual as opposed to group profit has been introduced, by the backdoor, to enrich a few at the expense of the whole.

Maybe the expansion project, begun in 2007/2008, and resulting in our new Food House and Hillsborough store, had justification for the central purpose of the whole co-op, before the Great Recession yanked the carpet out from under all of us.

Yet now, the benefits are far outweighed by the cost to the rest of the co-op of the burden of having to find millions of dollars in capital and interest repayments each year on the total long-term debt of $8 million.

Attempting to repay that debt, rather than restructuring the debt or the co-op to erase the debt completely, results in an out-of-touch corporate office making impossible and exploitative demands of its co-op workers and owners. Demands which have nothing to do with the normal financial performance of our co-op, its central purpose or the well-being of our workers and owners.

What is more, that same corporate office is totally unwilling to engage in any kind of democratic conversation, perhaps to discuss the sustainability of the existing financial approach, or to consider alternatives. For why? For one very simple reason. There are those who are simply unwilling to admit they may be wrong. That lack of openness and honesty, frankly, imposes another form of 'profit' on our co-op, which distorts our co-op's ability to perform naturally and to provide for the needs of its workers and owners.

Finally, there is now a sufficiency of information that some within our co-op receive benefit and special favor not granted to all of the workers and owners. I do not say this is illegal. But it is not in keeping with the ethos of a co-op that allows all to input and all to receive output on the basis of equal opportunity.

I welcome any activity that has people of like mind coming together, finding ways to provide for themselves, and thereby controlling their own destiny. Co-operatives can play a huge part in any and all of those endeavors. But the concept of shared and diffused power can be a curse, as much as a blessing.

It leaves the co-op open to abuse by a few who seek to make 'profit' at the expense of the central purpose of the co-op and the welfare of its workers and owners. It is up to each worker and owner constantly to be vigilant against these secret 'profiteers.'