The people, united

Co-operatives are more powerful than ever around the world, offering a third way between state-run socialism and corporate capitalism.


Jay Walljasper | September 2004 issue
Co-operatives, most people agree, are a worthy economic alternative to unbridled corporate greed. But we generally think of them as an idea whose time has come and gone—something our grandparents needed to survive on the farm, or hippies used in the ‘60s to sell organic food and tie-dyed shirts.
The truth is that cooperatives are more popular—and powerful—than ever. According to the Geneva-based International Co-operative Alliance, co-op membership has more than doubled in the last 30 years. An estimated 725 million people around the world are involved with co-operatives as consumers, owners, or residents, reports a special issue of the British global issues magazine New Internationalist (June 2004).
As you look around the world today, the portrait of co-operatives is full of surprises.
· In Colombia, the Saludcoop health care co-op is the nation’s second largest employer, providing services to a quarter of the population.
· In Kuwait, 80 percent of all retail sales are rung up by the Union of Consumer Co-operative Societies.
· In India, there are more than 90,000 agricultural cooperatives, including a network of dairies that employs six million.
· In Argentina, during the recent economic crisis more than 200 bankrupt workplaces were occupied by their employees and legally reorganized as co-operatives.
· In Iran, there are an estimated that 50,000 co-ops serving 25 percent of the population.
· In Bolivia, a quarter of all savings are held by one credit union, the Cooperativa de Ahorro Y Créito ‘Jesús Nazareno’.
· In Japan, co-ops account for more than ninety percent of all fish and rice production.
· In Spain, the Mondragón Co-operative, which is involved in everything from manufacturing to banking, is the nation’s 7th largest industrial concern.
· In Canada, 40 percent of citizens belong to at least one co-operative.
· In the United States, the 100 largest co-ops have sales surpassing $100 billion. More Americans belong to a co-op than have shares in the stock exchange.
· Even in Europe, where the co-operative movement has seen the most decline in recent years, agricultural marketing and supply co-ops still have 14 million members and account for 55 percent of sales for farm inputs.
At a time when activists and idealists everywhere are seeking a Third Way—an alternative to both the failed legacy of centralized socialism and the harsh conditions often practiced by large corporations—it’s surprising how little attention is given to co-operatives as the model for a kinder, gentler economics. These organizations, which can take any shape from a large manufacturing facility to a neighborhood restaurant or apartment building, take advantage of the efficiency and creativity of the market but in a way that promotes goals beyond just profit for the owners.
In the developing world, the steady rise of co-operative businesses helped spark the increasingly influential fair trade movement. Whether its coffee or clothing or crafts, conscientious consumers know that if it was produced by a cooperative chances are much better that people who made it or grew it were treated fairly and will share in the success of the enterprise. Co-operatives have also proved themselves capable of delivering crucial goods and services that the free market won’t because there is not enough profit in it. In the United States, for instance, consumer-owned co-operatives supply electricity to 25 million people, mostly in rural areas that for-profit power companies ignored.
Oscar Arías Sánchez, former president of Costa Rica and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, now travels the world talking about co-operatives as part of his mission of promoting democracy and humanitarian development. “In the 21st Century we must see the collective acceptance of a new value system, a new ethics,” he says in an earlier issue of New Internationalist (January/February 2004). “An inspiring example of such ethics put into use in the struggle against social exclusion is the co-operative: a self-governing enterprise of persons united to meet their common economic, political, and cultural needs.”
Arías Sánchez’s experience with co-ops goes back to the 1980s when, as Costa Rica’s leader, he was under intense economic pressure to privatize the country’s state-owned sugar company. But he worried that selling it off to private investors would “have concentrated the profits in a few hands and the benefits to Costa Ricans would have been negligible.” So instead he turned it into a co-operative with shares available to workers along with other sugar cooperatives.
Like any other business enterprise, of course, co-operatives can be operated for the good of many or the good of a few. “It can come as little consolation to the fisherfolk of the South Pacific,” the New Internationalist notes, “that the super-efficient trawlers and factory ships from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan which devastated their fishing grounds were run by co-operatives.” And the famous Mondragon worker cooperative in the Basque region of Spain, forced to compete with corporate globalization, has fully embraced it. It has opened low-wage plants in Mexico, Morocco, Brazil, Argentina, India, Thailand, and China, where membership in the cooperative is not extended to its workers.
Facing economic pressures from companies focused solely on the bottom line, some cooperatives, especially larger ones in competitive industries, lose their sense of idealism and mission. Many of the large agricultural cooperatives in the American Midwest, for instance, are not much friendlier to the interests of small farmers than agribusiness giants like Cargill. Others, like Costco and REI outdoors stores in the U.S., feel no different than any other megaretailer.
But that does not detract from all that cooperatives are accomplishing today, and their potential to do even more as a viable, proven alternative to our out-of-control, often exploitive global economy. As New Internationalist points out, “Anyone can start a co-op. Nothing could be simpler. All it takes is a bright idea shared by at least two people—no co-op is too small to make a difference.”
 

Solution News Source

The people, united

Co-operatives are more powerful than ever around the world, offering a third way between state-run socialism and corporate capitalism.


Jay Walljasper | September 2004 issue
Co-operatives, most people agree, are a worthy economic alternative to unbridled corporate greed. But we generally think of them as an idea whose time has come and gone—something our grandparents needed to survive on the farm, or hippies used in the ‘60s to sell organic food and tie-dyed shirts.
The truth is that cooperatives are more popular—and powerful—than ever. According to the Geneva-based International Co-operative Alliance, co-op membership has more than doubled in the last 30 years. An estimated 725 million people around the world are involved with co-operatives as consumers, owners, or residents, reports a special issue of the British global issues magazine New Internationalist (June 2004).
As you look around the world today, the portrait of co-operatives is full of surprises.
· In Colombia, the Saludcoop health care co-op is the nation’s second largest employer, providing services to a quarter of the population.
· In Kuwait, 80 percent of all retail sales are rung up by the Union of Consumer Co-operative Societies.
· In India, there are more than 90,000 agricultural cooperatives, including a network of dairies that employs six million.
· In Argentina, during the recent economic crisis more than 200 bankrupt workplaces were occupied by their employees and legally reorganized as co-operatives.
· In Iran, there are an estimated that 50,000 co-ops serving 25 percent of the population.
· In Bolivia, a quarter of all savings are held by one credit union, the Cooperativa de Ahorro Y Créito ‘Jesús Nazareno’.
· In Japan, co-ops account for more than ninety percent of all fish and rice production.
· In Spain, the Mondragón Co-operative, which is involved in everything from manufacturing to banking, is the nation’s 7th largest industrial concern.
· In Canada, 40 percent of citizens belong to at least one co-operative.
· In the United States, the 100 largest co-ops have sales surpassing $100 billion. More Americans belong to a co-op than have shares in the stock exchange.
· Even in Europe, where the co-operative movement has seen the most decline in recent years, agricultural marketing and supply co-ops still have 14 million members and account for 55 percent of sales for farm inputs.
At a time when activists and idealists everywhere are seeking a Third Way—an alternative to both the failed legacy of centralized socialism and the harsh conditions often practiced by large corporations—it’s surprising how little attention is given to co-operatives as the model for a kinder, gentler economics. These organizations, which can take any shape from a large manufacturing facility to a neighborhood restaurant or apartment building, take advantage of the efficiency and creativity of the market but in a way that promotes goals beyond just profit for the owners.
In the developing world, the steady rise of co-operative businesses helped spark the increasingly influential fair trade movement. Whether its coffee or clothing or crafts, conscientious consumers know that if it was produced by a cooperative chances are much better that people who made it or grew it were treated fairly and will share in the success of the enterprise. Co-operatives have also proved themselves capable of delivering crucial goods and services that the free market won’t because there is not enough profit in it. In the United States, for instance, consumer-owned co-operatives supply electricity to 25 million people, mostly in rural areas that for-profit power companies ignored.
Oscar Arías Sánchez, former president of Costa Rica and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, now travels the world talking about co-operatives as part of his mission of promoting democracy and humanitarian development. “In the 21st Century we must see the collective acceptance of a new value system, a new ethics,” he says in an earlier issue of New Internationalist (January/February 2004). “An inspiring example of such ethics put into use in the struggle against social exclusion is the co-operative: a self-governing enterprise of persons united to meet their common economic, political, and cultural needs.”
Arías Sánchez’s experience with co-ops goes back to the 1980s when, as Costa Rica’s leader, he was under intense economic pressure to privatize the country’s state-owned sugar company. But he worried that selling it off to private investors would “have concentrated the profits in a few hands and the benefits to Costa Ricans would have been negligible.” So instead he turned it into a co-operative with shares available to workers along with other sugar cooperatives.
Like any other business enterprise, of course, co-operatives can be operated for the good of many or the good of a few. “It can come as little consolation to the fisherfolk of the South Pacific,” the New Internationalist notes, “that the super-efficient trawlers and factory ships from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan which devastated their fishing grounds were run by co-operatives.” And the famous Mondragon worker cooperative in the Basque region of Spain, forced to compete with corporate globalization, has fully embraced it. It has opened low-wage plants in Mexico, Morocco, Brazil, Argentina, India, Thailand, and China, where membership in the cooperative is not extended to its workers.
Facing economic pressures from companies focused solely on the bottom line, some cooperatives, especially larger ones in competitive industries, lose their sense of idealism and mission. Many of the large agricultural cooperatives in the American Midwest, for instance, are not much friendlier to the interests of small farmers than agribusiness giants like Cargill. Others, like Costco and REI outdoors stores in the U.S., feel no different than any other megaretailer.
But that does not detract from all that cooperatives are accomplishing today, and their potential to do even more as a viable, proven alternative to our out-of-control, often exploitive global economy. As New Internationalist points out, “Anyone can start a co-op. Nothing could be simpler. All it takes is a bright idea shared by at least two people—no co-op is too small to make a difference.”
 

Solution News Source

SIGN UP

TO GET A Free DAILY DOSE OF OPTIMISM


We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously. Privacy Policy