Co-ops need an 8th principle

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By Tony Patterson

Let me give you a little background. I was born before the last world war, in 1938. I have known about co-ops since I was a youngster. Where I went to school, a Catholic college in Montreal, Moses Coady at St. FX was the prophet and the Antigonish Movement was gospel. I knew about it but I didn’t join, went in another direction.

Then by circumstance that would take too long to explain, I moved to a housing co-op 12-13 years ago. It’s a small co-op called Catalpa, just nine units, but through it I learned something about the structure of the movement in Canada. In 2012, the UN designated Year of Co-operatives, Catalpa made a submission to the Parliamentary Committee on Co-operatives and I attended the first Co-op Economic Summit in Quebec City.

At Quebec I decided to try to do something. I knew it would take time. But I thought I’d give it five years if I was lucky enough to have that long. What would I do? Well I’d start a publication of some kind to spread the word and drive interest around what was happening in the co-op world. That notion became the Co-op Canada Accelerator.

Why did I pick this to try? Because it was clear that apart from me and a few other old spirits, very few people inside the co-op movement today could tell you who Moses Coady is and very few people outside the movement know anything about what a co-op is. Delivering information is what I know something about. Media, journalism and publishing are what I have been doing all my life. Literally. I was publishing a newsletter in grade school. I had a public affairs tv show in the early days. I was associate editor of a national newspaper before I was 30 and when I was 60 I was publishing papers across Canada in partnership with Rogers Media. I say this only to put my co-operative venture in context.

?????Accelerate was the operative word. In the spirit of the Quebec Summit, I’d try to accelerate the movement by delivering current information and opinion about it, about its problems and its opportunities. But as everyone is aware, the media sector is in a state of furious flux. Print is dying, it’s said. Television becomes cablevision and goes streaming. Podcasting is the new radio. And everything is on the internet.

I used to start magazines or newspapers but I decided to do what’s known as a blog, which is the way that a lot of journalists and their organizations have gone. It’s basically a simple log or entry on the web of each new story in chronological order, a pretty common format. Its primary strength is that it provides an interactive capability. Accelerator aimed to stimulate response and discussion.

But I really had no idea of the depth of inertia within the co-op sector. Most co-ops are insular and inward looking. Co-operatives dearly love themselves. This is a good thing. But they are too often timid, cautious and publicity shy, if not averse. This is not helpful in moving the movement forward.

It’s not totally untrue to say that co-operatism in Canada is in danger of dying, It’s almost a natural law that when a living organism stops growing, it starts to die. Co-ops in Canada have not been growing. Or if they have, it’s minutely. And that’s partly at least because the people who want to make things happen don’t know anything about co-ops. They don’t know because we don’t tell them. And when I say tell them, I mean find a way to catch and keep their attention in the midst of the million messages a day they are each processing. There are two components to success in this endeavor. The first is the message: Co-ops are the better way. The second and most important is persistence. Only persistence has any chance in the long run. A persistent message has the power to persuade.

Either we believe in the co-operative model and are willing to work for it or we’ll be steamrollered by a lot of other innovative models coming forward. We have to promote what we have, mindful that the end game is how to insert co-op principles into capitalist practice. And I dare say we might have to fight for it because a multitude of socially-constructive economic models are being proposed and tested. (Platforms, Non-profits, ESOPs)

Co-operation is a movement that has as its ultimate objective the displacing of a profit-only motivated economic system with one based on principles of human rights and dignity. Principles are the moving spirit of co-ops.

The Eighth Principle

Mauril Belanger252X176The last time I talked with Mauril Bèlanger (left), who was instrumental in creating both the Parliamentary Commission on Co-operatives of 2012 and the co-operative caucus in the House of Commons, we were together at a symposium to honour Mark Goldblatt. Mark was a lifelong contributor to the movement and its apex organizations, instrumental in forming several co-op federations and credited with helping to create thousands of co-operative housing units. Mark, who died at 62, was a good friend who well understood the importance of getting the message out. His dad had been a prominent journalist. Mauril never ceased to tell co-ops that they “would do well to market themselves better and develop more effective messaging.” Tragically, he learned he had ALS a IanMacPherson_thumbmonth after the symposium and would be just 61 when he died a year later. Both Mauril and Mark had the greatest respect for Ian MacPherson (right), who gave inspiration, mentorship and a mission statement to Accelerator, and who also died much too young at 74.

One thing in particular these giants agreed on was the need for co-ops to make themselves better known. To sum up their feelings in a word: frustration. Frustration that the giant stays sleeping, that disdain for profit motive has morphed into fear of money or of spending for anything but bare essentials. Frustration that the sector turned out its lights when one Trudeau retired and switched them back on only to mark arrival of the next. Thirty years of slow to no growth.

If we truly believe that cooperation is the answer, a cooperative capitalism that is kinder, fairer, that embraces human dignity and rights, that gradually reduces inequalities of wealth and power in the system, if this is what we believe then we’d better start telling people about it.

The bible says, Go into all the world, and preach the glad tidings to all (Mark 15:16). That’s what co-ops need to do. The thing is that this has been well known for a long while. Whether because of reluctance to fund anything but essentials, or some other reason or reasons, little gets done to address the problem. Mark, Mauril and Ian knew it. They also knew there is only one way to make anything a priority throughout the movement. It would have to be a principle. If it is to be common practice, getting out to spread the news about co-operatives must first be a principle. The eighth principle. Shout it out is a direct way to say it.

Now of course it’s no little thing to touch the co-op principles. They are at the core of the movement. But it’s no impossibility either. They’ve been altered before. More than once. Ian MacPherson was in charge of the last revision, in 1995. Of the seven co-op principles today only two are the same as the original Rochford seven.

Principles get updated every thirty years on average. Today there are less than ten years to go until thirty years will have passed since the last revision. That’s time that can be used to pound a new idea into the stuffed head of co-operatism. Co-ops are very conservative. By their very nature they conserve. But conservation and innovation are not antithetical. They can work hand-in-hand. Conservation at a time of massive global climate change absolutely requires innovation. If we want to conserve our planet we damn well have to innovate. Our movement is no different. It must move with the times, catch the wave of change, innovate for success.

Principles drive and underpin co-operatism. Anything to change the priorities or general practice of co-ops must start with the principles. Fortunately for the movement, the principles are indeed adaptable. They are man and woman made, not god given.

It won’t be easy of course and it will take some time to persuade those whom Mark Goldblatt sometimes called the grandees of the movement. By nature those at or around any apex are guardians of tradition and resistant to change. But difficulty is not defeat and time is on the side of what’s right. Confucius said it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. His contemporary, Lao Tzu, put it another way: the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Though hardly as old as those two, I agree with both.

I’d like you to consider lighting the candle, taking the first step, here at the Ottawa Co-op Network.

Why start here? I think most innovation in co-operation as in anything else has to come from the bottom up. At the top, innovation is a threat. At the top of Canadian co-operation everything is strictly constrained. The annual budget of CMC has not been increased in more than a dozen years and in fact has declined recently despite the merger of previously separate English and French associations.

I’ve thought about where to go with this. For all practical purposes, OCN is at the bottom of the co-operative structure. It sells nothing. Has no revenue, no expenses. Has no staff. It’s nowhere in the co-op structure. But it’s here and it cares enough to hang in doing little co-operative things year after year. I think it is precisely the kind of organization out of which change and innovation can emerge. So I’d like to throw a challenge. Since this is the only kind of place where anything can get started, let’s start something. Let’s start to incorporate an eighth co-operative principle. Let’s search for ways to make it real, to make public understanding and promotion of the co-operative model a priority.

I hope you’ll keep the flame alight and keep stepping even past my time. I am mindful of another biblical forecast, in the ninetieth psalm, that “The days of our years are threescore years and ten yet if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, this strength will bring labour and sorrow yet it is soon cut off and we fly away.”

I won’t be fourscore for another month but I’m quite a bit older now than were Ian, Mark or Mauril when they departed. I can’t say why this has happened, why I’ve lasted longer than better men. But if it was for anything, let it be to perpetuate a message to all those in this co-op generation and beyond who would like to carry the movement forward more vigorously. Shout it out.

Remarks above were delivered at a meeting of the Ottawa Co-op Network, March 22, 2018.

The Co-op Principles

Original version (set out at Rochdale in 1844; adopted by ICA 1937)

  1. Open membership
  2. Democratic control (one person, one vote).
  3. Distribution of surplus in proportion to trade.
  4. Payment of limited interest on capital.
  5. Political and religious neutrality.
  6. Cash trading (no credit extended).
  7. Promotion of education

ICA revision (1966)

  1. Open, voluntary membership.
  2. Democratic governance.
  3. Limited return on equity.
  4. Surplus belongs to members.
  5. Education of members and public in cooperative principles.
  6. Cooperation between cooperatives. [Which led to federations]

 ICA revision (1995)

    1. Voluntary and Open Membership
    2. Democratic Member Control
    3. Member Economic Participation
    4. Autonomy and Independence
    5. Education, Training and Information [Promotion and public affairs sublimated here]
    6. Co-operation among Co-operatives
    7. Concern for Community