THE COOPERATIVE MOVEMENT - AN EXAMPLE OF WORKING FOR THE COMMON GOOD
Examples of the Cooperative Movement go far back in British history to the laboring Trade Guilds. They are also historic in the Scandinavian countries and still thrive there. In the U.S. most cooperatives started during the Great Depression, but some were established earlier than that.
There are generally two types of cooperatives (hereinafter referred to as Co-op): Consumer (retail level) and Producer. The producer Co-ops can include agricultural producers (such as Sunkist citrus growers), utility companies, especially in rural areas. There are thousands of small producer co-ops around the U.S. that are combinations of both types. Examples are bakeries, etc. Then there are service coops such as childcare cooperatives, where parents of enrollees are required to donate some supervision time each month.
As you can see, there are many varieties of Co-ops, all for the Common Good.
In U.S. Consumer Cooperatives, the structure is a nonprofit corporation under each state's laws. Members of the public are entitled to purchase one, and only one, share, which is usually very inexpensive. I paid $5 for my Co-op share. Each shareholder is entitled to one vote in the corporation. The shareholders annually elect a board of directors from its membership to establish co-op policies and to oversee its fiduciary responsibility for the Common Good.
The cooperative, through its board, may hire staff to run the operation; establish various committees of volunteer shareholder members.
At the end of each fiscal year, the Board establishes a cash rebate percentage rate, which is based on the earnings of the corporation. This rebate is calculated on the total amount spent by each shareholder's purchases during the fiscal year.
This limitation of one share, one vote per member protects the Co-op from domination by any particular party for the Common Good. Members may coalesce into advocacy groups within the co-op to lend weight to their policy change initiative, if they wish. But it can only be accomplished by democratic open and/or secret ballot vote for the Common Good. And, unlike some private corporations, everything a co-op does is public information because of its nonprofit status. And, contrary to some myths about co-ops, they do pay taxes on a nonprofit corporation basis.
In Producer Co-ops, the structure and process is much the same. The main difference is that the producers have joined together to leverage or protect their product's viability. In the case of rural utility co-ops, it often was to create a benefit that the area's population and/or local government didn't have the financial capability to establish the utility. By cooperating for the Common Good, many rural areas were electrified for the first time.
My personal experience with cooperatives: In the 1930s, in the depth of the Great Depression, the Finnish Community in the San Francisco California East Bay Area got together, pooled their meager financial resources, and formed a Consumer Cooperative similar to what the immigrants had known in Finland.
It started in member's garages where its members bought products in bulk to save money. Examples were large blocks of cheese, which were then cut into family sized chucks and sold at nearly wholesale prices to the Co-op's members.
Gradually, the Co-op expanded into fresh produce from farmers, who welcomed the market for the fruits and vegetables that would otherwise rotted in their fields. Realizing more space was needed, the member rented a tiny warehouse on University Avenue in Berkeley. Canned goods then began to appear later. The tiny co-op lacked adequate refrigeration, so it took a long time for perishable goods, such as meats and fresh milk, to be sold.
Gradually, the tiny warehouse expanded to add a tiny retail store. Its members volunteered their time to drive to bulk-product sources and bring them back to the store. Other members donated their time to help members receive their products (no money to hire staff). Everyone pulled together during a tough time for the Common Good.
During World War II in the 1940s, the little Co-op grew in response to the great need. With good management it was finally able to hire, it prospered and garnered the admiration and respect of the surrounding communities. It had finally been able to hire a small staff, but volunteers still took an active part in the day-to-day operations for the Common Good.
The little store grew into two, then three stores. One of the new stores was in the poorer neighborhoods for the Common Good even though the two other stores had to subsidize it for a number of years.
In the 1950s, as I began my family, I became aware of the Consumer Co-ops. I joined the grocery co-op first. I later joined its Credit Union in 1956, and I'm still a member. I became an active volunteer in the co-op when it opened a store in the suburban town in which I lived at that time.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Co-op grew into the following for the Common Good: 7 grocery stores with one wholesale warehouse; 3 credit union offices; 2 book stores; 3 garage and/or gas service stations; 3 full-service pharmacies; access source to the Kaiser HMO Health Plan; 2 hardware/garden stores; a travel service; childcare co-op; in-store branch post office; in-store child care facilities to make it easier for parents to shop; and full-time staff Home Economists and the expertise they could provide to consumers---in the stores; and even book writing and publishing. UCLA students at the Berkeley campus organized a student co-op and built housing. There are probably others that I've momentarily forgotten.
In addition to all of this, the most valuable Common Good assets of the co-op was its members, some of the greatest people I've ever known. So many volunteers gave so much to the cause and it proved that one or two people could make a difference in people's lives. There were so many local heroes.
A small example is that our home economists discovered that the makers of a well-known biscuit mix product had secretly removed the vitamin and mineral nutrient supplements from its biscuit mix to save money and increase their profits. We exposed their action and they had to restore the nutrients after the home economists took on the corporation.
Another example is my own small contribution. It started one day as a result of my frustration while shopping in the cereal section of the co-op. Manufacturers deliberately avoid standardized packaging sizes and content weight so that consumers have a hard time determining the better buy. I had an idea. I asked a friend (John Hopkins) who knew how to use a slide rule to help me compute the "price per pound" of the products. We would walk the store sections while I called out the product's weight and price. John would compute the cost-per pound, which I would write on a tab and post it on the shelf. We then spent the next year's weekends computing the entire store (remember, no computers at that time) and posting the information on the shelves next to the product prices. The product manufacturers hated what we were doing and some of them with their own staff product stockers would remove our information tabs every time they came into the store to stock shelves.
Then an amazing thing happened. The customers loved the price per pound information. Other neighborhood grocery stores heard about what we were doing and started copying us. We finally got a computer system and the hand posting came to an end. We were very grateful.
But the most amazing part of this story is that I was asked to testify before the California Legislature on a Bill to require that all grocery stores post accurate, up to date "price per pound" information on their shelves for their products. It was a tough fight, with the retail and wholesale producer industries fighting us every step of the way. I had to go back to the legislature a couple of times to block some of the big grocery chains from putting and end to the law when its "sunshine" effective period was to end. But, with the help of California's Labor Movement, we beat them each time. The law is permanent in California and---amazingly, it spread nationwide.
So, friends, when you go grocery shopping and you see the "price-per-pound" information on the shelves to help you get the better buy, you know that one or two people CAN make a difference. And my friend John and I went to all that effort for THE COMMON GOOD.