As I have traveled around North America, I have had the opportunity to visit many co-operatives and credit unions. I have gotten to know how they operate and make decisions around their strategy and operations. It’s only in the last few years that I have become more interested in governance.
Governance wasn’t something I was interested in, or even understood very well until fairly recently. I took it for granted, governance was something that happened in the background and I never dwelled on its importance.
In Bologna, we have seen many types of coops: consumer co-ops selling goods and services in which the customers are the members; worker co-ops where the member-owners are the employees; social co-ops often organized as worker coops where the focus is meeting a societal need such as helping refugees or people with disabilities; and producer co-ops where people who produce things such as grapes can work collectively to create more value by co-operatively turning their grapes into branded and marketed wines earning them all greater returns than they would earn individually selling grapes directly to the market.
I have heard people here call some local co-ops “fake coops” and they do so for two main reasons.
Some worker co-ops can be fake co-ops. A worker co-op usually has some employees who are not worker-owners and others who are. In Italy, if a co-op dips below 50% of all employees being worker-owners, they are no longer considered to be “mutually prevalent” and lose certain tax benefits encouraged to increase the number of people who mutually own the firms in which they work. Having a high prevalence of mutuality or worker-ownership at a firm promotes things that the State cares about such as higher wages, greater inclusivity in the workforce and more democratic practices. Most worker co-ops in Emilia-Romagna have 70% of staff buying in as worker-owners and only 30% being strict employees. Some people call worker co-ops who have a small number of their employees as worker-owners to be fake coops. They are set up as a co-op, but the benefits are not widely shared, and are concentrated in the hands of a few, like in traditional firms.
Another way in which a co-op can be fake is when the bond between members is very small and meaningless. Consumer co-ops, a very prevalent model in North America, are at constant risk of becoming fake co-ops, as the bond between members is shallow, the commitment needed to join is often low and the benefits of membership are limited. For example, you join a food co-op for $25, a fairly low amount, you get some discounts, vote for the board, but what’s asked of you is minimal. These co-ops have to work harder to compete in a non co-operative market and retain and promote their principles and mission.
Compare that to a worker co-op, where you may be spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to in order to buy a share and become a worker-owner. While voting rates at consumer co-ops tend to be 2-5% of members, at worker co-ops 80-100% is more typical because they’re voting for a board which directs their work-life and the strategic direction of the firm where they are a co-owner.
As I work with co-ops and credit unions, I am amazed by how many don’t have active democratic practices. They limit the number of candidates who can run in board elections and seriously screen their candidates, so that board directors are acclaimed instead of elected. They don’t promote to their members that they can run for the board. In BC, credit unions have seen a shift where our regulator requires credit unions to recommend certain candidates who best represent the skills a regulated, complex financial institution requires today. But there are practices I see in play at credit unions who still operate democratically, including Vancity, such as having a Nominations & Elections Committee made up mostly of members-at-large (who aren’t on the board) and only a couple of sitting board members. This is done so the existing board can’t control who can stand for elections. Allowing all members in good standing to run, whether they are recommended or not, and having more recommended candidates than there are open seats so there is still an open election among the recommended candidates as well as all candidates are important practices to keep a co-operative democratic and real.
If you work for a co-op or are a member of a co-op consider how democratic your organization is. Are control and benefits shared broadly, or concentrated? No co-op is perfect, but all should be striving to live out their principles as best as possible and share benefits broadly.