Time for OWS to Embrace the Co-Op Movement?
ANALYSIS, 21 Nov 2011
Are Americans finally to the point where they are tired of corporations owning everything?
Head into Liberty Plaza in Lower Manhattan, and one is immediately struck by the self-governing nature of the “Occupy” encampment.
A community which adheres to non-hierarchical decision making, Occupy conducts General Assembly meetings which are transparent and open to the public. Meals too are prepared communally, and there’s even a public library. On the other hand, it’s not as if Occupy is putting novel ideas into practice, since the encampment harks back historically to the co-operative movement.
According to the International Co-operative Alliance, an independent non-governmental organisation founded over a century ago, a co-operative is “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”.
Co-ops, which tend to aspire to other values besides pure profit-making, can be heterogeneous and may range from small-scale businesses to multimillion-dollar enterprises.
Though co-operatives are now a global phenomenon, they hark back originally to England in the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1844, a small group of cotton artisans from the town of Rochdale established the first modern co-operative business, known as the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. By pooling their resources and working together, the workers were able to access basic goods at a lower price. Such democratic principles continue to inform the thinking of co-operatives today, even within the bustle of highly capitalistic cities like New York.
With Occupy now sweeping the nation, some may wonder whether the co-operative movement could be poised to seriously take off. One particularly successful business is the Park Slope Food co-op, a market located in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York. The business was established in 1973 by a small group of committed neighbours who sought to make healthy and affordable food available to everyone who sought it.
Today, business is booming and the co-op has more than 12,000 members. By working once every four weeks for three and a half hours, members receive a whopping 20-40 per cent savings on groceries.
So successful has the co-op become that it has helped spur the growth of other co-ops throughout the city. Members may even learn about co-op news through an innovative newspaper, the Linewaiters Gazette. In a somewhat bizarre effort to disparage the co-op, the New York Times no less has run breathless and voyeuristic articles about the business by disgruntled ex-members, prompting puzzlement and dismay from the community.
Recently, I sat down with Joe Holtz, the General Manager of the Park Slope Food co-op, to discuss such issues as well as how the co-operative movement may fit within the larger political context of Occupy.
NK: How did you become involved with co-operatives and what drew you to this particular line of work?
JH: I became involved as a young person. Food co-ops were around in the late 1960s and early 1970s and were particularly attractive to people who were protesting the Vietnam War. The environmental movement was also picking up steam at that time and the first Earth Day was held in April, 1970. Around that same time Diet for a Small Planet came out, a book which explained very succinctly how a heavily meat-based diet was wasteful for the planet.
NK: Recently, the United Nations announced that 2012 would be the International Year of co-operatives, and it really seems as if the UN wants to recognise co-operatives as a viable business model world-wide. Why do you suppose such efforts have gained traction within international bodies like the UN, yet in this country Washington and the wider public seem slow to catch on?
JH: Well, there are many co-ops in the US; it’s just that they’re not the dominant sector. In agriculture, for example, you can find a lot of farmers’ co-ops. There are also many hidden co-ops that people aren’t aware of, for example True Value hardware stores. The owner of each store is a member of a purchasing co-op.
In New York, credit unions, housing co-ops, worker co-ops and food co-ops recently participated in a forum and the Ford Foundation provided an auditorium for the event. People here walk past Key Food and Shop-Rite supermarkets all the time, yet few realise that both are co-operatives. These stores are not co-operatives for the workers who labour there or the consumers – they’re co-operatives for the owners.
However, I think it’s great that local and neighbourhood business owners have joined together to challenge Home Depot and Loews. If you go to the National co-operative Business Association, which we’re members of, and you read the newsletter, they talk about how large the co-operative sector is and they count True-Value hardware as well as the Park Slope Food co-op in the overall list.
NK: It seems like with Occupy Wall Street this might be a great time for the growth of co-operative industries in the US, and recently hundreds of thousands of people moved their money out of large banks and into credit unions as a form of political protest. How much of a boom do you expect to see and is this the time where co-ops truly take off?
JH: My answer to that is “maybe”. When people think about capitalism, they have some kind of traditional model in mind where a person owns a business or a lot of people own a business and then they start to become known as a corporation. But what people don’t realise is that there’s another form of business which is co-operatives. Though they function within a capitalist framework, co-operatives also emphasise such principles as democracy and in this sense it’s totally different from the typical shareholder-corporate thing.
I think people in America are finally getting to the point where they’re tired of corporations owning everything and perhaps we’ll see a creative use of the co-operative model in coming years. Remarkably, over the last eight years I have received tenfold the amount of calls from people wanting to know how to start a food co-op from the prior eight years.
NK: The co-op has taken off to such an extent these days that the market is even sponsoring the creation of other food co-operatives throughout New York. Is this the beginning of a big food co-op boom in the US?
JH: It seems like there’s a wave of new co-ops, just like the previous wave in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Philadelphia, just like New York, there are many food co-ops that are seeking to get off the ground. I’m not sure what to attribute it to, but I think it’s a reaction to the consolidation of business.
NK: Coincidentally, just as Occupy Wall St has been gaining force, the co-op has grown in membership to such a degree that there is now a danger that the market may get over flooded. To what extent does this increased membership reflect the economic hard times?
JH: I think our increased membership is partly explained by that and now we have even run out of space. There’s an industry term called “sales per square foot”, and currently we are at more than 12 times the national average. People often have to wait on long lines. We’re trying to stabilise our membership while helping other groups start their own co-ops which could lessen demand on us.
NK: For some time now, the New York Times has pursued what seems to be a quixotic vendetta against the co-op and interestingly enough the paper has also attacked Occupy Wall St (though the paper of record now seems to be getting better in its coverage of the protests). Why do you think the Times is so hostile to the co-op, and does this reflect a deep suspicion of community-run businesses?
JH: I don’t know. You would think the Times would marvel at the fact that there’s an unusual and successful co-op in its midst. The most interesting question about this place is “why is it so successful?” Instead of trying to answer this fundamental question, however, the Times has chosen to make fun of the co-op or belittle us.
NK: For years, the co-op has had its own newspaper, the Linewaiters Gazette, which discusses relevant issues occurring in the market. How important has the paper been in terms of rallying community spirit, and what lessons does this offer to the protesters which, interestingly, now have their own newspaper, the Occupy Wall St Journal?
JH: The Linewaiters Gazette is very important because it enhances communication. You cannot have a democracy unless there’s a big effort exerted to inform people. In a democracy, you need to be transparent. Most of the paper is devoted to internal food co-op issues and it’s beneficial for us to have a newsletter that is controlled by members. So, we have a newsletter reporter who covers the meetings and discusses the financial report [we also put the financial report in the lobby of the building so anyone can pick it up and not just people who went to the meeting].
There is staff support for the paper, but the actual editorial control and the rules for the newsletter are designed by a member-run newspaper committee. It’s not paid labour and it’s kind of remarkable that we’re able to come out with 26 issues per year. Plus, we welcome anyone to write letters to the paper, and we basically publish everything unless the person crosses some line by using discriminatory language.
Joe Holtz is the General Manager of the Park Slope Food co-op.
Nikolas Kozloff is a Brooklyn-based writer whose web site can be found here.
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