The Co-op Principles for Beginners

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Suzie: I like that GreenStar is a co-op.

Mike: Yeah, I am all over the vegan cupcakes.

Suzie: That’s not what makes the Co-op a co-op!

Mike:  It’s not? Well, I sure feel at home here. It’s my kind of food.

Suzie: Being a Co-op is about the members owning the business. That’s why everyone has a membership. It’s how we own part of the business.

Mike: I got a member number. It’s from my old college roommate.

Suzie: You’re supposed to have your own member number! How do you vote in Co-op elections?

Mike: Members are supposed to vote in Co-op elections?

Suzie: Voting is part of the “co-op” deal. You know, “locally owned, democratically controlled…”

Mike: I’m in favor of that.

Suzie: Did you ever hear of the Co-op Principles?

Mike: Like, I’m sure I’m in favor of them. I bet the Co-op Principles are about eating good food, right?

Suzie: Kind of. The first “modern co-op” was a grocery store. The Co-op Principles are from this grocery store founded in Britain in the 1840s. A group of weavers were hungry after a failed strike. No one would hire them, and their grocers used dishonest weights and sold adulterated food. But the group had political savvy and the solidarity of their union background. So they came together to make a co-op for food.

Mike: The 1840s was pretty long ago.

Suzie: Do you want to hear about the Co-op Principles?

Mike: Sure. Maybe I can chat up a cashier!

Suzie: The first Co-op Principle is Open Membership: Everyone is welcome to join.

Mike: That’s not a big deal.

Suzie: Not nowadays it isn’t. But back then almost every group had its own preferred people and refused outsiders. For example, in various early co-op groups, to belong you had to be a man, or rich, or part of a certain church congregation, or a member of a certain Masonic order.

Mike: We could refuse membership to people who think the war on Iraq was a good idea.

Suzie: Ouch! That’s just my point. We let anybody join the Co-op, no matter what.

Mike: What’s Principle Two?

Suzie: Democratic Member Control: One person, one vote. 

Mike: Democracy is good.

Suzie: The members vote for the Co-op Board of Directors, or Council, and the Council sets policy and hires the General Manager, and she hires and directs the staff.

Mike: How do you vote at the Co-op anyway?

Suzie: If you’re a member, you can vote in the current election. Information is available at the Member Centers in the stores and in the Fall Mailing, which is going out right now.

Mike:  Well, it’s $90 for a membership.


Suzie: Yeah, but it’s a one-time fee. Let’s go on to Principle Three: Member Economic Participation. That’s your member share. Instead of having a rich person or a corporation come up with the money to start and run a business (and then take all the profits), we, the members, come up with the money in the form of our member shares. Then we’re in charge of running it and get the benefits.

Mike: So, we run it by electing a board who thinks like us.

Suzie: Smarter, hopefully. The Co-op Principles are used around the world for all different kinds of businesses. In the United States people alienated by big biz had solidarity and a shared vision of better food. We started the natural foods co-ops that live on today, like GreenStar, in the 70s using the Co-op Principles. Principle Three means when a co-op gets ahead financially it makes sure all members benefit fairly. In co-ops you get a discount or patronage check in proportion to how much you spent in a good year. Whenever GreenStar has done well financially, it has reinvested in expanding services, which all members are welcome to use. Of course, Principle Four: Autonomy and Independence, means we don’t have to obey orders from some “national corporate office.” It means we are on our own to figure stuff out, for better or worse.

Mike: Hopefully for better!

Suzie: That leads us to Co-op Principle Five: Education and Training. Co-ops provide education and information to members, board members, managers and staff so they can do their part in making the Co-op better. There are workshops on how to be a better board member, and conferences for staff to attend.

Mike: So, my part is to have a membership in my name, shop at the Co-op, and vote.

Suzie: Right. How’s this educational talk going? Want to talk about Principle Six: Cooperation among Co-ops?

Mike: It’s going good. But I don’t think cooperating with other co-ops can matter much to me here. 

Suzie: Actually, all the “new wave co-ops” from the 70s that are still alive got together as a “co-op of co-ops” to negotiate best prices from national suppliers. When all of the Co-ops buy together, we become a much stronger force. That’s how we can have the CAP program, which is the stuff on special price in the stores each month. Really helps with the shopping bill.

Mike: Yeah, I buy what’s on sale. I like to get a good deal.

Suzie: The last Co-op Principle is: Concern for Community. GreenStar has always been good at that and members have loved it.

Mike: You almost make the Co-op Principles interesting.

Suzie: Hopefully you’re interested enough to become a member and support the co-op movement! And if you want to know more, check out www.gocoop.coop (yep, co-ops are so cool we have our own web domain). It’s got oodles of info on all things co-op!


Adapted from Catalyst, the New Pioneer Cooperative newsletter.