Whether engaged in banking, retailing, or generating electricity, all cooperatives are bound together by the fact that they adhere to the “Rochdale Principles.” Descended from the rules that governed the world’s first cooperative store in Rochdale, England, the modern list of seven principles serves define the core of what it means to be a cooperative.
Most of the ideas put forward in the Rochdale Principles tend to apply to the relationship between a co-op and its members. All co-ops, they assert, should be characterized by such things as “voluntary and open membership,” “democratic member control,” and “member economic participation.” The sixth principle, however, deals with the relationship between an individual co-op and the movement as a whole by promoting “cooperation among cooperatives.”
Unfortunately, coops often interpret Principle Six narrowly to mean joining their trade association and, if they are particularly ambitious, putting a little bit of money in a cooperative development fund. On the other hand, some co-ops take that responsibility quite seriously, and go above and beyond in support of other co-ops and the movement.
A fantastic example of such inter-cooperative cooperation is ongoing right now in Burlington, VT. In the face of the possible sale of the local municipal telecom provider by the City to a corporate buyer, residents formed a group to explore the possibility of establishing a co-op which would offer a local and democratic alternative to corporate ownership.
Almost immediately, Burlington’s food co-op, City Market, stepped up to support the campaign. Updates about the telecom co-op project began to appear in its newsletter, and volunteers staffing a table in the first aisle of the co-op on days in which the space is not being used for food demonstrations have become a regular feature. When asked about the food co-op’s decision to take such an active role in promoting the new start-up, City Market General Manager Clem Nilan responded that:
City Market, as an organization, is hard-wired to support new and existing cooperatives. Our Global Ends … reads, “the cooperative model is supported,” [a]nd Cooperative Principle 6, Cooperation among Cooperatives, attests that cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.
At Onion River Co-op, we can see and measure the positive impact we have on our community. We are happy to share our resources to promote the cooperative model. … If Burlington Telecom becomes a customer-owned co-op, the telecom’s revenues and profits would remain in Burlington enriching our community and supporting good jobs. Businesses like City Market and households (like my own) depend on fast reliable information transfer which BT provides through world-class fiber-optic capacity.
Because Onion River Co-op has been operating at a high level for many years, we have the resources to implement our goal to support the co-op sector.
As a result of such support (as well as countless volunteer hours), the telecom co-op has raised over $80,000 in pledges and recruited hundreds of members. Though the project has a long way to go yet before the goal of mutualizing Burlington Telecom can be achieved, City Market’s dedication to the principle of “cooperation among cooperatives” has provided a big leg up and suggests the importance of that principle to the ongoing project of building the cooperative economy.