Cooperative Principle #1: Open Membership
Here’s the full statement of the first principle: “Membership of a Co-operative society should be voluntary and available without artificial or social, political, radical, or religious discrimination to all persons who can make use of its services and are willing to accept the responsibilities of membership.” In other words, a cooperative is not a club. Cooperative Bylaws require Boards of Directors to approve membership applications, but this is not a way to exclude applicants. Formal approval of applicants creates a record of who is entitled to exercise the rights of member-ownership.
The principle is no longer the break-through it was 150 years ago, but we can still use it for guidance. The modern political and social climate is full of struggles based on intolerance, a common response to fear and uncertainty. Nevertheless, it’s a response that must be resisted.
What does the principle of open membership say to us about this situation? Inherent in the principle is the idea that cooperatives must allow, i.e. tolerate, a free exchange of diverse opinions and ideas. When discussion is complete, the members vote and the majority opinion becomes policy.
Cooperative history is full of examples of intolerance, within co-ops, that has contributed to the downfall of organizations. Attempts to use cooperatives to affect unrelated social agendas weaken both the internal cohesiveness of co-ops and the ability to cooperate with other co-ops. When a co-op’s membership becomes polarized to the extent that each side refuses to support the co-op unless its own agenda is adopted, the cooperative fabric is destroyed.
There is a preference for political and religious neutrality inherent in the principle of open membership. This is a surprise to many who joined co-ops in the sixties and seventies, when many “new wave” co-ops included diverse social agendas in their mission statements.
The neutrality principle may be confusing because there are times co-ops do enter the political realm. Natural foods co-ops have lobbied for law relating to the dispensing of food from bulk bins, organic standards, and genetically modified foods. National co-op organizations argue legal cases and lobby for legislation. This is certainly political behavior in the broad sense of participation in civic life. However, it is political behavior directly related to the ability of co-ops to fulfill their mission of providing goods and services to the member-owners.
A co-op that becomes identified with a political ideology, unrelated to its primary mission, is not practicing open membership. Since only those of similar persuasion are likely to join, it de facto discourages participation by persons with different political leanings, who may need the co-op or have the ability to contribute to it.
As the interest in natural foods explodes beyond the demographic groups that started our co-ops, we must welcome people who don’t fit an outdated view of a co-op member. We must focus our energies to make sure that cooperatives remain strong alternatives to the private businesses that are moving so forcefully into our industry. A critical part of that strategy must be full implementation of open membership.
This article is used by permission and adapted by Hope Sutton from a Sevananda Natural Food Co-op Newsletter article originally written by Steve Cooke, General Manager.