Jobs, jobs, jobs. Seems as if we are all standing around on the street corners waiting for the government or the guys in pinstripe suits to expand the U.S. workforce. As if true wealth were created by the wealthy, instead of by the workforce (both the paid and the unpaid ones) and by the Earth’s bountiful resources.
We cannot get to a better, more democratic and egalitarian world through greed-fueled, speculative "investment" that exploits rather than invests in people and the planet, with such advice as "buy low, sell high" and "buyer beware."
Nor will the world be improved by rigid authoritarianism that assures everyone of a free ride if they tighten their belts and toe the line.
There is a third way, one that can lead to greater prosperity and stability. That is cooperation, in the economic sense of the term, as set forth in the International Statement of Cooperative Identity.
Globally, millions of people benefit from owning and democratically controlling cooperative enterprises. The United Nations has declared 2012 to be the “Year of the Cooperative” to emphasize the importance of cooperatives in creating economic democracy around the world.
In the U.S., thousands of families who live in mobile home parks are forming resident-owned communities, such as ones in Waldoboro and Veazie, and more than 100 in New Hampshire.
Caregivers are creating their own companies; Cooperative Home Care Associates, one co-op in New York City, has 1,700 worker-owner members.
Workers own companies like Equal Exchange and Red Sun Press in Massachusetts. Farmers own national companies such as Welch’s, Cabot, Ocean Spray and Organic Valley.
Rural electric co-ops — started under FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration by U.S. farmers when utilities refused to invest in poles and wires in low-density areas — today have 42 million consumer-owners in 47 states, including Maine. RECs such as Washington Electric in Vermont lead the pack in renewable energy development.
Professional co-op developers in the Northeast, working through the Cooperative Development Institute, help new and established enterprises, including Local Sprouts (Portland), Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics (Greenfield, Mass.), Pelham Auto (Mass.), Port Clyde Fresh Catch (Maine), Belfast Food Co-op (Maine) and more. CDI also links with national small business cooperative networks such as Carpet One, and with all credit unions (including about 175 branches in Maine), which are cooperatively owned by depositors.
Maine’s growing cooperative economy is highlighted in an article by CDI Executive Director Noemi Giszpenc in the October 2011, issue of the USDA’s Rural Cooperatives magazine, excerpted here by permission:
“The need to retain valued institutions in rural areas — sources of jobs, homes and food, not to mention social fabric — can be met through the cooperative business model, which connects private and public interests.”
Giszpenc goes on to give examples of private businesses, such as the Old Creamery Co-op, a 100-year old general store in Cummington, and McCusker’s Market, now part of Franklin Community Co-op, both in Massachusetts, converted to community ownership.
Giszpenc continued, “Several scenarios make sense for conversion to a worker co-op. A business owner looking to sell — especially if the business is known for great service from long-time, knowledgeable employees — would do well to consider an employee buy-out.
“Another example would be a business seeking to expand its workforce from a couple of highly motivated proprietors to a broader but still entrepreneurial team. The Crown O’Maine Organic Cooperative is in the process of turning a family operation into a worker-owned co-op.
“... In Auburn, Maine, organic dairy farmers who are members of the Organic Valley cooperative formed Maine Organic Milling Cooperative to buy the privately held Blue Seal mill in order to preserve an invaluable organic feed resource. MOM now produces organic dairy cow and other livestock rations for farmers throughout New England.
“‘When the Blue Seal mill in Auburn closed down [in 2009], it left many Maine organic dairy farms with limited options,’ says Steve Russell, an Organic Valley farmer-owner and member of the Maine Organic Milling board of directors. ‘We need this feed mill right in our own backyard. Our cooperative model and the attitude of banding together is what keeps us and our farms together.’”
Across Maine and the nation, the cooperative enterprise sector — including credit unions — is flourishing because it is driven by different principles and values.
I think of it as The 21st Century Economy.
Jane Livingston, who works for the cooperative enterprise sector, is active in Cooperative Maine , a statewide group which promotes and supports cooperative development, and the cooperative economy.