Co-op matters in March

Frontier Co-op
I write about co-ops, but I don’t belong to one. Or so I thought. I just received a membership patronage check of $15.83 from the Frontier Co-op. My wife and I are members and order supplies from their enormous catalog. The items are discounted as long as you order in bulk with a group of people. In a letter they sent with the check, I learned the co-op had their most profitable year in 2014 with a net income of $15.5 million. For that year the co-op is returning 35% of the members’ overall earnings in cash. Since starting in 1976, the last ten years have been an unprecedented success for the co-op with a growth rate of 12% during that decade. It’s great to be a part of it.

Boston Tech Collective
In other news this month, I had an opportunity to hear from the Boston Tech Collective, hosted at another Meetup event hosted by Agaric in Cambridge. Worker/owner at the Boston Tech Collective, Yochai Gal, spoke about the successful co-op he’s a part of that offers IT and computer service. Also with Yochai was Matt Gabrenya who as a worker/owner handles administration of the co-op as well as the store front customer service. Yochai was also quite an expert on the co-op movement and discussed major co-op topics like the Arizmendi bakeries and their growing network of co-ops. Arizmendi is now an association of co-ops that includes seven businesses (also see “Own the Change,” a video discussed below that highlights Arizmendi). Yochai noted that they have progressed to the point of being able to buy buildings and set up businesses. As for the Boston Tech Collective, Yochai stresses that the personality of worker/owners is most important for staffing a successful co-op. And he is thinking on a larger scale about a potential federation of IT co-ops.

Own The Change
And lastly, I wanted to make mention of the Laura Flanders video Own The Change, created by GRITtv and Toolbox for Education and Social Action. It’s linked to YouTube above, but it can also be found at GRITtv, and FilmsforAction.org. This 22-minute documentary is more about the nuts-and-bolts of running co-ops and less about the novelty of them. Experts and worker/owners are interviewed. Joe Rhinehart from the Democracy at Work Institute discusses co-op structure. Rebecca Kemble from Union Cab in Madison, WI, discusses sharing surplus. Mentioned is the Arizmendi bakeries as a network of businesses in a section about the larger co-operative movement.

But some realities are addressed from a number of perspectives. Esteban Kelly from Aorta mentions the work involved to get a co-op going. David Hammer from the ICA Group, USA, explains that co-ops must create value and be viable. “Democracy is something you have to do every day” says Brian Van Slyke from The Toolbox for Education & Social Action in Chicago. “People discover that their whole lives they haven’t been practicing democracy,” he says. This affects seemingly simple interactions such as how to participate in meetings where discussion is vital. In addition to communication challenges, Brendan Martin from The Working World in New York, NY, explains that capital is difficult to raise which includes prejudice from traditional banking, and the “desire of the financial industry to get the spoils of your work.”

It’s great to see a video about proven co-operative practices. While showing some realities, this video establishes co-ops as a solution, and progresses into implementation.

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