A cooperativist is a worker but also an entrepreneur.

Arizmendiarrieta

This past August, I began a Master of Management, Co-operatives and Credit Unions through Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada to further my education and capabilities as a co-operator with Round Sky Solutions (find out more here about the Master’s Program!). As a part of my first class, I analyzed my cooperative’s adherence to the cooperative principles and values. Such a simple framework has sparked a great deal of insight on Round Sky’s strengths, weaknesses, and growth areas. In the spirit of reflecting, I’d like to share some of my insights with our community that you can learn from and apply to your own analysis of your work.

One of the biggest things I learned is that adhering to the cooperative principles is not a checklist nor is it a destination. Instead, living out the principles is a practice that we will need to continuously reflect on and develop as a cooperative. Below, you’ll find a condensed version of my paper.

As you read this paper, I invite you to reflect on how your cooperative lives out the cooperative principles? How can your cooperative strengthen its adherence to the cooperative principles? Remember, it’s a process!

Introduction

Round Sky Solutions, a small and mighty worker owned cooperative, incorporated as an LLC and cooperative in the mountains of Vermont with the vision of influencing our communities to become more sustainable, fair, and self-organized to catalyze a more generative world. Cecile and Daniel co-founded this cooperative in 2012 to help resolve the harmful power dynamics that show up in our teams through meaningful democratic management. Round Sky is a “meta” cooperative in the sense that we help other cooperatives better cooperate and self-organize through democratic management and leadership trainings.

Through my first course of the Master’s Program, I have read about the experiences of cooperative visionaries in the past from Rochdale Pioneers, cooperative theorists, and the Maritimes Cooperatives. In reflection, our efforts at Round Sky generally reflect the cooperative principles and values, especially around democracy and member (worker) engagement. And, we have room to grow to continuously and sustainably live out the cooperative principles around cooperation amongst cooperatives and identity. I will briefly describe our efforts around each cooperative principle below. 

1. Voluntary and Open Membership

The first principle, Voluntary and Open Membership, has been fairly simple for us to uphold as a smaller team. Our hiring and member admission practices have been both optional and voluntary for our members and have been open to qualified candidates without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination. The Mondragon Cooperatives describe this principle as “open admission [and] that membership is open to any person who accepts these basic principles without discrimination of any kind” (Lafuente & Freundlich, 2012, p. 8).

 

2. Democratic Member Control and Democracy

At the core of our cooperative’s inner-workings and our services to clients is meaningful democratic management relating to the second cooperative principle and to the value of democracy. Our cooperative takes this deeper with the sense that voting “yes” or “no” as decision-making is often incomplete. This goes along with Pobihushchy’s sense that “popular elections in and of themselves do not a democracy make” (Pobihushchy, 2002, p. 3). Thus, as of the second principle, Democratic Member Control, the four worker owners have an equal say on setting policies and decisions on a whole company level. We use our own process called Integrative Consent to incorporate multiple perspectives (we also teach this process in our trainings). More recently, we shifted the roles with our transition from four full time people to two full time people. However, Warbasse states that the democratic mass does not run the cooperative, but it controls it (Warbasse, 1942, p. 13). We can hold that as true and work towards the right balance as we navigate this transition. In all, one of my cooperative’s best strengths is actualized self-organization and democratic management.

 

3. Member Economic Participation

Per Round Sky’s operating agreements, our cooperative requires an investment of $5000 in order to become a member of the cooperative. This is in line with the third principle of Member Economic Participation. Members have the option to make payments toward this investment since this is not a small investment. Similar to the Rochdale Pioneers, our members do not represent the poorest of the poor, yet we also “lack real economic or political power” in some ways (Fairbairn, 1994, p. 4). We are not in this business for simply producing capital (part of being a cooperative), and we are not currently creating enough surplus to allocate to the future of our cooperative. This brings up the question: what is “the most serious threat”? Is it “in the hearts of discouraged co-operators[?]” (Declaration Towards the 21st Century, 1996, p. 17, para 43). And in this capitalist economy, who on the side of not creating capital simply to create capital has not felt discouraged by challenging finances?

 

4. Autonomy and Independence

Despite working on financial sustainability, our cooperative remains true to the fourth principle, Autonomy and Independence. I interpret this as maintaining a fully democratic structure with members making decisions that are not governed by outside forces. We have collaborated with other organizations and still maintain our cooperative identity and autonomy.

 

5. Education, Training and Information

Round Sky focuses both internally and externally on the fifth principle, Education, Training and Information. Internally, we engage education and training in various ways as and for members. We encourage our members to certify (for free) in our own certification course on collaborative leadership and management. This includes collaborative meeting facilitation skills, somatic awareness, team and individual project management, and more. We also have formalized practices to solicit feedback and learn from each other to continuously tend to our personal development. Lastly, we collectively hired a cooperative bookkeeper to give the members a financial literacy training about cooperatives so that we could make better informed financial decisions. Not to mention, I’m taking the time to do this Master’s Program.

In addition, our key initiative at Round Sky is providing training for cooperative teams (and others) in order to help them work better together. Education is the key to how cooperative leaders continue to grow together in their teams. Often we think that we can just try harder and be nicer, but there’s some education here missing about how we work together. We simply have not developed the skills for cooperation in our hierarchical world. Even our schools and families often exists as hierarchies. The historic Rochdale Pioneers were successful partially due to their ability to ensure that everyone had a voice and multiple ideas were presented. “They have had the good sense to differ without disagreeing” and “overcome criticism and disruption from less committed members” (Birchall, 1944, p. 55). In a polarized world, we need to be able to hone in on that skill in our cooperatives.

 

6. Cooperation among Cooperatives

For the sixth principle, Cooperation among Cooperatives, Round Sky is a member of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), which is an important hub to contribute to and support for the development and health of the US cooperative ecosystem. Further, we prioritize cooperatives for the services that we need such as banking with a credit union, VSECU. Lastly, we have found that partnering with other like-minded organizations and cooperatives is important for our growth. Thus, we have co-hosted a few free webinars for the community with groups like Cooperation Works, a hub for cooperative developers.

 

7. Concern for Community

Since its inception, Round Sky has exercised and worked on the seventh principle, Concern for Community. We offer scholarships and discounted rates to make it more accessible for cooperative leaders to work with us. We have created a lot of free resources that we have presented and offered to the cooperative community and beyond via webinars and conferences. In Vermont, Round Sky member, Cecile Green, helped to start the Green Mountain Worker Cooperative Alliance. Further, we have contributed a small amount to the Vermont Solidarity Investment Community to help support the development of cooperatives.

 

Areas to grow this year

Round Sky Solutions currently has a few areas that we will focus on honing in to strengthen our commitment to living out the cooperative values. In particular, Round Sky has made strides in the last year and wants to continue to strengthen its cooperative identity.

Although we have co-produced webinars, co-facilitated workshops, and connected with other cooperatives, the community sometimes does not know that we are a cooperative by our current messaging. So, going forward, we will be strengthening and refining some of our messaging as a cooperative. Being a cooperative is important to each of Round Sky’s members, so we will better spotlight that message and the importance of our cooperative identity. We will better stand out as a cooperative to service the cooperative leaders in our movement. If we can strengthen our communication, cooperators will better understand how to make use of our work and resources offered to the cooperative community.

Conclusion

Round Sky Solutions is a small, yet mighty, worker owned cooperative that has committed its mission to democratic management. Round Sky members believe in the power of the cooperative principles and the cooperative movement to build a world with generative power. We have work ahead of us to strengthen our cooperative identity and to continue to practice the principles and values of cooperatives. Because we won’t ever “reach” the co-operative principles, instead we will continue to practice and dynamically steer our work guided by them. As Arizmendi suggests that we are best served if we are “faithful to the principles of our work communities” (Arizmendiarrieta, p. 94, s.420). The Saint Mary’s Master’s Program has already helped to build up my analysis and understanding of how we can grow via strengthening and aligning our work to the cooperative principles and values.

Works Cited

  • Arizmendiarrieta, D. (undated). Reflections (Pensamientos), Otalora (Azatza): Mondragon Corporation Cooperativa. 13-116.
  • Birchall, J. (1994). Co-op: The People’s Business. Manchester United Press Principles. 41­‐64.
  • Fairbairn, B. (1994). The Meaning of Rochdale: The Rochdale Pioneers and the Co‐operative Principles, University of Saskatchewan Printing Services. 1-11.
  • Lafuente, J. & Freundlich, F. (2012). “The Mondragon Cooperative Experience: Humanity at Work.” Management Innovation Exchange.
  • Pobihushchy, S. (2002). “The Co-­operative Values–Their Meaning and Practical Significance.” Unpublished. 1-8.
  • Warbasse, J. (1942). “The Meaning and Methods of Cooperation.” In Cooperative Democracy through Voluntary Association of the People as Consumers. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publisher. 3-­25.

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