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The First Cooperative Principle

The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) has established seven principles as guidelines by which cooperatives put their values into practice.

The First Principle is Voluntary and Open Membership:

“Cooperatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.”

We see immediately that membership in a Co-op must be a voluntary act – no one shall be forced to join or leave a Co-op. This is consistent with the freedom of association that is a fundamental human right. The principle also acknowledges that not all cooperatives are the right fit for every person. Coops are open to all who are “able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership”, but Co-ops are often highly specialized in their activities and purpose (i.e., a housing Co-op, a fruit marketing Co-op, a recycling collection worker Co-op, etc.).

Members may be individuals or business entities, depending on the type of Co-op. Regardless, the concept of Membership is essential to a cooperative organization. The Membership relationship, that between the cooperative and the persons who use the Co-op to meet certain needs, is special and distinct from the relationship between other commercial businesses and their employees and customers. A Co-op membership cannot be so easily defined as either owner, manager, worker, client, etc. A Co-op member is uniquely granted rights of ownership and decision-making.

Membership often requires a buy-in, or purchase of a member share. While the fees can vary greatly, open membership principles suggest that the buy-in price should be proportional to the nature of the Co-op. A worker Co-op may require a significant buy-in in order to finance the capital costs of building and operating the business. A consumer Co-op, however, should have an affordable buy-in as consumer Co-op members will not be earning their livelihood through their membership. Many Co-ops provide for financing options or installment payments.

Cooperatives should fully embrace the value of anti-discrimination. This is a fundamental principle of human rights and a pre-requisite to a just and fair society. The United States currently finds itself awash in nationalism, border walls, and countless efforts to discriminate against countless people for countless reasons. It is a high standard to operate a business “without discrimination” and requires constant vigilance and reflection, as ‘standard business practices’ may prove inadequate in this regard.

What would it mean to take a radical approach towards anti-discrimination in membership? As an example, I invite the reader to consider Greyston, a company founded by Zen Master Roshi Bernie Glassman. Greyston uses a method they call Open Hiring: “For 38 years, Greyston has opened its doors to people who ordinarily face rejection. When people say they want to work, we give them a chance – no questions asked, no resumes, no interviews, and no background checks. By replacing scrutiny with trust, Greyston transforms lives and communities, breaking the cycle of poverty in the process.”

Does your business embrace open and voluntary membership without discrimination?


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