BOOKS/Alvena Bieri

Having a Stake in the Business

All the way from the community-owned Green Bay Packers to a host of other smaller enterprises and cooperative communities, cooperation still is effective in our society which so often exalts competition over cooperation. That is my conclusion after reading Cooperation Works! How People Are 'Using Cooperative Action to Rebuild Communities and Revitalize the Economy by E.G. Nadeau and David Thompson (Lone Oak Press, 1412 Bush St., Red Wing, MN. 55066).

Cooperative enterprises are 100 percent American and go far back in our history--mutual fire insurance societies, volunteer fire departments, barn raisings, and threshing bees. But in more recent times, a cooperative can be even more important. The authors define a cooperative as an enterprise owned and controlled by the people who use its services. It provides these services at cost, and any profits are given to its member-owners based on the amount of business transacted, not on the amount of money invested. They are democratically controlled, meaning that each member has one vote.

They explain that there are four kinds of cooperative organizations: those owned by producers, like farmers' groups; those oriented toward consumers such as credit unions, employee co-ops, like taxi companies in some cities; and business co-ops, like hardware stores and fast-food franchises.

One of the best-known cooperatives in the United States is the Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin, a community-owned professional football team. As we know, sports teams are a big and growing business. Nadeau and Thompson point out that fans are much more loyal to their hometown team than are the owners who don't hesitate to move from one city to another in search of more profit. But in Green Bay the Packers have inspired such loyalty that scarce season tickets are often passed on in wills or even contested in divorce proceedings. The Packers have survived, the authors emphasize, because they are a corporation designed mainly to provide a community service, in this case entertainment, and not to make a big profit.

Many cooperative groups are also part of small businesses on Main Street, One is Ace Hardware with its 5,000 stores, which changed in 1976 from "a privately-owned wholesaler to being a retail-owned support organization." The writers report that all over the country Ace has had remarkable success with its policy of "high-profit retailing and low-cost distribution" mainly through cooperative buying.

The book lists 50 case studies of all kinds of cooperatives. In the appendix is a list of the 100 largest cooperatives in the U.S., listing their revenues, assets, and locations. The same publisher also has a good history of the Minnesota Farmers' Union. Such farm groups and farmers' alliances were instrumental in starting the early populist movement.

Now if you're ready to pursue the concept of cooperation on a personal level by joining a community, you should know about the "Communities Directory" which is a huge list of communities, from religious groups to organic farms to urban neighborhoods. Write the Fellowship for Intentional Community, Route One Box 156, Rutledge MO 63563.

We are left with an obvious question. What if we could take the ideal of cooperative ownership and expand it? What if we could arrange things so that we all could own a real stake in this country? It boggles the mind.

Alvena Bieri is a writer in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

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