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This article was published 3/1/2012 (3141 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On Feb. 11, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution declaring 2012 as the International Year of Co-operatives.
Such declarations are used by the UN to draw attention to certain issues and encourage member states to take action on them. In this case, the goal was to highlight the contribution of co-ops to poverty reduction, employment generation and the overall well-being of local communities.
A co-operative, or co-op, is a business enterprise or organization that’s owned and controlled by the people it serves.
"It’s about service to members, not service to shareholders," explains Brendan Reimer, the Canadian Community Economic Development Network’s regional co-ordinator for the Prairies and Northern territories. (Community economic development — aka CED — is a term used to describe grassroots approaches to improving social, economic and environmental conditions; CCEDnet is a non-profit organization that supports CED initiatives, including co-ops, throughout Canada.)
Co-ops can be for-profit or non-profit businesses. Usually, though not always, they also adhere to certain principles and values: inclusivity, equality, autonomy and concern for the communities in which they operate, to name a few.
Following such guidelines means co-ops tend to make different kinds of decisions than other businesses, Reimer says.
"If you’re locally-owned and locally-rooted, you’re less likely to do stuff that’s destructive, because you’re face-to-face accountable."
Co-op members democratically elect a board of directors, with each member getting one vote. In some for-profit co-ops, members also share surpluses earned.
Approximately 410 co-ops exist in Manitoba. Collectively, they comprise almost $18 billion in assets and more than 800,000 memberships. (Reimer notes this figure does not reflect the actual number of co-op members since people can belong to more than one —he’s a member of five.)
Producer co-ops market their members’ products and services and are common in the agricultural sector; local examples include Granny’s Poultry and BeeMaid Honey.
Workers co-ops are businesses owned by the employees. In Winnipeg, Organic Planet on Westminster Avenue is one such enterprise. It’s been operating since 2003, selling fresh produce, dry goods, bulk foods and other groceries. Six of its seven employees are members of the co-op.
"There’s a real satisfaction to working collaboratively with people," says founding member Emily Stevens, 33. "It’s a direct way of being involved in day-to-day decisions."
Working as a team — and without a boss — requires strong communication. It can be challenging, but it also means everyone’s opinions are listened to and valued, says fellow co-op member Tamara Lewis, 26.
"Here, we have to talk things out. There’s a lot of respect," she says.
Consumer co-ops provide their members with goods or services. Housing co-ops and credit unions fall in this category. So do so some fitness centres in certain rural areas of Manitoba and one of Winnipeg’s newest co-operative enterprises, Peg City Car Co-op.
Launched this past June, the city’s first carsharing service offers its members 24-hour access to a fleet of collectively owned vehicles, which are checked out on an hourly basis. Six months in, Peg City Car Co-op has 70 members who share three vehicles which, when not in use, stayed parked in Osborne Village.
Manager Beth McKechnie says the co-op model made a lot of sense for the fledgling organization.
"It’s about sharing and so the idea of shared ownership really fits perfectly with the service that’s offered," she says. "We’re definitely a business, but it’s about shared ownership and a sense of community."
In retrospect, the UN’s decision to focus on co-operatives in 2012 has proven remarkably prescient.
From riots in Greece by those opposed to federal austerity measures to the rise of the Occupy movement in North America, 2011 was marked by widespread public protests against existing economic systems.
In contrast to traditional business models — which critics argue prioritize profits above all else — the UN notes that "Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility."
"I think that co-operatives provide a lot of the answers to the questions that the Occupy people are asking," Reimer says.
"We have really structured our economy in a way that funnels the primary benefits and profits to a few who already have a lot," he adds. "Co-operatives precisely structure the economy so that the benefits and the profits and the surpluses get distributed to the many who have less
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