Encountering Cooperative Extremists

Do the following statements or situations sound familiar in our cooperatives?

  • "The co-op shouldn't carry (X), because these products are not natural."
  • "This is a co-op, so all the members should have a voice in operational decisions -- otherwise I may as well shop down the block."
  • "This decision is too controversial, so we should put it to a member vote."
  • "Co-ops are supposed to be a better way, so we shouldn't go in for marketing, promotional pricing, better displays, etc.)."
  • "We believe (x), and since members have power within this co-op, we want to make sure the co-op does it our way.
  • "We, staff members of the co-op, appeal to the board of directors to deal with our issues - working through the manager is a waste of time, because the board has ultimate authority."

This article is a summary of a project by CGANE (Cooperative Grocers' Association Northeast) using case studies to analyze the problem and identify solutions. It addresses what we are calling "co-op extremists" - people who care strongly about a particular issue and agitate for the co-op to comply with their view regardless of differing opinions and strategies. They tend to see their issue or method as bound up with the co-op's purpose or identity.

The genesis of "new wave" consumer cooperatives was the counter-culture of the 1960s: small groups of individuals who rejected the status quo and (re)created systems based on equality and "true democracy." Everyone wanted a voice, and one's core values were the basis for all action. Great energy went into discussions and debate before any actions occurred, and differences ofopinion over "the common good" were a staple.

Cooperatively owned husinesses, long preceding this period, have been based on many of the same core values. In order to succeed, they must tread a path encompassing both business efficiency and inclusive cooperative values, giving a broad spectrum of members a true sense of ownership while avoiding operational disruption.

This article's introductory quotations are all examples of challenges to a co-op's process based on misunderstandings of the democratic aspects of cooperatives. An individual or group feels strongly about what is right and challenges the board or management to change. In order to avoid disruption, the cooperative needs to have a well thought out and commonly understood process through which to hear these opinions, address them, make a decision, and move on.

Unfortunately, many cooperatives get into trouble because of confusions around democracy within the organization, such as the following:

  • Uncertainty, confusion and conflict about how the co-op's governing priorities are set.
  • Differences as to what "co-up" means to individuals within the cooperative.
  • Confusion about how democracy is carried through - who has input at what points in decision making.
  • Confusion ahout the sepuration between operations and governance.
  • Lack of acceptance of the co-op as a democratic organization where the wishes of the majority prevail, sometimes at the expense of the individual.
  • Lack of clarity about the basic rule set and roles.

Given a cooperative's democratic foundation, it would be unusual for there not to be some level of disagreement among its members. This is a healthy process necessary for an ever more responsive co-op, and such disagreement is not something we would wish to squelch. However, extreme cases of conflict, managed poorly, can cripple a co-op, disrupt operations, undermine management and the board, and split the memberhsip through destructive factions and personalized attacks.

In many of these situations, a vocal individual or group will "wave the flag" and call for a change in the co-op. These are usually well intentioned individuals acting on their strongly held beliefs, and should be respected as such. However, a clear process needs to be established and understood by all in order to avoid a breakdown of communications.

How can we more effectively deal with these situations? First rule: Don't panic! It is very easy to become defensive and to personalize conflicts, but a primary goal has to be to look at the issues and not merely the people presenting them or the way they are being presented. Most of these extreme and difficult situations are focused very narrowly, and the problem is arising because the process of democracy within the cooperative is not adequately understood.

Four primary assumptions

If four primary assumptions can be commonly agreed upon at the start and mandated throughout debate, there is much higher likelihood for a successful resolution:

  1. All parties sincerely want to make the co-op better.
  2. Everyone wants the co-op to succeed as a business.
  3. More than a business, the co-op must adhere to other values or "bottom lines" as well.
  4. The point is not to avoid conflict over tough issues but to avoid disruption of operations and the breakdown of constructive communication.

Start by getting agreement on these assumptions and agreement that if they are broken you will take a time-out until they can be reestablished. If all cannot agree on these four principles, then you have a serious problem which will require more drastic measures not addressed in this article.

Rather than jumping right into an argument about what is "right" in the particular situation, all should be given respect for their opinions. All involved should repeat the others' argument until clarity of all positions is achieved.

Use the situation as an opportunity to clarify the existing policies and decision making process in a broader context. By looking more broadly at related scenarios and not attacking/making defensive the antagonist, the big picture needs and rules can be better defined, reducing the threat of a repeat performance. If we simply reject the arguments, we lose one of the strengths of cooperatives - a business designed to meet the needs of its members. We need to invite those with strong opinions and listen to them -- there is always room to improve. However, we will not be able to benefit from new perspectives without full understanding of an appropriate decision making process.

Whenever a radical argument is raised, the board and management first need to have a discussion clarifying where the decision making responsibility lies and what co-op values and priorities would impact the decision, based on existing policies. If policy does not lead to clarity, you need better policies! (You can be grateful for someone pushing you into creating them.) Again, the focus is not on confrontation on specific issues, but on broad based policies.

If the process degrades into spitting matches between two or more strongly opinionated individuals, then to a large degree you have lost. Bring the discussion to a higher level: instead ofan issue over sugar, a broad product policy; instead of an issue such as the Gardenburger boycott, a broad boycott policy.

If this is impossible, someone with this broader perspective needs to be found to act as a mediator. In the end, if the coop can adopt broad policies that it can stick with and apply to these situations it will have a much sounder footing. Arguments will provide an opportunity to re-test the policy to see if it is sound.

If the best answer for the cooperative as a whole does not satisfy those raising the argument, you will have a member or two quit the co-op. Since no organization can be all things to all people, this is probably an acceptable conclusion. Through these situations, clearly articulate that the co-op does not strive to represent the priorities of a small group of activists, but is responsive to the broad needs of the membership as a whole.

Finally, when all is said and done, don't sweep disagreement under the rug! Ifthere is a lack of understanding or lack ofa clear policy, now is the time to clarify it to the members. The co-op's newsletter or general meeting is a perfect opportunity to continue educating the membership, as well as board and staff, so that the next challenge will be handled better.

Preventive measures

Most extremist blowups occur when there is a lack of understanding about decision making process and authority or a lack of clearly articulated and understood policies. Therefore, prevention entails constantly recreating the basics:

  • Board of directors training.
  • Full understanding and use of board policies.
  • Values clarification.
  • Clear statements by the board on organizational structure and decision making process.
  • Bylaws review and periodic update to clarify how members can participate, to define appropriate quorum numbers for bylaw changes, etc.; this is especially important as the co-op grows.
  • Clarified vision and mission: use these to communicate choices and decisions to staff, directors, and members.

"Full spectrum" education

These activities promote education towards a "full spectrum" cooperative:

  • Train toward governance by policy, goals, and outcomes.
  • Refer all decision back to the co-op's statements of vision, mission and values.
  • Define "co-op" through the cooperative principles, ownership, and one
  • member/one vote. Don't allow individual members to overrule with their own definitions.
  • Clearly define how your store practices democracy.
  • Clearly define which issues are hierarchical/operational and which are member decided issues.
  • Provide training in corporate prudence and legal responsibilities for board
  • members.
  • Include opposing opinion in all discussions and articles. Do not allow the feeling that opposing opinions are not invited to the table.

Cooperatives must walk a fine line between being efficient organIzations and fully living our values of inclusiveness and democracy. This delicate balance is maintained by having clarity on values, policies, and appropriate and accessIble avenues for input in decision making.

See other articles from this issue: #083 July - August - 1999