Thoughts on Cooperatives

This weekend saw yet more bad publicity for the Cooperative Group. After the banking shambles we now see them agreeing to pay their senior staff huge ‘retention’ payments. Were members consulted? No they were not. If they had been would they have approved these payments? No they wouldn’t. Do payments like this promote the values of cooperation?  No they don’t. Do actions like this undermine all Coops? Yes they do.

When we set up the Book Coop we did it because we believed that the cooperative model was one that was in accord with our values. Certain things are better shared. There’s more to business than making money for shareholders and managers. You can run a good business without resorting to selfish economic motivations. We hope that people who became members of the Coop understood this. As a small Coop we can be inclusive. Whilst not involved in the day-to-day running of the business our members do have a say in all significant decisions; that would include paying staff bonuses that double their salaries!

So why has the Cooperative Group moved so far from the cooperative model that we believe in? I think it is because they forgot that they were run for the benefit of members and tried to compete head-to-head with ‘normal’ commercial businesses. In the heyday of retailing growth the value of cooperation wasn’t obvious and they forgot to nurture it. By making themselves similar to every other business they lost the connection with members and lost their identity. Once that happened making decisions like paying senior managers obscene amounts naturally follows. Everyone else does it so why shouldn’t we; after all we have to compete with them.

Regaining trust is going to be hard. Their current consultation certainly won’t do this. I just hope they do manage to re-establish trust and reconnect with the values of cooperation. If that means a period of turmoil and the ousting of the senior directors who think their recent actions are justified then so be it. Because if they don’t it is not only bad for them but bad for all coops including ours.