October 9, 2011

MAINE COMPASS: Cooperative economy can be key to Maine's future

Jane Livingston and Noemi Giszpenc

Jobs, jobs, jobs. Seems as if we're all standing around on the street corners waiting for the government or the guys in pinstripe suits to expand the U.S. work force.

As if true wealth were created by the wealthy, instead of by the work force (both the paid and the unpaid ones) and by the Earth's bountiful resources.

We cannot get to a better, more democratic and egalitarian world through greed-fueled, speculative "investment" that exploits rather than invests in people and the planet, with such advice as "buy low, sell high" and "buyer beware."

Nor will the world be improved by rigid authoritarianism that assures everyone of a free ride if they tighten their belts and toe the line.

There's a third way, one that can lead to greater prosperity and stability. This is cooperation, in the economic sense of the term, as set forth in the International Statement of Cooperative Identity (www.ica.coop).

Globally, millions of people benefit from owning and democratically controlling cooperative enterprises. In the United States, thousands of families who live in mobile home parks are forming Resident Owned Communities, such as one in Fort Kent.

Caregivers are creating their own companies; one co-op in New York City has 1,700 worker-owner members. Workers own companies like Equal Exchange, Red Sun Press, and United Steelworkers. Farmers own Welch's, Cabot, Ocean Spray and Organic Valley.

Rural Electric Co-ops, started under President Franklin Roosevelt's Rural Electrification Administration by U.S. farmers when utilities refused to invest in poles and wires in low-density areas, today have 42 million consumer-owners in 47 states, including Maine. RECs such as Washington Electric in Vermont lead the pack in renewable energy development.

Professional co-op developers in the Northeast, working through the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), help new and established enterprises, including Local Sprouts in Portland, Port Clyde Fresh Catch and Belfast Food Co-op in Maine and Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics and Pelham Auto in Massachusetts. CDI also links with national small business cooperative networks such as Carpet One, and with all credit unions (including the 200 branches in Maine), which are cooperatively owned by depositors.

Maine's growing cooperative economy is highlighted in an article by CDI Executive Director Noemi Giszpenc in the October issue of the USDA's Rural Cooperatives magazine, excerpted here by permission:

"The need to retain valued institutions in rural areas -- sources of jobs, homes and food, not to mention social fabric -- can be met through the cooperative business model, which connects private and public interests."

"Several scenarios make sense for conversion to a worker co-op," Giszpenc said. "A business owner looking to sell -- especially if the business is known for great service from long-time, knowledgeable employees -- would do well to consider an employee buy-out.

"Another example would be a business seeking to expand its workforce from a couple of highly motivated proprietors to a broader but still entrepreneurial team. The Crown O'Maine Organic Cooperative (COMOC) is in the process of turning a family operation into a worker-owned co-op.

"Marada Cook, daughter of COMOC's founders, explains: 'After our dad died, my sister and I became two heavily invested owners -- financially, emotionally, mentally -- in every possible way. Our business is quickly growing and innovative, outside of the norm of food distribution. We want to work with people who are as invested in it as we are, who will work hard and bring good ideas because it's their business, too.'

"In Auburn, Maine, organic dairy farmers who are members of the Organic Valley cooperative formed Maine Organic Milling Cooperative (MOM) to buy the privately held Blue Seal mill in order to preserve an invaluable organic feed resource. MOM now produces organic dairy cow and other livestock rations for farmers throughout New England.

"'When the Blue Seal mill in Auburn closed down [in 2009], it left many Maine organic dairy farms with limited options,' says Steve Russell, an Organic Valley farmer-owner and member of the Maine Organic Milling board of directors. 'We need this feed mill right in our own backyard. Our cooperative model and the attitude of banding together is what keeps us and our farms together.'"


Jane Livingston, who works for the cooperative enterprise sector, and Noemi Giszpenc, Cooperative Development Institute director, are both active in Cooperative Maine (www.cooperativemaine.org), a statewide group that promotes and supports cooperative development and the cooperative economy. Email to jane_livingston @myfairpoint.net.

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