The co-operative movement

IdeasGroupHeaderwritten by Ashley Campbell, Anne Bunning & Dinali Devasagayam

Indigenous peoples in most countries had/have co-operative ways of living/working/trading for tens of thousands of years. These days most of us are part of the global economy where large multi-national companies, whose only aim is to make a profit for shareholders, control everything from the food we eat to the news we see. Co-operatives offer an alternative more socially just and democratic way of operating where the members own the business and each member has one vote.

What is a co-operative?
The question of whether something is a co-operative or not is easy. A co-operative is any form of co-operation that does something. It can be informal or formal. In Australia a formal co-operative would be registered under state co-ops legislation. An informal co-op can still have rules and policies, but is not registered as a legal co-operative and is not obliged to produce reports to the Registrar. To register as a co-operative and get the legal benefits is a different matter. So anything can be called a co-operative.

There are many different types of co-ops:

  • Producer – run by people like farmers and taxi drivers. They club together to buy supplies or market their business.
  • Consumer – provide goods and services to their members. eg co-op supermarkets, housing co-ops or small-scale food co-ops.
  • Worker – often small businesses like print shops, daycare or small manufacturing that are owned and managed by their employees.
  • Financial services – entities like credit union and insurance co-ops offer banking, investment and insurance services to their members.
  • Purchasing – owners of private businesses like hotels, hardware stores and grocery shops band together to buy in bulk, combining purchasing power to get better prices.

These can be small, local ventures or huge global companies like the $23 billion Mondragon Co-operative in Spain (New Internationalist July/Aug issue 2012).

Co-operatives in Australia
Co-operatives have been around in Australia since the 1850’s in a variety of forms including agricultural co-operatives, building societies, credit unions, worker co-operatives and consumer co-operatives. One of the earliest Australian co-operatives was the Rochdale consumer co-operative, which opened in Adelaide in 1868 and traded for almost 100 years (Building a Better Australia: 50+ Stories of Co-operation, Mark Derby).

They are still a vital part of our Australian society with the largest 100 co-ops have an annual turnover of $14.7 billion (New Internationalist July/Aug issue 2012). In fact many Australians are co-operative members but they don’t realise it. For instance the RAA is a co-operative. Also Credit Unions, Building Societies and more recently customer owned banks like Bank mecu are all co-operatives that provide an ethical alternative to the four major investor owned banks in Australia.

There are a wide range of co-operatives in Australia – many of which are a wonderful testament to the benefits that can be achieved by a community working together for their common good. The Westgate Health Co-op in Victoria provides affordable general medical, dental and other health services to its 5500 members who pay a joining fee of $30/family and then an annual fee of $50/person or $90/family. This enables the co-op to operate with state or federal funding! While the Tranby Co-operative College in Sydney, founded in 1958 is the oldest indigenous education provider in Australia.

Ashley and Dinali are both members of the Clarence Park Food Co-op (CPFC). The CPFC stocks about 60 items of food – mainly dry goods including legumes, grains, seeds, flours, nuts and dried fruit. Preference is given to organically grown whole foods and local produce but this is hard to achieve for some items.

The CPFC is staffed by volunteers and overhead costs are small so we are able to supply good food at a reasonable cost to members.

This year the CPFC is 1/3 of a century old! Over this period several features have stayed the same eg $1 life membership, minimal use of packaging, open 4 days each week (Mon, Tue, Wed, Sat 10:30am -12:30pm) except for school holidays (Sat 10:30am -12:30pm only) and Co-op gatherings every 6 weeks (shared meal and meeting). Usually the meetings don’t take long and this year we have found time to have a game or two after the meetings.

The CPFC is located at the Clarence Park Community Centre (74 East Ave, Black Forest) near the Clarence Park railway station and stop 10 for bus W90/W91. It is wheelchair accessible. Come and have a look/chat if you are travelling this way or live nearby. For more information contact Ashley on 8297 6249.

The book Building a Better Australia: 50+ stories of co-operation by Mark Derby contains many more inspiring examples of co-operatives in Australia – well worth a browse if you can get your hands on a copy.

Barriers faced by co-operatives in Australia
The main problem for co-operatives is when they get bigger and need access to finance to expand or want to trade interstate. The law says you must get the finance from the members – and the members usually don’t have enough capital. So then the bigger agricultural marketing co-operatives all turned into companies to enable them to get finance.

The other problem for co-operatives is that it is state legislation and you can’t operate interstate without registering as a company or some other sort of business structure. The agricultural marketing co-ops faced a big problem when they tried to set up interstate. There is no uniform legislation for co-operatives as there is for companies.

Implications for SCSA members:
Co-operatives offer a way in communities can take back some measure of control of their economic activities and ensure that we are operating sustainably and ethically. This is part of the direct action that Naomi Klein talks in her recent book on Capitalism and Climate Change (see Anne Bunning’s previous blog for more about this book ).

SCSA members can be a part of this change by joining financial co-operatives, shopping at or buying products from producer and consumer co-operatives. What are the co-operatives in your area?

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2 thoughts on “The co-operative movement

  1. How about housing cooperatives? They’ve played a significant role in South Australia. Hindmarsh housing coop formed in protest to the MATS Plan in the 1970’s which would have seen the razing of Bowden, Brompton area to make way for a freeway. Instead, local residents formed a collective to save the older residential areas. Kensington Norwood housing coop prevented the loss of affordable housing in Adelaides eastern suburbs. Housing coops were among the pioneers of alternative building materials in Adelaide….mud brick, rammed earth, recycled materials, co-housing.

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