Democratic Member Control at the Foundation of Worker Co-ops

By Kenzie Love

When it comes to the seven co-op principles, a case could be made that some of them aren’t unique to co-ops. Plenty of conventional businesses, for instance, claim to show concern for community, be open to employment for all, and engage in education and training. But the second co-op principle, democratic member control, is in a different category in this respect. 

“I do think this is a pretty foundational principle,” says Colin MacDougall of Sustainability Solutions Group Worker Co-op, “because ultimately it is at the essence of what makes a co-op uniquely different from almost any other organizational structure, which is the membership control. Now there’s a lot of the other principles that you know that could theoretically be co-opted by corporate entities or other non-cooperative entities and say ‘oh yeah we do that.’ Concern for community, ‘yeah, we do that’, co-operation among corporate like-minded organizations ‘yeah we do that too.’ But the core of what co-ops are is something that is controlled by their membership, and you can’t take that away and you can’t fake that.”

So what does democratic member control mean in a worker co-op context? It means that worker-members collectively set policies and make fundamental decisions about their co-op, whether on the basis of one member-one vote or by consensus. Contrary to what some might think, it doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of a president or a general manager, but it does require that members who are given power are ultimately accountable to the co-op’s membership. It also doesn’t necessarily mean the use of consensus decision-making, although many worker co-ops do employ this, but it does require that the decisions be made through a process that is transparent and perceived to be fair. And when these components are in place, says Janice Ashworth of BeetBox Co-op Farm, everyone benefits. 

“Democratic member control is particularly applicable to a worker co-op, because the workers then have a sense of authority over the decisions of their employer,” she says. “And that builds trust, it builds accountability, it builds a team of dedicated workers, it builds loyalty.”

These outcomes were evident to MacDougall during his time at La Siembra, which like many businesses was hit hard by the 2008 recession. Faced with a drop in revenue, the Co-op was initially considering implementing some layoffs, until the board decided it was worth exploring whether there was an alternative to the “corporate downsizing” approach. It turned out there was. By reducing the work hours of some members, the salary of others, and leaving those who couldn’t afford any cuts untouched, La Siembra was able to keep all its members employed, something MacDougall doesn’t believe would have happened in a traditional business.

But the democratic nature of worker co-ops isn’t without its challenges. MacDougall notes that the pace of decision-making can often (though not always) be slower, and there is a risk that collective decision-making could lead to decisions that are weaker, watered-down compromises. He also believes that a non-democratic workplace inevitably seems simpler than a democratic one.

“Much of this simplicity stems from the unfortunate fact that most people have no experience in democratic workplaces,” he says, “so it is much simpler to revert to what we are familiar with. And in so many cases, that leads to some form of corporate hierarchy.”

But the benefits of democracy within a worker co-op, MacDougall believes, far outweigh any costs, and they aren’t necessarily limited to the workplace. Being exposed to democracy in the workplace, he argues, can also lead to a better sense of how it should work in the wider world.

“I think every citizen, every civically-minded person could benefit from spending a few years in a worker cooperative,” he says, “because it’s such a wonderful, wonderful way for you to practice democracy and exercise what democracy can be about.”

For suggestions on how to best practice member economic democracy in a co-op, we consulted the Worker Co-operative Code, written by Co-operatives UK’s Worker Co-operative Council.  It states:

“Worker co‑operatives succeed when all members participate in transparent, fair decision making; but also where members are given delegated authority to act on behalf of the collective.  Your co-operative should:

  1. Ensure all members actively participate in the management of the business and long‑term planning.
  2. Effectively communicate, both between the co‑operative and its members and among members themselves.
  3. Collectively agree and delegate authority to individual members to act on behalf of the co‑operative as and where necessary.
  4. Ensure there are democratic processes, or democratic accountability, in all governance and management functions.
  5. Regularly review its governance and business management processes as it grows and develops.”