Should Co-ops Adopt an Eighth Principle – on DEI?

By Kenzie Love

In 1844, the Rochdale Pioneers founded what would become the basis of the modern co-op movement in a small town in the north of England. In the almost 180 years since, the movement has spread and diversified, but remains united by the seven principles, adapted from those which the pioneers developed.

That the principles have endured for such a long time amidst significant change may speak to the wisdom of their authors. But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that the Rochdale Pioneers were White men, and that co-operatives have since spread to the global South and through Indigenous communities, where they’d already existed informally for centuries. The worker co-op sector in the US, meanwhile, is increasingly comprised of members of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) communities.

That may be part of the reason why the Credit Union National Association in the US recently adopted an eighth principle, affirming a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion which, while limited to that country’s credit union sector, naturally raises questions about whether the broader co-op movement needs to add an eighth principle as well.

While the co-op principles fall under the auspices of the International Co-op Alliance, which most recently revised them in 1995, member organizations are able to change them or more typically add to them based on their individual circumstances – as long as the co-op respects the “co-operative basis” definition of its governing legislation and respects the Statement of Co-operative Identity.  As Sonja Novkovic, a Professor of Economics and Academic Director of the International Centre for Co-operative Management at Saint Mary’s University notes, Spain’s Mondragon co-op has 10 principles which emphasize the importance of labour control over capital and their mission of job preservation. And on a smaller scale, some co-ops such as the People’s Food Co-op in Rochester, Minnesota already include respect for diversity as an eighth principle.

The hope is that other co-ops will follow this co-op’s lead, which is the inspiration behind the DEI Talks website inviting organizations to sign on to the eighth principle campaign. As the website succinctly states, “if we believe the ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion are important to our communities, then let’s declare it.”

As former CUNA chair Maurice Smith notes, diversity, equity, and inclusion are already implied in principles one and two, which affirm open and voluntary membership and democratic control. But making them explicit in an eighth principle, proponents believe, is not the only right thing to do but also good business sense. As Smith further argues, the “aim to build a better society is both noble and pragmatic.”

Indeed, the same argument could be made about the existing co-op principles. While adhering to them is a way of living out the co-op values, it can also help explain why co-ops have higher survival rates than conventional businesses, can be more likely to pay their workers a living wage, and offer other benefits.

Whether or not other co-ops adopt an eighth principle, of course, is only part of the issue. As with CUNA, the true test will come with the degree to which all co-ops are committed to not only declare their support for diversity, equity, and inclusion, but act in a way that lives these principles out.