Your co-op’s future will be determined by the goals your members set and how effectively you make decisions and solve problems as a group. As noted above establishing common personal, business and social goals right from the start, and sticking to them, can help this process immensely. This not only keeps your decisions focused, but also helps to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to conflict. Then the decision making process is one of identifying the specific goal or problem to be addressed, gathering the best available information on the options and their outcomes and risks and making the choice with the best chance of providing an effective solution. Easily said, but challenging to do!
One of the benefits of working within a worker co-op is precisely this opportunity to participate in the key decisions that affect your workplace. A key challenge for a worker co-op is to determine how to create an effective process for this participation while ensuring timely and effective decisions are made that will lead to success in meeting the members’ and the co-op’s goals. Because members determine this process, each worker co-op is likely to have a different approach when deciding who has the responsibility and authority to make a specific type of decision and to whom they are accountable. Some co-ops work by consensus – at both the board and management levels – while others allocate specific responsibilities and authority to individuals or groups within the co-op. The key challenge is to ensure that the approach chosen is effective, as well as supported and understood by the members.
The section below does not prescribe how the co-op should be organized, rather it outlines some inherent structures and processes within the worker co-op.
The governance and operational process
The co-operative principle of “one member/one vote” is one of the main reasons many groups form worker co-ops. However, making decisions democratically, holding productive meetings, and working as a group, are skills members must acquire. They must also be knowledgeable about all aspects of the co-op’s operation in order to generate ideas and contribute effectively to the decision making process. There is a lot to learn. This is the key reason that successful worker co-ops provide opportunities for all of their members to receive the training they need to understand the co-op processes and the co-op’s business.
The foundation of authority within the co-op rests with the general meeting of the members. This is the ultimate decision making forum and body within the co-op.
Within the worker co-op, specific decisions are in the hands of the general assembly. The Co-op Acts provide the foundation for this authority by law, however the co-op’s bylaws may also provide that specific policy decisions, such as wage rates, may require approval by the members’ meeting. Importantly the bylaws of the co-op, which regulate the life of the co-op, must be approved by the members and can only be changed by a meeting of the members.
One of the key legal responsibilities of the members is to elect the board of directors of the co-op. The bylaws will specify the number of directors, their qualification and length of terms. Directors, by law, are responsible for the affairs of the co-operative. Their duty is always to make decisions in the best interests of the co-op as a whole. The directors, once elected, in turn elect officers (president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer). These officers of the co-op will have specific duties outlined in the bylaws. In small co-ops, members often serve in more than one capacity and often all members are also directors.
Good collective decisions require well-researched information and good communications between the board of directors, manager and membership. Co-ops may operate democratically, but you can’t stop in the middle of the workday to discuss every decision which must be made. The directors are responsible to ensure that an effective operational structure is in place that it is supported by the members. This may take many forms, depending upon the desires of the members and on the type of enterprise that the co-op operates.
Within most co-ops the following structures are usually in place and are the forum for the following types of decisions.
Annual General Meeting (AGM).
The board of directors reports to membership, reviewing the past business year and the year’s financial statements.
The board seeks approval of its recommendations for surplus allocation.
The Business plan and budgets for the coming year are presented for discussion and approval.
An auditor is appointed.
Membership elects a new board.
Other membership decisions specified in the bylaws are made.
Board of Directors meeting
The manager(s) reports to the board, which in turn provides direction to the manager(s). The key function here is for the board to hold those in charge of making decisions on behalf of the co-op accountable for the outcomes of those decisions. This would also include evaluating the organizational structure used to make these decisions.
The board evaluates the co-op’s financial position to determine whether or not the budgeted objectives are being met and what actions should be taken to improve the situation.
The board makes or changes policies as required, or recommends a policy to the membership if only the membership has the authority in a particular area.
Board members discuss long-term goals and strategy and ensure that a good planning process is in place to guide the co-op in the coming year(s).
The board approves new members or terminates a person’s membership.
Consultation and decision-making about daily activities takes place between members and management. These meetings, and who participates, will vary from co-operative to co-operative depending upon the organizational structures that have been approved by the membership and/or the board of directors.
Sometimes committees are appointed to research issues and make recommendations to help the board, membership or management make decisions. These committees may be standing committees such as a finance committee or may be ad hoc committees set up to simply address one specific issue.