A cooperative (also co-operative or co-op) comprises a commercial entity owned by its members, with no passive shareholders. Unlike a union, a cooperative may assign different numbers of votes to different members; typically a cooperative is governed proportionally according to each member's level of economic interest in the cooperative.

The term applies to buildings owned by their residents - each resident owns a share in the entire building (as distinct from a condominium, in which people own individual units). In not-for-profit housing co-ops each resident or resident household has membership in the co-operative asociation. Members have occupancy rights to a specific suite within the housing co-operative as outlined in their "occupancy agreement".

A cooperative housing project can resemble a traditional multi-unit dwelling structure, or it can form a co-housing community. "Building co-operatives" are formed by members who co-operate to build their homes but own their houses on completion. Building co-ops were extremely popular across Canada from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The term co-operative also applies to stores owned by employees and customers. Members vote on major decisions; employees get discounts compared with non-member customers.

Farmers often maintain government-sponsored marketing cooperatives, which promote a specific commodity.

Credit unions provide a form of cooperative banking. In North America, the caisse populaire movement started by Alphonse Desjardins in Quebec, Canada pioneered credit unions. Desjardins wanted to bring desperately needed financial protection to working people. In 1900, from his home in LÚvis, Quebec, he opened North America's first credit union which began the Mouvement Desjardins.

In the United States, rural energy companies often have a co-operative organizational structure.

In the United Kingdom, co-operatives formed the Co-operative Party in the early 20th century to represent members of co-ops in Parliament. The Co-operative Party now has a permanent electoral pact with the Labour Party, and some Labour MPss are Co-operative Party members. British co-operatives retain a significant market share in food retail and the travel industry in some areas of the country.

The co-op movement often has links and associations with Green politics and socially responsible investing.

Co-operatives can register to use the .coop internet domain at the dotCoop web site.

History of the Co-operative Movement

Robert Owen (1771 - 1858) fathered the cooperative movement. A Welshman who made his fortune in the cotton trade, Owen believed in putting his workers in a good environment with access to education for themselves and their children. He had the idea of forming "villages of co-operation" where workers would drag themselves out of poverty by growing their own food, making their own clothes and ultimately becoming self-governing. He tried to form such communities in Orbiston in Scotland and in New Harmony, Indiana in the United States of America, but both communities failed.

Although Owen inspired the co-operative movement others, such as Dr William King (1786 - 1865), took his ideas and made them more workable and practical. King believed in starting small, and realised that the working classes would need to set up co-operatives for themselves, so he saw his role as one of instruction. He founded a monthly periodical called "The Cooperator", the first edition of which appeared on May 1, 1828. This gave a mixture of co-operative philosophy and practical advice about running a shop using co-operative principles. King advised people not to cut themselves off from society but rather to form a society within a society, and to start with a shop because "We must go to a shop every day to buy food and necessaries - why then should we not go to our own shop?". He proposed sensible rules, such as having a weekly account audit, having 3 trustees, and not having meetings in pubs (to avoid the temptation of drinking profits).

Between 1800 and 1830 the cotton industry in the North of England suffered a collapse and the wages of hand-loom weavers fell from around 150 pence to less than 20 pence. In places such as Bolton employment rose above 60% in 1840. A few poor weavers joined together to form the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society at the end of 1843. The Rochdale Pioneers, as they became known, set out the "Rochdale Principles" in 1844, which form the basis of the cooperative movement today. These rules were:

  1. Open membership.
  2. Democratic control (one man, one vote).
  3. Distribution of surplus in proportion to trade.
  4. Payment of limited interest on capital.
  5. Political and religious neutrality.
  6. Cash trading.
  7. Promotion of education.

Co-operative communities are now widespread with the largest and most successful example being at Mondragon in the Basque country of Spain (see link below). Co-operatives were also successful in Yugoslavia under Tito where Workers Councils gained a significant role in management.

Reference


In biochemistry, a macromolecule that exhibits cooperative behavior has ligand binding characteristics that depend on the amount of ligand bound. See cooperative binding for more details.