History of the cooperative movement

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The history of the cooperative movement concerns the origins and history of cooperatives. Although cooperative arrangements, such as mutual insurance, and principles of cooperation existed long before, the cooperative movement began with the application of cooperative principles to business organization.


The cooperative movement began in Europe in the 19th century, primarily in Britain and France, although The Shore Porters Society claims to be one of the world's first cooperatives, being established in Aberdeen in 1498 (although it has since demutualized to become a private partnership).[1] The industrial revolution and the increasing mechanism of the economy transformed society and threatened the livelihoods of many workers. The concurrent labour and social movements and the issues they attempted to address describe the climate at the time.

The first documented consumer cooperative was founded in 1769,[2] in a barely furnished cottage in Fenwick, East Ayrshire, when local weavers manhandled a sack of oatmeal into John Walker's whitewashed front room and began selling the contents at a discount, forming the Fenwick Weavers' Society.

In the decades that followed, several cooperatives or cooperative societies formed including Lennoxtown Friendly Victualling Society, founded in 1812.[3]

By 1830, there were several hundred co-operatives.[4] Some were initially successful, but most cooperatives founded in the early 19th century had failed by 1840.[5] However, Lockhurst Lane Industrial Co-operative Society (founded in 1832 and now Heart of England Co-operative Society), and Galashiels and Hawick Co-operative Societies (1839 or earlier, merged with The Co-operative Group) still trade today.[6][7]

It was not until 1844 when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers established the ‘Rochdale Principles’ on which they ran their cooperative, that the basis for development and growth of the modern cooperative movement was established.[8]

Financially, credit unions were invented in Germany in the mid-19th century, first by Franz Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch (1852, urban), then by Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen (1864, rural). While Schulze-Delitzsch is chronologically earlier, Raiffeisen has proven more influential over time – see history of credit unions. In Britain, the friendly society, building society, and mutual savings bank were earlier forms of similar institutions.

Robert Owen[edit]

Main article: Robert Owen

Robert Owen (1771–1858) is considered as the father of 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. These ideas were put into effect successfully in the cotton mills of New Lanark, Scotland. It was here that the first co-operative store was opened. Spurred on by the success of this, 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.

William King[edit]

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 realized 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 Co-operator,[9] the first edition of which appeared on 1 May 1828. This gave a mixture of co-operative philosophy and practical advice about running a shop using cooperative 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).

The Rochdale Pioneers[edit]

Main article: Rochdale Pioneers

The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was a group of 10 weavers and 20 others in Rochdale, England, that was formed in 1844.[2] As the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution was forcing more and more skilled workers into poverty, these tradesmen decided to band together to open their own store selling food items they could not otherwise afford. With lessons from prior failed attempts at co-operation in mind, they designed the now famous Rochdale Principles, and over a period of four months they struggled to pool one pound sterling per person for a total of 28 pounds of capital. On December 21, 1844, they opened their store with a very meagre selection of butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and a few candles. Within three months, they expanded their selection to include tea and tobacco, and they were soon known for providing high quality, unadulterated goods.

The English CWS and Co-operative Group[edit]

The Co-operative Group formed gradually over 140 years from the merger of many independent retail societies, and their wholesale societies and federations. In 1863, twenty years after the Rochdale Pioneers opened their co-operative, the North of England Co-operative Society was launched by 300 individual co-ops across Yorkshire and Lancashire. By 1872, it had become known as the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS). Through the 20th century, smaller societies merged with CWS, such as the Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society (1973) and the South Suburban Co-operative Society (1984).

The old Co-operative building behind the Gateshead Millennium Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne.

By the 1990s, CWS's share of the market had declined considerably and many came to doubt the viability of co-operative model. CWS sold its factories to Andrew Regan in 1994. Regan returned in 1997 with a £1.2 billion bid for CWS. There were allegations of "carpet-bagging" - new members who joined simply to make money from the sale - and more seriously fraud and commercial leaks. After a lengthy battle, Regan's bid was seen off and two senior CWS executives were dismissed and imprisoned for fraud. Regan was cleared of charges. The episode recharged CWS and its membership base. Tony Blair's Co-operative Commission, chaired by John Monks, made major recommendations for the co-operative movement, including the organisation and marketing of the retail societies. It was in this climate that, in 2000, CWS merged with the UK's second largest society, Co-operative Retail Services.

Its headquarters complex is situated on the north side of Manchester city centre adjacent to the Manchester Victoria railway station. The complex is made up of many different buildings with two notable tower blocks of New Century House and the solar panel-clad CIS tower.

Other independent societies are part owners of the Group. Representatives of the societies that part own the Group are elected to the Group's national board. The Group manages The Co-operative brand and the Co-operative Retail Trading Group (CRTG), which sources and promotes goods for food stores.[10] There is a similar purchasing group (CTTG) for co-operative travel agents.

Co-operative Women's Guild[edit]

Alice Acland, the editor of the "Women's Corner" in the "Co-operative News" publication, and Mary Lawrenson, a teacher, recognized the need for a separate women's organization within the Cooperative Movement and began organizing a "Woman's League for the Spread of Co-operation" in 1883. This League formally met for the first time during the 1883 Co-operative Congress in Edinburgh in a group of 50 women and established Acland as its organizing secretary. By 1884 it had six different branches with 195 members, and the League was renamed the Women's Cooperative Guild.[11]

The Guild organized around working women's issues and expanding the Cooperative Movement. It continued to publish articles advocating for women's involvement in the Cooperative Movement in the "Women's Corner," and later through its own publications such as "The importance of women for the cooperative movement." The Guild also opened the Sunderland cooperative store in 1902, which catered to poor working class women. It engaged in many political campaigns concerning women's health, women's suffrage and pacifism.[12] The organization still exists today as the Co-operative Women's Guild and participates in social justice activism.[13]

Co-operatives today[edit]

Co-operative enterprises were formed successfully following Rochdale, and an international association was formed in 1895.[14] Co-operative enterprises are now widespread,[15] with one of the largest and most successful examples being the industrial Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in the Basque country of Spain. Co-operatives were also successful in Yugoslavia under Tito where Workers' Councils gained a significant role in management.[16]

In many European countries, cooperative institutions have a predominant market share in the retail banking[17] and insurance businesses. There are also concrete proposals for the cooperative management of the common goods, such as the one by Initiative 136 in Greece.

An annual general meeting of a retail co-operative in England, 2005.

In the UK, 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 MPs are Co-operative Party members. UK co-operatives retain a significant market share in food retail, insurance, banking, funeral services, and the travel industry in many parts of the country.

Denmark has had a strong cooperative movement.

Co-operatives were brought to Latin America and developed there by 1902.[18] Substantially independent efforts to develop employee-owned enterprises or co-operatives have occurred as responses to crises, such as the systemic IMF-based default in Argentina in 2001 [19] In Brazil, the World Social Forum process lead to the articulation of Solidarity Economics, a modern, activist formulation of co-operativism.[20] In Venezuela, the late Hugo Chávez's administration began to incentivize co-operatives, resulting in their rapid and extensive development there.[21]

In Colorado, USA the Meadowlark cooperative administers the only private free land program in the United States, providing many services to its members who buy and sell together. In New York City, several food co-operatives were founded around 2010, adding to others, some existing since the 1970s.[22] The U.S. has some diverse worker co-operatives, such as an organic bread factory co-op and an engineering firm.[23] Some have already incorporated environmental and/or Fair Trade criteria into their products, such as the aforementioned bread-maker, Organic Valley foods, and Equal Exchange.[24]

In the United States, a co-operative association was founded by 1920. Currently there are over 29,000 co-operatives employing 2 million people with over $652 billion in annual revenue.[25] To address the need for an organization oriented to newer and smaller co-ops, the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-operatives was founded after 2000. An alternative method of employee-ownership, the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), was developed in the U.S. by Louis Kelso and advocated by Senator Russell Long to be incentivized in the ERISA law of 1974.[26] For example, a large Southeastern US supermarket chain[27] a California manufacturer, and a furniture-maker with earnings of more than $2 billion,[28] are employee-owned. Employee-owned trusts have also been developed more or less independently, for example at an established iron pipe company[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Shore Porters' Society: About Us - Our History". 2007. Retrieved 6 May 2008. 
  2. ^ a b Fairbairn, Brett. "The Meaning of Rochdale". 
  3. ^ Lennoxtown (Local History)
  4. ^ Doug Peacock. "Social strife: The birth of the co-op". Cotton Times, understanding the industrial revolution. p. 2. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  5. ^ Doug Peacock. "Social strife: The birth of the co-op". Cotton Times, understanding the industrial revolution. p. 3. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  6. ^ "Our roots". Heart of England Co-operative Society. Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  7. ^ "History". Lothian Co-op. Retrieved 2008-06-26. [dead link]
  8. ^ David Thompson (July–Aug 1994). "Cooperative Principles Then and Now". Co-operative Grocer (National Cooperative Grocers Association, Minneapolis). Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  9. ^ The Co-operator URL: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4mATAAAAQAAJ
  10. ^ "About Us". Co-operative Retail Trading Group. 2007. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  11. ^ Gaffin, Jean; David Thoms (1983). Caring & Sharing: The Centenary History of the Co-operative Women's Guild. Manchester: Co-operative Union Ltd. ISBN 0851951333. 
  12. ^ "Records of the Women's Cooperative Guild (Cooperative Women's Guild)". Hull University. Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  13. ^ Cowan, Joss. "Co-operative Women's Guild". Retrieved 7 April 2013. 
  14. ^ Birchall, Johnston 1997 The International Co-operative Movement
  15. ^ "Statistical Information on the Co-operative Movement", www.ica.coop
  16. ^ J. R. Lampe, Yugoslavia as History, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 255–264
  17. ^ Bevilacqua, E. (2012) "Co-operative Banks as Key Players." European Association of Co-op Banks
  18. ^ Birchall, J. (1997) The International Co-operative Movement.; ICA - Americas Region
  19. ^ LaVaca Collective, (2007), Sin Patron.; Klein, N and A Lewis (2006) film The Take.; Howarth, M., (2007) "...empresas recuperadas in Argentina," The UK Co-operative College/ILO
  20. ^ Neiva, AC et al (2013), draft "Solidarity Finance and Public Policy."; Singer, P (2002), "The Recent Rebirth of the Solidarity Economy in Brazil" in B de SS Santos (2002), Produzir Para Viver.; "Historico" at Forum Brasileiro da Economia Solidaria (in portuguese)
  21. ^ Fox, M (May 26, 2006), "Venezuela's Cooperatives Take First Steps Towards a National Cooperative Movement," Venezuelanalysis.com
  22. ^ Ronco, WC 1974 Food Co-ops; Knupfer, AM 2013 Food Coops in America; Greene Hill Food Co-op, Brooklyn, NY; Food Co-op Initiative
  23. ^ Moore, M. (2009) film Capitalism: A Love Story.
  24. ^ Kelly, M. (2012) Owning Our Future.
  25. ^ "Co-op Research / Economic Impact". National Cooperative Business Association. 
  26. ^ Rosen, C et al (2005), Equity.; Greider, W. (2003), The Soul of Capitalism.
  27. ^ Rosen, C et al (2005), Equity.
  28. ^ Greider, W. (2003), The Soul of Capitalism.
  29. ^ Barstow, D et al (Jan. 9, 2003), "A Family's Fortune: A Legacy of Blood and Tears," The New York Times.; ACIPCO

Further reading[edit]

  • Birchall, Johnston (1997), The International Co-operative Movement.
  • For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America, PM Press, by John Curl, 2009
  • Derr, Jascha (2013), The cooperative movement of Brazil and South Africa
  • Greider, William (2003), The Soul of Capitalism.
  • Kelly, Marjorie (2012), Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution.
  • Nadeau, E.G. & D.J. Thompson (1996), Cooperation Works!
  • Whyte, W.F. & K.K. Whyte (1988), Making Mondragon.

External links[edit]