Co-operative democracy being eroded

Co-operative democracy being eroded

Michael Burke

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

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Very often, the abuse of the Westminster model of legislature in Jamaica, where there are so many ‘garrison constituencies’ is lamented as an erosion of democracy. But the erosion is not only at that level, but at the grass roots level as well, namely the clubs, associations and co-operatives. In any co-operative, the supreme authority is the annual general meeting (AGM). In the early days of co-operatives, especially the credit unions, this important aspect was emphasised.

The main purpose of any co-operative is to empower the dispossessed. It was the Roman Catholic Church that established credit unions and in the early days, one had to undergo six months of training before one could apply for membership. A co-operative without democracy is a contradiction in terms. A co-operative is not only about equal share ownership but also about democracy. This is the fundamental difference between registered co-operatives and registered companies. Credit unions are co-operatives, while commercial banks (in Jamaica at any rate) are companies.

For practical reasons, the Co-operative Act stipulates that a nominating committee is selected to seek members to fill the vacancies on the standing committees in each AGM. The floor members have the option to nominate other members as provided for in the Act. In 1944, when universal adult suffrage (all adults having the right to vote in general elections) was granted, most Jamaicans had already received some training in how to choose by voting through being members of co-operatives, the Jamaica Agricultural Society, or both. So, in a real way, the co-operative movement was the forerunner of Jamaica’s general elections.

But today, co-operative democracy is being chipped away at its foundation. This began decades ago when the credit unions started to de-emphasise co-operative education to the point where most co-operative members now do not attend meetings. Already, there is a cry throughout Jamaica that the management of some co-operatives behave as if they are laws unto themselves. And if some have their way, worse is yet to come.

Today, some are contemplating decreasing/lessening the democracy by asking parliament to change the law regarding nominations from the floor. I was in attendance at the Jamaica Fishermen Co-operative Union AGM in Mandeville earlier this month as a delegate from the COK Sodality Credit Union. Towards the end of the AGM, a senior technocrat of the Co-operative Department remarked that the department is seeking changes in the legislation pertaining to nominations from the floor of the co-operatives.

If this were to happen, in essence, the co-operatives would no longer be co-operatives since the two hallmarks of co-operatives are shared ownership and democracy. Would Finance Minister Audley Shaw permit this? The members of the Christiana Potato Growers Cooperative, who are voters in north-east Manchester, should be at the forefront of this protest which should be made in no uncertain terms to stop any such enactment of legislation.

Would the opposition spokesman on finance permit this? His son Mikael Phillips is the MP for the adjoining Manchester North Western constituency where the Christiana potato growers also reside and are voters. And to a large extent, the Manchester Co-operative Credit Union is the financial arm of the Christiana Potato Growers Co-operative when they seek loans for agriculture.

Both grandfathers of my first cousin, James Robertson, were involved in the early stages of co-operatives in Jamaica. Robertson’s grandfather, Edward Robertson, was the founding chairman of the Christiana Potato Growers in Manchester. His other grandfather, Rudolph Burke, was the founder of the Blue Mountain Coffee Co-operative. James, I need your help here.

What should be done, in the event of such legislation being passed by parliament without discussion by the members of the co-operatives, is to make strong and loud appeals to the international co-operative bodies. There is the World Council of Credit Unions. There is the International Co-operative Union. It might only be then that we will hear that no such request for amendment of the Co-operative Act is being contemplated by the co-operative department despite the announcement of the Jamaica Fishermen Co-operative Union earlier this month. Such a statement would be welcome, nevertheless.

The earliest form of democracy in Jamaica was in the original co-operative banks that are still in existence. Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association relied heavily on the co-operative banks and wherever the UNIA was established internationally, there were co-operative businesses which had democracy at the heart of their existence.

Another bastion of peasant democracy was in the Jamaica Agricultural Society, which was established in 1895. At the time of the ferment in the 1930s, even more co-operative businesses were established by Jamaica Welfare, which was founded by Norman Manley in 1937. And in the early 1940s came the fishermen’s co-operatives and the credit unions.

The Registrar of Co-operatives is supposed to protect all members from those who seek to trample on their co-operative rights, which includes the right of any member to vote and to be elected. The fact that some wrong choices have been made in the democratic process is not a good reason to stop democracy, whether at the level of the Government and parliament, or at the level of co-operatives.

But those within the co-operative movement who do not like democracy have been arguing for decades that the post of registrar and the entire co-operative department should be abolished. Indeed, those against co-operative democracy want the co-operative movement to regulate itself, which is like using a mongoose to babysit chickens. Doesn’t anyone in the co-op department see that in pushing for such an amendment they are working themselves out of employment?

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