United Kingdom Cooperatives
Investing in Local Communities
I was honored in April to join a group of 15 Canadian co-op business leaders on an eight-day educational tour of cooperatives in the United Kingdom. While there, I learned that many communities and the British government are united in the idea that member-owned cooperatives are not only a part of their proud past, but also an integral part of the future of the British economy.
Great Britain and its cooperatives have long played an important part in the development of American cooperatives despite the fact that, particularly here in Wisconsin, much of our cooperative heritage comes from our German and Scandinavian ancestors. The first recorded retail co-op was created in 1844 when a group of 28 weavers and other tradesmen gathered in Rochdale, England, to form the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers (Rochdale Pioneers). These early cooperative leaders rejected the idea that they, like many of their neighbors, would be forced into poverty by the mechanization that was occurring due to the Industrial Revolution. Their first action was to create a cooperative store that could provide them with food and other items at a fair cost. While doing so, they created seven principles that guide cooperatives to this day.
The Rochdale Pioneers is now part of The Co-Operative Group UK, a diversified cooperative headquartered in Manchester, England, that operates grocery stores, pharmacies, travel agencies, and funeral homes, in addition to operating a mutual insurance company and partly owning The Co-operative Bank. The Co-Operative Group UK is now the largest corporation in the UK, headquartered outside London. Its more than 8 million members explicitly reject the intense profit focus of most corporations and banks headquartered in London.
While in England, I visited cooperative pubs and grocery stores, as well as cooperative football (soccer) clubs like FCUnited of Manchester. The cooperative pubs were created by local communities that were very concerned about the closure of many pubs due to downsizing breweries. Communities of fewer than 500 people raised $500,000 or more to purchase and modernize their local meeting place. Other communities raised money to keep their local grocery stores open when they faced closure due to owner retirement. I also visited football clubs in Wimbledon and Manchester that were created in direct response -- and opposition to -- the purchase of local teams by profit-oriented owners in the U.S. and in Russia who then threatened to move the teams unless communities built expensive new stadiums and paid much higher ticket fees. Rather than seek government action, local citizens determined they were going to help themselves by banding together their financial resources to create a community-owned competing team.
The British Government understands the unique re-investment cooperatives make in their local communities and has just begun offering a 30 percent tax credit to individuals who contribute up to $200,000 towards cooperative creation.
We are very fortunate the Rochdale Pioneers set their principles in action 170 years ago