The C is for co-operation, not corporation: An open letter to MEC members

Photo: JPDaigle / flickr

We are among the three million members of Mountain Equipment Co-op, Canada's largest consumer co-operative. At most other stores, we're just consumers, but as members, we're also owners, and we all have an equal share. If you live in Canada, there's a one in ten chance you're also a member-owner. If you've ever shopped at MEC, you are a member-owner. 

Large co-ops in Canada have a history of drifting toward acting like for-profit companies run for shareholder profit, seeing their member-owners as customers rather than owners. At MEC, some member-owners have from time to time fought this trend, and the result of these initiatives is precisely what makes MEC compelling today: leading-edge sustainability practices, and the donation of 1 per cent of the co-op's $300 million in annual revenues to environmental organizations. 

There is much that could be improved, but the promise of co-operatives cannot be ignored. MEC has shown that when serving members is more important than serving profit, the result is lower-priced, higher-quality equipment that lasts longer. The result is sustainability practices which leave the private sector in the dust. MEC and other co-ops show us flashes and glimmers of the promise of a democratically run economy. 

To move toward fulfilling this promise, and to protect every member-owner's right to take part in governance, co-ops need to place a high value on their input and participation. 

In March 2012, 379 MEC member-owners signed a letter demanding that the board of Mountain Equipment Co-op make the co-op more democratic, not less. By sneaking through a resolution which claimed to "modernize" MEC's bylaws, the board was able to give itself the power to reject candidates for the board based on criteria the board itself sets. 

We don't want Stephen Harper (or any other Prime Minister) to have the ability to reject people for running for Parliament. We don't want the MEC board doing that. We called these changes undemocratic. We called for the board to commit to creating a truly democratic co-operative with governance which ensures diversity and broad participation. A year later, the board has given us its response: 

-With another misleadingly-labelled special resolution, the board is asking for additional powers. If Special Resolution 1 is passed, future ballots would highlight candidates "recommended by the board."

-The board is also diminishing member-owners' ability to participate. Special Resolution 1 would also raise the number of signatures required to propose a special resolution from 5 to 500. (The board already has the ability to reject special resolutions.)

-The power to reject member-owners' board candidacies was justified by the board's active recruitment process. We can now see the results of that process. Of those running, only one (a current board member running for a second term) is visibly non-white, and men outnumber women 2-1. None of the new candidates appear to have significant co-op experience, and there are no candidates from Quebec or the Maritimes.

We are dissatisfied with the board's misleading labelling of this resolution, and the result of last year's resolution.  We call on MEC member-owners to vote against Special Resolution 1, and we call on MEC member-owners and leadership to change course. 

It's clear that voting "no" is not enough. We also call on MEC members to join in a long-term effort to make the co-op -- of which we are all owners -- a leader in democratic participation.  Starting now, we demand -- and commit to working to bring about -- the following changes to MEC's structure. 

1. Annual membership consultation With few additional resources, the board could survey the membership about their priorities and desires. Member-owners should also be able to participate in determining what kinds of questions are asked in the survey. In interviews, some candidates claimed to know what MEC member-owners want. As it stands, there is no way to know. An annual consultation shaped by member-owner input would be the first step towards a more democratic co-op. 

2. Member-owner discussion forum Democracy is next to meaningless if member-owners cannot discuss things together as member-owners. An online forum for MEC member-owners would solve this issue. A voting system could gauge support for proposals, and spur innovation and participation. Additional staff time would be required for moderation and maintenance, but it would be a minor cost for a major step in the right direction. 

3. Facilitate local participation Currently, MEC mostly treats its local member-owners as consumers. Local member-owners should be able -- after meeting some basic requirements, and with assistance from their local staff -- to organize a meeting to which every MEC member-owner within a 200km radius is invited.

We'd be surprised if such meetings were not the launching point for a plethora of exciting initiatives and proposals as well as a sense of ownership and pride among member-owners. MEC can continue to be a leader in sustainability and support for environmental groups. By adding democracy, it can become an inspiring example and standard-bearer in many other areas as well.  

Yours truly,

MEC Members for a Democratic Co-op [Click here to sign and view the list of signatories]

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