From Rochdale, England to Rochdale, Berkeley: a brief history of the origins of modern cooperatives

Rochdale Pioneer’s Museum, Toad Land, Rochdale.
This photo is licensed with Some rights reserved by AdamKR under a Creative Commons License.

By Kara Alba

Although cooperative economies originated indigenously in different forms across cultures and continents, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Society is credited for developing the framework under which western consumer cooperatives, and those following the model internationally, operate today.

HISTORY

On August 15, 1844 the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Society was formed by 30 members, both weavers and other manufacturers.{1} Although the town of Rochdale was amidst “the hungry forties” when the society was formed, the founding members were largely relatively well-paid skilled artisans, some self-employed, who were deeply inspired by Robert Owen and the idealism of a better social order. {2} With lessons from prior ventures in cooperation in mind, the founding members framed the now famous Rochdale Principles, and planned to follow Dr. William King’s suggestion to start with a storekeeping operation that provided self-employment to members and to grow gradually into a cooperative community.{3} Capital was obtained through a loan from the Weaver’s Association and weekly member contributions to a fund, and was used to buy enough supplies to open a consumer cooperative.{4} They leased the ground floor of a warehouse on Toad Lane, and after repairs were made and the shop set up there was little money left to buy stock.{5} Retrospectively, the founding members reflected that this was beneficial because it prevented purchasing too much quantity or unpopular items and forced them to open their store with only a little butter, sugar, and  flour, one sack of oatmeal, and a few candles.{6}

The store opened part-time on December 21, 1844. A trade depression in 1847 might have bankrupted the Pioneers’ Society, but it survived at least partly because it did not give credit, nor allowed its share capital to be withdrawn. Members with financial difficulties were able to sell their shares to other members. The closing of the local bank and the purchase of a library from a failed literary society, helped the Pioneers’ Society grow rapidly as their shop became both the best custodian of working class savings, and the foremost educational institution in the town.{7} By 1851 the shop was open daily and offered drapery, tailoring, butchery, footwear, a newsroom and a library on multiple floors of the warehouse. Membership had increased to 600 and was growing. In 1850 the Pioneers’ Society founded the Rochdale Cooperative Manufacturing Society, but by 1862 the firm converted to a traditionally managed joint stock company due to selling shares to non-worker investors in an effort to expand.{8}

LESSONS

For years the failure of the mill as a worker-owned cooperative was felt as a blow to the ideal of workplace democracy, but the Pioneers’ Society’s model has served as a foundation for countless consumer cooperatives and worker-owned businesses, like Berkeley’s Rochdale Apartments, a project of the Berkeley Student Cooperative. Today the shop on Toad Lane is a museum (freshly remodeled in anticipation of the United Nations’ 2012 “Year of Co-operatives”) which preserves many of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Society’s original organizing documents and provides many resources online, including a self-help guide from the late 1850s.{9}

As cooperative businesses gain momentum in the near future, it is important to take not only the Rochdale Principles and the successes and failures of the Pioneers’ Society, but also the focus on cooperatives as a community. The Pioneers’ Society was focused on promoting the development of other cooperatives. They informed Rochdale by using their business space as an educational center for lectures, discussions, a reading room, and a library. They inspired associates to form other cooperative enterprises, including a sick and burial society, a card manufacturing society, a building society, and an insurance company. Finally, they incubated other cooperative businesses by distributing their goods through the Co-operative Wholesale Society. The Rochdale Principles might be the tool that has spelled success for the modern cooperative, but the Rochdale Pioneers’ Society’s encouragement of cooperative communities will be the tool to ensure success for cooperatives in the future.

SOURCES

*This photo is licensed with  Some rights reserved by AdamKR under a Creative Commons License.
1. Dorothy Greaves, Original Members of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society Limited, available at http://www.rochdalepioneersmuseum.coop/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/rochdalePioneersOriginalMembers.pdf.
2. Rochdale Pioneers Museum, Toad Lane Brochure, The Home of Co-operation (1995) available at http://www.rochdalepioneersmuseum.coop/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/toadLaneBrochure_English.pdf.
3. Id.
4. Frank T. Adams & Gary B. Hansen, Putting Democracy to Work 13-14 (Rev. ed. 1992).
5. Rochdale Pioneers Museum at 15.
6. Id.
7. Id. at 16.
8. Id. at 18.
9. Rochdale Pioneers Museum, Learning Resources, available at http://www.rochdalepioneersmuseum.coop/learning-resources.

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