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What makes a co-op a co-op? Cooperative principles for a democratic economy | The Homepage

By Jeff Jaeger and Ron Gaydos

Editor’s note: Regular readers of The Homepage may know that a coalition of Hazelwood community groups is working to open a cooperatively owned and operated grocery store on the 4800 block of Second Avenue. This article is the first in a series exploring the seven principles of cooperative businesses.

The Rochdale Pioneers Museum. The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers founded a store in this building at 31 Toad Lane in Rochdale, Lancashire (now Greater Manchester), UK, on Dec. 21, 1844. It was one of the earliest consumer cooperatives. Photo by Scarletharlot69 - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

What is a co-op? Like the food co-op, right? Yes! There are cooperatively owned and governed cooperatives in just about every business sector. They benefit their members by providing affordable ownership opportunities and building member wealth. Cooperative businesses are usually more committed to their communities, since members recognize that what is good for the community is also good for their cooperative business.

For over 150 years, cooperatives have been in operation around the world. They are guided by seven principles. This is the first article in a series of seven that will present the fundamental cooperative principles. The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in Great Britain codified these principles in 1844. Each of them plays an important part in a successful cooperative.

We’re going to tell you where these principles came from, how they continue into current cooperative culture, and why they’re important. But first, here are all seven:

1. Voluntary and open membership

2. Democratic member control

3. Members' economic participation

4. Autonomy and independence

5. Education, training and information

6. Cooperation among cooperatives

7. Concern for community

Voluntary and open membership

Imagine what work was like in the 1800s in Great Britain. Feudalism was giving way to industrialization. The impacts of the industrial revolution roared across society but hit hardest the people forced off communally used farmlands during the Enclosure. Having nowhere to go but to the enclosed farms, mines or factories, those who had to become wage earners were not guaranteed a living. Even skilled workers were forced into poverty.

In Rochdale, Lancashire, a group of striking workers, about half of whom were displaced weavers, founded The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. They started a small store at 31 Toad Lane to sell basic foods the members needed at an affordable price. Anyone could buy into the store by paying one British pound. It didn't matter what your job was or who you worked for. Within three months the store was selling a wide range of food and household items.

The Rochdale Society answered an increasingly competitive and impersonal economy with an open organization for mutual benefit. The general idea of an open and voluntary cooperative started to catch on. In 10 years, there were nearly 1,000 cooperatives of various kinds throughout Great Britain. Rochdale still does business today as part of the Co-operative Group based in Manchester, England.

The First Principle continued into the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. This blend of a union and a network of cooperatives in the eastern U.S. established foundries and manufacturing plants from the 1860s to 1880s. The Knights of Labor welcomed women and African Americans into its membership of worker-owners.

In Pittsburgh and around the world, cooperatives still honor the principle of open and voluntary membership.

The East End Food Co-op began in 1972 as a food-buying club. Membership cost a dollar. It has since evolved into a consumer co-op with over 12,000 members. Member ownership and participation in the co-op’s leadership is open to anyone who chooses to be a member. East End’s Board of Directors election is going on now and will conclude in October. The business operates on the recognition that it needs the support of its members and customers.

Pittsburgh has many other cooperatives whose members adhere to the First Principle.

The Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Cooperative (BUGS FPC) is open to any African American who upholds cooperative principles.

Solar United Neighbors is a cooperative buying program to make installing solar panels more affordable. The Earth thanks them for that!

The Ujamaa Collective, dedicated to developing cooperative economics for Pittsburgh’s Black communities, works to help Black women build self-sufficiency through creative entrepreneurship by working together in their boutique, farm and marketplace where women create and sell their wares and share expertise with their neighbors and fellow members.

Workers today often lack job security and democracy at their workplaces. Most workers spend about half of their waking hours in a closed, authoritarian environment. Wealth and income inequality, and job downgrading to lower-wage or part-time status, affect more people every year.

So, this is a good time to revisit a business model with open and voluntary membership. The cooperative model is shaped by a group of people who are looking out for each other and the community around them. The local community gains strength and resilience from the willingness of people to participate in, and become members of, a cooperative. We’re stronger together!

The Pittsburgh Chamber of Cooperatives welcomes anyone interested in learning more to a “Think Ahtside the Boss!” Happy Hour on Thursday, Aug. 31 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Trace Brewing, at 4312 Main St. in Bloomfield. To learn more, visit

Jeff Jaeger is the owner of Octopus’s Garden Permaculture Landscaping. Ron Gaydos is the director of cooperative development at the Keystone Development Center. They co-founded the Pittsburgh Chamber of Cooperatives.


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