Legal Fictions: A Side Trip Into the World of Co-ops

ACBALast weekend I went to the Co-op Summit put on by the Austin Cooperative Business Association. I came home very energized about the future of co-ops, so I wanted to share some of my experiences.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the summit is that all kinds of co-ops were represented there: food and other retail, worker owned businesses, housing, rural electric service, farm co-ops, credit unions, and producer co-ops like Book View Café. This one-day conference was an effort to get people talking across the co-op divide.

A co-op is, most simply, an organization that is run for the benefit of its members. Those members can be consumers, workers, small businesses, freelancers, or, in some cases, a hybrid of those interests. For example, one of our finest new co-ops in Austin is Black Star,  a brew pub owned by its consumers – those who like to hang out there to eat and drink – and its workers.

Their beer is excellent, by the way.

A few years ago, an old friend of mine organized a reunion of co-op folks in Austin. (I wrote about it here.)  While we were there, we were interviewed for a film about the co-op movement in Austin: Many Hands, which is now available in DVD.

After that experience, I realized that working actively with co-ops was a vital part of my education. It taught me about running businesses and gave me a set of values that endure to this day. I should say that I got involved in co-ops after being active in political movements, and chose that direction because it involved building something positive instead of just getting upset at injustice. (Not that I don’t still get upset at injustice.)

Co-ops are still doing that today. There was a dinner part on Saturday night and I sat with several people who had lived in student housing co-ops when they were in college. All of them were convinced that living in an environment where they had to both do the chores and run the organization gave them new experiences and also prepared them for the world of work.

This isn’t just nostalgia; today’s co-opers are getting the same experience. Angela Atwood, who is now the general administrator for College Houses, a co-op that houses about 400 students in 9 separate co-ops, had lots of praise for her board of directors, all students. They’re skillfully managing an $18 million budget (College Houses owns all its properties) and they work together with respect, even when they disagree.

Atwood, by the way, worked in nonprofits before taking a job in co-op management, something I find typical of former co-op people. They look for ways to make a living where they can give back to society.

Until we started Book View Café, I hadn’t been an active co-op member in awhile, but I found I hadn’t forgotten much as I attended panels on cooperative development. I managed to ask a few questions that challenged some of the speakers and many of the other attendees were interested in hearing about how we’ve structured things at BVC.

I met some folks from producer co-ops that are similar in structure to BVC. One, ASPCO, is for artists who do screenprinting.  They provide a facility where the artists can do their work, offer classes to the general public, and occasionally host events where the artists can sell their work. Most of their members sell their work in other places, such as Etsy.com.

Another, Yard to Market Co-op, is just getting started. They sell food grown and raised by people in their yards around town. I say “raised” as well as grown because they sell eggs as well as vegetables. (Here in Austin we are very proud of our chickens and many people have backyard – sometimes even frontyard – chicken coops.)

One co-op I hope to take advantage of soon is Dahlia, which is a worker co-op that does housecleaning. I don’t have the budget for a cleaning service on a regular basis, but it would be good if I had them in on occasion to take care of the things that I will never get around to.

I learned one very interesting fact: rural electric co-ops provide electrical service over 75 percent of the land mass of the United States. There are 900 of them and they serve 42 million people. These co-ops were formed with federal government financing in the 1930s to bring electricity to rural people, because the private utilities didn’t think they could make enough money out in the sticks.

It seems to me that we should be developing co-ops to provide broadband and cell phone service throughout the underserved parts of the country as well. There is room for all kinds of cooperative businesses in the US and in the world in general.

I realize this post isn’t about law and fiction. Maybe you could think of it as being about economic systems and fiction, though. Co-op economies would make an interesting backdrop for a future society.

The only novel I know that really uses a co-op style economy is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Anarres is a society developed by anarchists, but the structure is very similar to co-ops I have known and loved. (So are some of the challenges!). When I first read it, I felt immediately at home on Anarres as well as immediately sympathetic to Shevak’s desire for more room to work on his theories.

Co-ops are, after all, imperfect, like most human institutions. But I’d still like to see more of them in both real life and fiction.

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Legal Fictions: A Side Trip Into the World of Co-ops — 7 Comments

      • Thanks, Mary. I want to look at that book. Unfortunately, it’s not in my library. The Robin Briggs book you also recommended was available, but it doesn’t have much on the role of lawyers.

          • That’s OK. It’s an interesting book and it was also the only one you recommended that was easily available. But I still want to track down the history of lawyers in the process. May have to break down and buy Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, Volume 5,.

    • Thanks for the reminder. It occurs to me that legal systems and economic systems overlap quite a bit in this discussion. Co-ops are potentially a great way to develop businesses that are more responsive to their workers and customers — their members — than either major corporations or state-owned businesses.