The First Co-op
In honor of Co-op Month, we pay tribute to the earliest pioneers of the cooperative movement, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers
During the Industrial Revolution, many skilled laborers, such as the weavers of Rochdale, England, were finding themselves driven into poverty. The artisan weavers faced miserable working conditions and low wages, and they could not afford the high prices of food and household goods. They decided that by pooling their scarce resources and working together, they could access basic goods at a lower price. Thus in 1844, 28 citizens, (half of whom were weavers,) banded together to create The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers.
Each member of the Society bought into the company with £1. In today’s money, that would be worth about $155. With their initial capital of £28, they opened a store where the community could buy quality goods at lower prices. On opening day, December 21, they had butter, sugar, oatmeal, and a few candles. But it was a success, and soon, they were able to add tea and tobacco. They eventually became known for providing good quality, unadulterated foods.
One of the reasons why The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers succeeded where others had failed was because they created a set of principles for operations. Known as the Rochdale Principles; these are the basis for all modern co-ops to this day. In 2006 the Rochdale Society was absorbed into The Co-operative Group, the UK’s largest consumer co-operative, with over 4.6 million members. The Rochdale Pioneers laid the foundations of the co-operative movement and an enduring, highly successful business model.
Although co-ops continue to change, the principles with which they operate remain basically the same
- Voluntary and open membership – anyone who wants to become a member can do so
- Democratic member control – members control the cooperative by electing its board of directors and taking an active part in the co-op’s meetings
- Member economic participation – contributing equitably to and democratically controlling their capital, margins or earnings are returned to members in proportion to the amount of business transacted with the cooperative
- Autonomy and independence – The new autonomy and independence principle emphasizes that cooperatives must be free of intervention from governments or other sources so that ultimately the members are able to control their own destiny.
- Continuing cooperative education, training and information – a duty to educate members and the public in general about the cooperative form of business as a unique and valuable part of the private enterprise system
- Cooperation among cooperatives – understanding the reasons they belong to a cooperative means that co-op members see the value that comes from collaborating with other cooperatives as being one of the strengths of the cooperative business model
- Concern for community – while focusing on the needs of current members, co-ops work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members with the next generation of members in mind