11/18/2011 12:09 EST | Updated 01/17/2012 05:12 EST

Get Occupied With The Co-op Movement

Despite the ability of co-ops to offer clear solutions and leadership (two areas where critics crap on Occupiers for sucking harder than an airplane toilet), the Co-op Movement admittedly falls short in one area where Occupy thrives: grabbing your attention.

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I bet you haven't heard of the global movement that's demanding a democratic economy. The one that's unsatisfied with the corporate business model and the way banks dominate the system. The one that's been occupying the social change arena since 1844. They're the Co-Operative Movement.

From national associations, to a United Nations resolution, to a global database of co-ops whose total earnings rival Canada's GDP, the Co-op Movement demonstrates strong leadership and organized support. But despite this ability of co-operators to offer clear solutions and leadership (two areas where critics crap on Occupiers for sucking harder than an airplane toilet), the Co-op Movement admittedly falls short in one area where Occupy thrives: grabbing your attention.

"One of the problems co-ops face is their lack of visibility," says Donna Balkan, Communications Manager for the Canadian Co-operative Association. "The co-op business model is rarely taught in business schools or law faculties, and mainstream media rarely cover co-operatives as a distinct form of business."

That's not to say it's completely out of sight: Social entrepreneurship studies are infiltrating business schools from Simon Fraser University to Acadia University; studies show co-op survival rates far surpass that of conventional businesses; four out of every 10 Canadians are members of at least one co-op; co-op members make up about 70 per cent of the Quebec population; and thousands of people took part in Bank Transfer Day, which supported credit unions a.k.a. financial co-ops. The fact that you may unknowingly be involved in the co-op movement already underscores the visibility issue -- an issue that could be turned around if the Occupy Movement were to lend a hand.

And why would they do that, you ask?

"It's what they're yearning for, out there on the streets of the Occupy Movement," says Dame Pauline Green, president of the International Co-operative Alliance, in an interview with CBC radio, " have some active engagement in their community and in their economy. That's what they want."

Balkan agrees. She says Occupy protestors in Ottawa were so interested in the Co-op Movement that a co-worker who went down to distribute pamphlets was asked to give a full workshop on the co-operative business model, right there in the park.

Well, if you missed the impromptu workshop, here's a recap: The co-op model is an alternative to serving that single, profit-driven bottom line, the one that leads to the "centralization of capital in fewer and fewer people's hands," says Marty Frost, co-op developer and founding member with Devco, a co-op development and training firm. And "as a result, we relinquish control of economic, environmental and social issues that affect our communities," says Julie Mihalisin, a graduate of the Sustainable MBA program at Bainbridge who recently wrote a blog post for her alma mater on how innovative business models can offer solutions to the socio-economic imbalances at the root of Occupy Wall Street discontent.

How co-ops help restore that balance is by making every member an equal owner. This democratic 'one member, one vote' system sees profits distributed to members based on how much a member uses the co-op -- not in proportion to how many shares they own. Decisions are made democratically -- not by a minority with the share majority -- forcing the traditional profit-driven bottom-line to share a bed with social and environmental bottom lines (a ménage-a-triple-bottom-line, if you will - -rrraow).

And it's not just co-ops that flaunt a sexy alternative to the status quo. "There are also collectives, land trusts, and community-based enterprises... but what's important is that all these models are based on co-operation," says Dr. Ana Maria Peredo, director of the Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economy and a business professor at the University of Victoria. Peredo recently returned from New York City where she was a keynote speaker at the timely 2011 Conference on Social Entrepreneurship. Over the phone, Peredo tells me she was impressed with the degree of organization and democracy within the Occupy Wall Street protests and that she's "very optimistic. I feel that was the real university."

On the other hand, one less optimistic columnist called Occupy protestors a "virtuocracy" -- described as a group who are not just looking, but expecting to find jobs that make a difference in the world (the horror!). Narrow-minded columnists aside, if occupiers are searching for jobs with morals, they'll find them in co-ops. Co-ops adhere to seven governing beliefs (known as the seven co-operative principles) that include such 'virtuous' ideas as open and voluntary membership, education, training and information, and concern for community.

In fact, when the Canadian magazine Adbusters posted the original Occupy Wall Street tongue-twisting call to action "Democracy, not corporatocracy," it could easily have been mistaken for the fundamental co-op principle of democratic member control.

But it wasn't. Alas, the downside to this quietly confident, respected, 167-year-old movement is you won't see Mountain Equipment Co-op employees wielding tent poles as weapons, car-share co-op members being arrested for breaking into an auto dealership, or credit union directors vandalizing banks. And without such made-for-tabloid-TV moments, the Co-op Movement won't be cannon-blasted by the media into the public eye any time soon.

Balkan's hopeful that will change (well, minus the vigilante stuff). With the United Nations proclaiming 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives, she's optimistic that word will spread and the media and public will take notice.

But at the moment, Occupiers hold the media's fleeting attention. So, if you're an Occupy supporter and you feel co-op values align with your own, harness the positive side of all that negative media, grab the mother of all mirrors, and redirect some of the limelight onto a deserving cause that isn't getting any younger: the Co-op Movement.