by David Bedell
A political democracy cannot survive unless it is buttressed by an economic democracy. ~ Edward A. Filene
A business corporation is a legal entity which sells goods or services to its customers in order to make a profit for its owners. In many cases this is a fair exchange, but in other cases the power of the corporation can go unchecked at the expense of customers, employees, and the environment.
A consumer cooperative, on the other hand, is an entity owned and democratically controlled by the same people who are its customers or clients. Revenues from its operation are not paid to shareholders whose primary interest is profit, but rather are reinvested in the operation or returned as dividends to the customers who generated the revenues in the first place. A coop pools the buying power of many individual consumers in order to negotiate lower prices and better services. Examples include:
Food coops: These may be storefront coops such as the Willimantic Food Coop or monthly buying clubs organized through Northeast Cooperatives. Most often, they specialize in organic and natural foods and offer wholesale prices if you buy in bulk.
Energy coops: Connecticut has recently joined the 46 other states with energy coops. While most energy coops serve less densely-populated rural areas where corporate utilities cannot reap great profits, the Connecticut Energy Coop serves the whole state, so anyone can choose it as their energy supplier under the new deregulated system. You can buy electricity at cheaper rates than CL&P's standard offer, or for a little more you can buy "green" (renewable) electricity. CEC also offers fuel oil, propane, and long distance telephone service.
Housing coops: These bear a superficial resemblance to condominiums, but instead of buying or renting individual units, the residents buy shares in a cooperative organization which negotiates the mortgage or leasing fee. Members retain democratic control of shared space and services and set the rules on subleasing, etc. Coops have proven to be an economical housing solution, especially for students, artists, disabled people, seniors, and people in mobile-home parks. For more information, consult the Association for Resident Control of Housing or the National Association of Housing Cooperatives. The Greater Hartford Cohousing project is now in the process of formation.
Credit unions: These not-for-profit financial institutions offer the same kinds of services as banks (savings and checking accounts, loans, etc.), but on better terms and with fewer fees to the consumer because they do not have to turn a profit over to outside investors. For example, compare the Connecticut State Employees Credit Union savings interest rate of 5% with the typical bank rate of 1-2%. A credit union is most commonly formed by a group of employees, but it could also be a religious congregation or a neighborhood association. Ask your employer, or contact the Connecticut Credit Union Association or the State Dept. of Banking.
As consumers, we wield as much, if not more, power than we do as voters. By joining a consumer coop, we empower ourselves with ownership and responsibility for the way our local and national economy is run.