Co-op History: Part 1

As part of the Black Star Co-op Board’s continuing educational activities, we’re delving into the history of co-op: how and why they came about, how they’ve evolved in waves over the last two centuries, and how Black Star has ridden the most recent wave to be as successful as it is. In this blog post the early of history of co-ops will be outlined (other parts of co-op history will be the topic of subsequent posts.)

Cooperation among humans is the oldest form of social task accomplishment. It’s likely that our primate ancestors basically cooperated, as we know some other species seem to cooperate beyond primal levels. But cooperatives as we know them today started in the early- to mid-1800s. The first co-ops were essentially simple grocery businesses created as a reaction to unpredictable quality and quantity issues, predatory pricing, and the desire on the part of consumers to be able to have some significant say in how the food chain operated. The most celebrated early co-op was the Rochdale Equitable Pioneer Society located in the millenary center of England near Manchester. After strikes by the weavers in Rochdale failed to have any significant effect on wages and living conditions, the weavers looked to some other mechanism for improving their situation. They turned to the ideas of several prominent liberal, socialistic thinkers of the time who advocated for workers/consumers benefiting directly from the fruits of their labor though cooperative trading so members of an enterprise could see an immediate self-created benefit. The Rochdale Pioneers, who early on in their history created the basic principles of cooperation we still have today, admitted unlimited numbers of members, required the same small capital investment of all members, gave each member one vote for all relevant co-op decisions, and distributed part of the co-op’s profits as a dividend on purchases (patronage). In December of 1844, and with 28 members, they started the first successful cooperative enterprise (their original shop now houses the Rochdale Pioneers Museum). 

The Rochdale Pioneers’ modest beginnings included the sale basic necessities to their members such as butter, flour, oats, candles, soap and blankets. The goal was to supply high quality goods, cheaply and to return any profit to members of the co-op. They would do this based on values that revolved largely around the ideas of democracy and self-help, and the key principles which are now recognized internationally as the Seven Co-operative Principles (discussed in many past Black Star bog posts).  Because of the remarkable success of the Rochdale Pioneers, the co-op movement spread rapidly and by the end of the 19th century it was already an international movement. The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) was founded and held its first congress in Manchester in 1896. Today the Seven Co-operative Principles are promulgated by the ICA and are successfully applied throughout the world to a vast array of co-op businesses – farming co-ops, electric co-ops, fishing co-ops, credit unions, grocery/retail co-ops, manufacturing co-operatives, web hosting/IT co-ops, workers co-ops of all sorts — and since 2010, brewpub co-ops!

Like the Rochdale Pioneers, Black Star ventured into an area that was once an unexplored frontier of the co-op movement, and with our five-year anniversary coming up, I think we can all say that Black Star has been a huge success. There are now many other cooperative brewing businesses in the US and beyond, many of which have used Black Star as their model. I think the Rochdale Pioneers would be proud of Black Star.  I also suspect they would love a Vulcan with our fish & chips.