Global cooperatives: the principle of democratic control

Hans Breitenmoser
Letter to the Editor

How do we measure the health of our co-ops? What red flags should we be watching for?

I am a dairy farmer, and, like most dairy farmers, I am a member of several cooperatives. Cooperatives started as a way to give farmers collective bargaining power, and they continue to play a vital role in the agricultural economy. I believe in the foundational cooperative principles, among them: shared economic participation, transparency, and most importantly, democratic control.

Democratic control is characterized by the time-honored practice of “one-member, one-vote,” and I take comfort in knowing that I have a voice in the decisions that affect my livelihood. I am concerned that as co-ops grow, clearly in an effort to compete in the global marketplace, their democratic principles are being compromised.

This concern came to a head when I wanted to communicate with my fellow Cooperative Resources International (CRI) delegates regarding a mega-merger with a privately-owned Dutch holding company called Koepon. As delegates, we are trusted to make an informed decision about something that will change the very structure of the organization that we own. But when I requested a simple list of the names of the delegates, even offering to sign a confidentiality agreement, I was denied on the grounds that we might misinterpret the information provided, which has been minimal at best. I then drafted an email in which I asked my fellow delegates to reach out to me. The CRI Board Chair refused to send my email to the rest of the delegates.

It is the CRI delegates who will vote on the proposed merger, not the CRI Board — yet the Board controls all the information. The Board has promised to give us whichever details they deem appropriate at the end of April, and the vote will take place in the beginning of May. Not only is this very poor timing given that most farmers are extremely busy this time of year, but the short amount of time given and the inability to confer with our fellow delegates suggests to me that the leadership of our organization has no interest in the opinion of the delegates. This process is a charade.   

As we approach the deadline to vote on the proposed merger with Koepon, I have to wonder if getting bigger is the best thing for our organization. The proposed company will be 30 percent CRI and 70 percent Koepon. We are already in a situation where democratic control of our co-op is questionable, and this merger threatens to make CRI nearly indistinguishable from a private corporation. When it comes to making collective decisions, how are we expected to have a voice when we only constitute 30 percent of the board? 

I am sure there are other CRI members and delegates who are quietly pondering these same questions, but are unable to come together to have an honest conversation. That’s the problem. If this merger threatens to further suppress or silence our membership, I am strongly inclined to vote no.  

Hans Breitenmoser is a family dairy farmer from Merrill. He serves on the Lincoln County Board and is a member of Cooperative Resources International.