Are coops still a force for social change?


On May 25th, 1934, Minnesota’s charismatic Farmer-Labor governor, Floyd Olson delivered a fiery speech to the delegates assembled at the Farmer-Labor Party’s state convention in St. Paul. Olson had reason to be fiery. After signs of recovery in 1933, the cold grip of the Depression tightened once again. Olson concluded his speech with fighting words that delighted his audience. “I am what I want to be… I am a radical.”

The following day convention delegates adopted the Cooperative Commonwealth Platform—the boldest vision for a new society every adopted by a successful American political party. What made the platform more than a utopian fantasy was the daily experience of thousands of Minnesotans who were building cooperatives across the length and breadth of the state. By 1935, Minnesota had 2,886 consumer coops with a combined membership of 531,180, the most in the nation.

Eight decades later, Minnesota continues to have more cooperatives than any other state, with over 3.4 million members. But, hasn’t the crusading spirit of the 1930’s burned out in the larger cooperatives like CENEX or Land O’ Lakes? What meaning does the cooperative ownership form have in organizations that act like their corporate competition? Remember the farmer-owners of Crystal Sugar who stood by while management locked out the very workers who transformed their commodity into marketable product? No farmer-labor cooperation there!

But wait, there are signs that cooperative reform energy lives on. A recent study by Cooperative Development Services documents the significant contribution food coops make to the local food system. And the decision of the Seward and Mississippi Market to open stores in the Bryant Central and Daytons Bluff neighborhoods demonstrates a clear commitment to serve ethnically diverse low income/working class communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Nor is this broader social engagement limited to the food sector. Some of the same energy cooperatives that brought electricity to rural Minnesota in the 30’s and 40’s are now leading the way in solar energy production and distribution. In so doing, they are enlisting in one of the most critical campaigns of our era: the fight against climate change.

Unlike private corporations, cooperatives offer a space for democratic deliberation and action. Having a space doesn’t mean it will be used. The food and energy cooperatives demonstrate how that space can be used for progressive ends.