Co-op political pressure body launches in the US

By Anca Voinea, Co-operative News

USA’s National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA CLUSA) marked its 100th anniversary in January with the formal launch of the bipartisan Congressional Cooperative Business Caucus. The story of the NCBA began in 1916 when it was set up under the name Cooperative League of America. The organisation is the oldest not-for-profit co-operative development and trade association in the USA.

The event featured testimonies from Congress representatives as well as co-operators from across the USA. The caucus was formed to promote the co-operative business model as a viable market solution and policy option and inform policymakers about the co-operative alternative. The group will work as a forum for dialogue between Congress, the Administration, state and local leaders and enterprises that promote co-operative businesses.

NCBA will serve as the Caucus’ external partner and advisor while its staff will assist the caucus in their activities, which will include running events and connective policymakers to leading experts and model practitioners.

“As a long-time advocate of co-operative business – from California’s credit unions and mutual insurers to Africa’s rural electric co-ops – I look forward to highlighting the benefits these organisations provide to their customers and their communities,” said Rep Ed Royce (Republicans, California), caucus co-chair and founder. “Co-operatives not only provide valuable goods and services around the world, but also offer their members a piece of their success,” he added.

Rep Mark Pocan (Democrats, Wisconsin), who is co-chairing the caucus, was also present at the launch.

“I’m proud that my district is home to thriving co-operatives – from the Willy Street Co-op to the University of Wisconsin Credit Union,” Mr Pocan said. With 80 co-operatives, Wisconsin’s Dane County has the highest number of co-ops per capita of any county in the nation.

“I look forward to working with Rep Royce to promote greater awareness of the co-operative business model and to advocate on federal policy issues unique to the co-op community,” Mr Pocan said, adding that the caucus will help Congress understand the “diversity and benefits” of co-operatives.

“We are thrilled by the formation of this historic caucus dedicated to advancing the role of co-operatives in the nation’s economy at the federal level,” said Judy Ziewacz, interim chief executive and president of NCBA CLUSA. The apex body for co-operatives in the US has been working to secure the caucus in order to raise awareness of the co-operative business model. Co-operatives play an important role in the USA’s economy, contributing USD $3tn every year and creating millions of jobs. They exist across a variety of industries, including electricity, banking and retail.

“Co-operative numbers are increasing across the country,” added Ms Ziewacz. “We are seeing the number of start-up food co-operatives increasing, and the number of food co-ops in their first year is substantially higher than in the last five years. There is also an increase of worker-owned members as a result of business owners retiring and selling their businesses to the employees. The worker-owned co-operative is an alternative when there is a unique business that does not fit into traditional business models. Housing co-operatives are also increasing in areas where rent and real estate is ever increasing. Particular areas seeing growth in co-operatives include Chicago, Boston, the Carolinas, and California.”

Co-operators and members of the public can ask their senators or members of the congress that are not yet members to join the caucus, using a sample letter available on NCBA’s website.

The caucus will also work closely with the United States Department for Agriculture’s Interagency Working Group on Cooperative Development, formed under the recent Farm Bill.

A House Farmer Cooperative Caucus already exists and is run by the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “We have been aware of that Caucus that NCFC runs, and we ran our Caucus by them to make sure it doesn’t overlap and can coordinate. Our goal is to connect with them and determine ways we can cross promote and work collaboratively,” explained Alan Knapp, vice president of advocacy at NCBA CLUSA.

Also present at the launch event was Organic Valley farmer, Terry Ingram, who thinks the launch of the caucus will raise awareness on the national level through exposure and education, helping to steer legislation helpful to the formation of co-operatives.

He said: “As a Cooperative CROPP/Organic Valley leverages collective bargaining that helps the individual family farms that could not otherwise survive. I think the formation of this caucus would have influence and raise awareness of co-operatives strength and viability on the macro level, in turn benefiting the individual farmers we serve. It just makes sense for co-operatives to have a caucus in Congress concerning co-operatives. I would say it is long overdue!”

Asked whether there were particular aspects he would like policy makers to look at, he said: “Taking action to help fund programs that help co-operatives form, raising awareness of co-operatives and their importance. Co-operative systems of economics were the vision Thomas Jefferson had in mind during the formation of this country. Though his vision was agrarian, at the core was independence of the individual and the beneficent elevation of the community through mutualistic support.

“Co-operatives support this kind of vision. Promulgating these ideas that are so emblematic of the American spirit are already in place in co-operatives all over this country. It is time to see power behind the ideas, the caucus should focus on supporting and promoting this economic model.”

Another speaker at the event, Chuck Snyder, president and chief executive of the National Cooperative Bank (NCB), believes the caucus will be able to build awareness and a better understanding of the economic impact of co-ops.

He said: “Every year NCB produces the Co-op 100 Report which highlights the top 100 co-operatives in the United States by revenue. In 2014, the top 100 co-ops generated $243.2 billion. There are major players in the co-op sector and this caucus will help in educating congress about the economic and social impact co-operatives make.

“The co-op model exists in many sectors – from housing to small business to financial and we need to make sure that the policy makers understand our model and how it can be used to help the economy. This includes lending parameters and programs that are favorable to co-operatives. We have seen the development of affordable housing through the use of housing co-ops and the creation of wealth and small business ownership through worker owned co-ops and the access to healthy food through food co-ops. There are so many great examples of how co-ops can help society. We need to make sure the policymakers and congress understand as well.”