Desjardins election: the result is announced

I flagged up on March 8th the election which was going on at the Canadian financial cooperative federation Desjardins to appoint their new President and CEO.  It was, as I mentioned, a three-horse race.

The decision taken last Saturday by the 256-strong electoral college was to give the post to one of the two internal candidates. He is Guy Cormier, 46, who has been at Desjardins since his early twenties, starting off as a manager at several of the federated credit unions (caisses) and most recently being a Senior Vice President of Desjardins under Monique Leroux’s leadership.

Under Desjardins rules, his term of office is for four years, and he can then stand for election for a further term – but only for one more term. Monique Leroux, elected ICA President last November, would in any case have completed her term this year.

Guest blog: Ruth Holtom reports from Argentina

Normally what you get on this blog are my own thoughts and comments. Occasionally, though, it feels right to make the space available for guest blogs. This report, from Ruth Holtom (who when she isn’t in Argentina works at the Co-operative College in Manchester), deserves a wider audience I think. – Andrew Bibby

In the north eastern province of Santa Fe in Argentina, surrounded by flat fertile fields and nothing much in between, there is a small town of around 25,000 people that on the surface looks like any other. But in fact, Sunchales is a town with a remarkable history and a deep co-operative spirit, which merits a visit from any co-operator who is lucky enough to find themselves in the beautiful country of Argentina.

I had the opportunity to visit the official co-operative capital of Argentina as part of my travels around South America, and in the space of three days the amount that I learnt and the warmth of the welcome I received there was overwhelming. A short while before arriving in Argentina, I had contacted Raul Colombetti, the vice president of the insurance co-operative Sancor Seguros, (based in Sunchales ever since it was established in 1945), to see if I could perhaps visit a few co-operatives there. Before I knew it, he had arranged a full intensive three-day programme for me, which included visits to eight schools, a dairy co-operative, a drinking water co-operative and many others. True co-operative generosity in action! I could spend hours recounting all of the inspirational organisations and people that I met there, but for now here is an insight into the co-operative activities in the schools of Sunchales, from which I believe we can learn a lot about co-operative education and youth engagement.

´Cooperativas escolares´: putting the 5th principle into practice

There are 16 schools in Sunchales, including two special schools and two rural schools several kilometres from the town. Every single one has a ´cooperativa escolar´, or a school co-operative. Almost all the students of the school are members of these co-operatives, and between them they are engaged in an impressive range of activities, both at primary and secondary level: from creating their own school radio stations and tuck shops; to producing handmade soap and jewellery; to designing leaflets, bags or T-shirts.

Every year the co-operatives hold elections where all the members vote students onto the ´consejos´ (committees), and students take on roles such as chair, treasurer and secretary. These committees take care of the administration and practical organisation of the co-operative, learning from a young age how to make collective decisions and work together as a team. But in reality, the students told me that all the members are incredibly active in the co-operative, not just the committee members, and it was clear that in all the schools the co-operative had a large presence in the school. The co-operative values and principles and co-operative symbols were painted in rainbow colours across the walls of many schools, and one primary school was even called ´Escuela de los pioneros de Rochdale´ after the 28 textile workers that opened the first successful co-operative in the world, thousands of kilometres from this small school in an Argentinian town.

rholtom

I was also struck by the way all the schools are united through the ´Federacion de Cooperativas Escolares Sunchales´. Every school votes for two representatives from their co-operative to be part of the federation. With the support of the Fundación Grupo Sancor Seguros (the educational and development arm of the insurance co-operative), both financial and otherwise, the youth-led federation unites the schools by organising local social events, as well as international youth exchanges where students from Sunchales meet young co-operators from other countries such as Brazil, Italy and Spain. The fact that the federation is completely run by the town´s students of all ages, is an impressive example of co-operative learning in practice, and the young people involved are clearly deeply motivated to create a thriving and united youth co-operative movement in the town.

After my three-day visit, I have seen that Sunchales truly is a town where co-operation is written into its DNA. Just as the pride and dedication of members of Sancor, the town´s dairy co-operative and the oldest co-operative in the town, established in 1929, demonstrated the richness of Sunchales´ co-operative history, so the co-operative spirit and passion from the young people that I met in the schools provides certainty that the town´s co-operative movement will only get stronger and will continue to inspire future generations of co-operators in Argentina and beyond.

Coops and capital: keep the fire bucket at hand

I think this may be an appropriate moment to repeat a comment from George Jacob Holyoake, one of the pioneers of the British cooperative movement, which I admit I’ve quoted a number of times before.  Holyoake, who was making the Inaugural Address at the 1887 Co-operative Congress, said this: “The co-operator is not against capital. Capital is exactly like fire – an excellent servant when it warms the inmates, but a bad one when it burns down the house.”

Capital remains a knotty problem for cooperatives, and indeed it is one of the five issues identified as needing attention in the International Co-operative Alliance’s current strategic plan. The ICA has a high-level ‘Blue Ribbon’ commission investigating the topic, and the commission has now published a new report The Capital Conundrum for Co-operatives. It’s worth a read.

Here’s the start of the report’s preface, which very much echoes Holyoake’s 1887 comment: “Capital is necessary and desirable for co-operatives, because it enables us to conduct business, grow, and meet the demands of our key stakeholders. At the same time, unlike other enterprises, co-operatives’ Principles and structure exhibit a profound guardedness and unease about capital and its power.”

The new ICA report is a series of separate essays from across the cooperative movement (both sectorally and geographically). There are some interesting discussions of the appropriateness or otherwise of cooperatives accessing standard equity capital by establishing plcs which they part-own, a model which has been common recently for some agricultural coops and indeed in banking. The problem with this approach of course is that it creates a wedge which investors can use, so that what was once a cooperative business can quickly be lost to the movement. (Cue a reference here to recent developments at the UK’s Co-operative Bank).  I am pleased to note that the report includes some voices warning of the risks of this practice, the first time for many years I’ve seen this view prominently expressed in the coop world.

There’s an essay I particularly like from two authors working for The Co-operators insurers in Canada, and I will end this blog with a quote from their conclusion “The thesis of this article has been that co-operative capital is inherently incompatible with investor-owned capital, and that there is an abundance of co-operative capital available to support co operatives. The real issues, however, relate to the Co-operative Principle of Co-operation among Co operatives and how co-operatives may be empowered to access the co-operative capital that is available.”  There are, as they say, both ‘capital needy and capital rich’ cooperatives: there must be mechanisms in place to enable them to cooperate together and realise the capital resources which, collectively, are held within the movement.

The report is at ica.coop/en/media/news/new-report-capital-conundrum-co-operatives (Actually, the link wasn’t working today, but I’ve sent an email to the ICA to tell them, so hopefully it will be soon).

Cooperative democracy, Canada style

Canada’s powerful cooperative banking and insurance federation Desjardins is currently in the thick of an election campaign. Its current President and CEO Monique Leroux is coming to the end of her (maximum) two terms of office, each of four years,  and a new President to lead the cooperative will be chosen on March 19 and will take over on April 9.

Desjardins is a federation of self-managing credit unions (caisses) and the Group’s top executive is democratically chosen by an electoral college of 256 delegates, primarily representing the federated credit unions. The college meets behind closed doors to take its decision, in a procedure slightly reminiscent of the way the Vatican chooses a new pope (no white smoke, though). In 2008 Monique Leroux was one of eight candidates and obtained the majority vote after six rounds.

This time there are just three candidates. Guy Cormier and Robert Ouellette are both currently Desjardins Senior Vice-Presidents. The third candidate, unusually, is external to the cooperative. He is Daniel Paillé, a former politician who led the separatist Bloc Québécois.

One of these three men will shortly be in charge of a very influential internationally-minded cooperative. We’ll find out who it is very shortly.

Paying Fair tax

I was contacted last week by the PR person at the Ecology Building Society who told me that the Ecology now had accreditation under the Fair Tax Mark. I emailed back to ask if the Ecology, a small building society with all the financial regulatory regime it is required to abide by, could actually avoid paying its taxes even should it want to, Fair Tax Mark or not. I can’t somehow see the Ecology with its single office in the West Yorkshire town of Silsden opening up, say, a Channel Islands offshoot as once upon a time an ex-building society named Northern Rock chose to do.

My email response was a little unkind. The Ecology, set up by a group of activists at the time when it was just about possible (with a lot of hard work) to start a new building society from scratch, has gone on to do good things. And the Fair Tax Mark (very much a creation from within the cooperative movement) is a useful propaganda vehicle when so many companies appear to feel that UK Corporation Tax is a voluntary commitment that they may or may not decide to meet.