Whether Charles Ungerlieder’s May 19 postThe Great Peanut Butter War on the progressive BC blog site TheTyee is just inane balderdash, a cunning attack on cooperatives generally, or the mulish meanderings of an uncooperative, peanut butter obsessed mind is impossible to tell with certainty.

What the story does make clear is that Ungerlieder is obsessed not so much with Peanut Butter but with getting his way(his peanut butter)—at any cost! It is amazing to think how once Ungerlieder got the peanut butter bone in his mouth he was not going to let go. He was going to have his peanut butter and he was going to get it at his coop or there would be hell to pay. He would demand, throw a fit, jump up and down, offer to bribe, seek to undermine the board, rally an army of otherwise peaceful/community minded/good willed coop members to support his demand for his favorite peanut butter brand on his coop shelves!

Yikes, all this to get a bottle of peanut butter he could easily, peacefully, goodwilledly, buy at the store across the street.

But to really understand this I think you have to ask yourself why was he there?—Anyway! In the Tyee post he clearly portrays his contempt for that board and even the other cooperatively minded members of the Agora Co-op—well for anything cooperative.

Admittedly he managed to convince his children that doing a little work around the coop was “work experience of the sort provided to convicts in the southern United States.”

He admits to being abusive in contacting Coop members about the minimal work required “informing” members who missed a weekly two hours of volunteer work around the coop that…”memory-loss is a frequent byproduct of an unhealthy diet or too little sexual activity.”Then he would go on to bad mouth them as “lazy, good-for-nothing freeloading unco-operator(s).”

In Ungerlieder’s view cooperatives are “quasi-socialist organization(s)” which are, according to Ungerlieder, inherently incapable of positive social organization and lead inexorably to things like the Berlin Wall.

Ungerlieder is so blinded by his obsession with labeling any cooperative effort as inherently authoritarian that he sees the board’s rejection of his peanut butter proposal as “a harbinger of the fall of the Berlin Wall” and sees the board’s rejection as a reflection of Chairman Mao’s observation that “if there were no contradictions in the Party and no ideological struggles to resolve them, the Party’s life would come to an end.”

When Ungerlieder’s member petition to force the stocking of his favorite peanut butter fails, he—finally—quits—in a huff!

But he doesn’t just walk away. His Thetyee.ca rant against anything cooperative still seeks to sow discord among those who want to work together to build a healthier world by feeding their families wholesome food, grown by families that are getting a healthy living from their food production efforts.

Despite Ungerlieder’s venom toward anything cooperative, co-ops in BC have been very successful in empowering people to come together to enrich their lives and build healthy, cooperative lifestyles while creating sustaining and sustainable local economies.

According to the BC Co-operative Association, total membership of BC co-operatives now exceeds two million people. Collectively, these members control more than $48 billion in assets through ownership of their co-ops. I have written several times about the work the highly successful cooperative Vancity Credit Union does in assisting people and communities. Vancity has been a leader in social justice initiatives, affordable/sustainable housing. It has been a leader in building inclusive community with a focus in helping community organizations—especially coops—to become a truly effective part of the community. Vancity has pioneered the way to building a successful business out of focusing on serving the needs of its members. Who has not heard of BC’s leading outdoor equipment coop—Mountain Equipment Coop which was founded in 1971 and now has 5.4 million members who would not buy their ourdoor equipment anywhere else? Hardly the image of coops that Ungerlieder seeks to portray as moribund, dying, bureaucracies that are immune to input from their members.

A co-operative is an organization owned by the members who use its services or are employed there. Co-operatives can provide virtually any product or service. According to Ban Ki-Moon, former UN Secretary General, “Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.” This is a major aspect of co-ops that lends genuine hope for our future. Co-ops demonstrate an incredible potential to meet the needs of members and community, making us more able to build the world we want, the world that our children and grandchildren deserve.

Hats off to Cumberland Council for its intention to look at how council can work with co-operative housing to provide secure, affordable housing for Cumberland residents who are being forced out of home ownership by the profit for developers is all that matters real estate economy.

Despite Ungerlieder’s claims based on one product, one time, in one place “Co-ops are founded on a common idea – that people, no matter what their economic class or educational level, know what’s best for themselves and have the capacity, through cooperation, to meet their common needs” (Ontario Co-operative Association).

Co-ops help to build the community we want with the products and services we need in a way that is consistent with our vision/need for a sustaining and sustainable community/world. It isn’t some top-down investor installing a cookie-cutter version of something that worked in some other place; co-ops are made up of community members coming together to cooperatively contribute to a stronger, more resilient, more ethical community.

Since co-ops are not for profit surplus revenue from a co-op stays within the local community through member rebates, expanded community services and contributions to the economic and social well being of the community. Coop “profits” do not leave the community to land in the bank accounts of shareholders who are interested in giving as little as possible to get as much economic return as possible for themselves—regardless of the impact on people, communities and our precious/endangered Earth.

  • While Ungerlieder paints cooperatives into the dust bin of human enterprise, one Industry Canada study found that:
    • Six of every 10 co-ops survive after 5 years of operation, as compared to less than four of 10 other business enterprises
    • Four of 10 co-ops survived after 10 years of operation, as compared with two of 10 other business enterprises

I spoke to a Comox Valley friend who was organizer for several food coops and he felt that one of the biggest rewards of a cooperative effort is the feeling that working together as a team people can create alternatives to the giant monopolies. In his view—like that of Ungerlieder, relying on volunteer effort creates more kinks than it cures. Clearly coops that pay for work done are, almost universally, the most successful.

I could go on about the coop advantage and speculating on Ungerlieder’s–difficult to understand–coop vendetta but what I really want to do is point you to the website for the Kootenay Co-op in Nelson and, especially, their page listing the tremendous list of local farmers and businesses they empower to serve the community.

The Kootenay Co-op pays “domestic fair trade prices” for local products, hosts annual meetings with suppliers to tailor supply to demand, and even advertises on behalf of local suppliers who don’t have marketing budgets. The co-op employs more than 90 people, making it one of the largest employers in the region.

In an age where 80% of Canadians’ grocery dollars end up in the hands of only 5 companies food coops serve as a much need limit to corporate dominance of price, quality and community impact of everything we eat.

Despite his belligerent words and animosity toward cooperatives, Ungerlieder raises issues that dog cooperative efforts and facing them head on is essential to continuing to grow the cooperative movement that counterbalances the ever growing domination of our economies and lives by economic enterprises that would sell out our Earth and its peoples for another dollar in the pockets of the wealthy few who show no interest in our common humanity, our local communities, our endangered democracies nor in the well being of our much endangered Earth.

In a COVID infected world Coops and the coop way are more important than ever. As a species under attack we simply cannot let corporate greed lead the way in taking public research funded by public dollars and turn it into a ransom for draining our economies of what little vitality they have left. People still have to eat and heal and cloth themselves and be alive! If ever there was a time to end the habit of predator corporations buying up essential medicines and flipping them in to profits based on prices that are, at times, hundreds of times what they were being sold at—profitably.

It is time to end the idea that our governments pay for pharmaceutical research only to turn the lucrative results over to “free” enterprise to make vast speculative profits on. We need to find cooperative ways to ensure that our medical research serves the well being of our citizens not the profit crazed greeds of “free enterprise.”

Indeed it is past time to put the well being of people and this beautiful, too much abused Earth before the greed of a few. It is time to fully realize the value of a cooperative economy. Despite the passion of a pugnacious few, peanut butter isn’t worth fighting over.

Norm Reynolds