The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.
As a member of 11 cooperatives throughout Wisconsin, and a former co-op board member, I am concerned about a bill working its way through the legislature that would change the definition of a cooperative in Wisconsin. The very cooperative principles that have been fundamental to the agriculture industry in Wisconsin are being challenged by this bill.
Assembly Bill 353 and its companion, Senate Bill 281, would allow co-ops to make changes to their bylaws that are currently prohibited under state law. Why do I care about these changes? As dairy farmers my husband and I depend on cooperatives to market our grain in the fall and provide feed throughout the year. Most of our feed is purchased through supply coops. Most of the semen we use is purchased through supply cooperatives. We market our cows through Equity Co-op. The electricity we use is delivered through an electric co-op. The bed I sleep on every night and the furniture in our living room was even purchased through a furniture cooperative. As an owner-member of all of those cooperatives, I have the opportunity to make my voice heard on many decisions.
In the current law, cooperative members make up the board of directors. Those board members are voted in by other members, their peers. Co-ops have the ability to appoint or hire advisors without giving them a seat on the board, and many co-ops already do this. There is no need for a statutory change to let non-members serve and vote on cooperative boards, as this bill proposes. Why does a cooperative need to appoint non-members, including outside investors, to vote on its board? If co-op members want outside investors to start managing the cooperatives they own, they should restructure into a corporation.
A second change in this bill would restrict members’ access to the financial records of the cooperative. Most cooperatives have records that go back many years, and with today’s technology, they should be able to produce those records without any difficulty. I have served on cooperative boards where we have gone back a number of years to review financial decisions, or for new board members to understand why by-laws or financial decisions were made. Members should be able to do the same – after all, they are co-owners of the business, and should be able to see how it is managed.
Finally, this bill would allow one cooperative in the state, Cooperative Resources International, to switch to patronage-based voting. This goes against the cooperative principles of one member, one vote, and democratic member control. It would significantly diminish the voting power of small to average-sized farmers. These are the farmers who are already struggling financially, and may decide not to spend as much with their co-op. my husband and I milk 120 cows, one of my neighbors milks 1,000, another neighbor milks 400, another neighbor milks 65. We should all be allowed to have a single vote and know that our vote matters. By changing the cooperative history of one member one vote, we again are turning farmer owned cooperatives into farmer owned corporations where the only way your voice will be heard is if you purchase more “stock” in that company. This is a change I adamantly oppose in AB 353/SB 281. Take away the one member one vote rule, and you take away the core principle that cooperatives are based on.
I urge my fellow cooperative members in Wisconsin to call your legislators and oppose AB 353/SB 281. It will take all of us speaking up together to keep Wisconsin’s co-op laws intact.
— Edelburg is a dairy farmer (Front Page Holsteins, Scandinavia) and co-op member and owner.