Co-op Bread and Circuses Don’t Substitute for Membership Democracy

Ideas and Issues

            Marble Falls     Whoops, we must have kicked a hornet’s nest.  Seems like there’s a wakeup call moving around the backwoods and country roads that’s starting to be heard all over.  Some people are demanding that rural electric cooperatives pay more attention to where they source their power, whether they determine their rates in consumers’ interests, and their woeful lack of diversity and democratic participation in governance.

In a strategy call with co-op activists from around the country that our Rural Power Project team from ACORN and Labor Neighbor joined recently, news of our recent research report, indicating that nationally RECs were no different than those in the South that we had examined before, was greeted with an amen chorus from the convenors of the call and had nods sweeping across the Zoom galaxy.

Recently, as the Carolina Press and Daily Yonder noted:

The Rural Power Project–ACORN International and the Labor Neighbor Research and Training Center–surveyed the elected leadership of 888 rural electricity cooperatives (RECs) nationwide and found them to be nearly all white and all male. As a whole, women made up just 12.6% of REC board members. Meanwhile, people of color make up 24% of America’s rural population, but the new report found that 96% of REC board seats are held by white people.

The story quoted David Thompson, ACORN’s research director putting sharp points to the report’s finding,

“The surprising thing is just how extreme both of those things are… we really see it as this is an act of exclusion.”  He said women and people of color are being “badly disenfranchised” by the very institutions that are supposed to be owned and run by their members, which is everybody that consumes the electricity in their service areas. “When you don’t have a board that represents the people that are being served and make up these cooperatives, that means that people are being denied opportunities at every turn.”… A lack of diversity among women and minorities, Thompson said, has consequences.  “On the most basic level, we think it means that people don’t have a real say over what their utility rates are. This is a big issue that’s more and more important with inflation and the rising cost of energy,” he said.

Yet, co-op leadership continues to see governance not as democratic exercise by the membership, but the semblance of participation without the substance of power.  Annual meetings have become a downhome version of bread-and-circuses, rather than a venue for policy making and planning with membership input and debate.

A reader sent me a press notice of an upcoming co-op annual meeting in Cullman, Alabama that wasn’t as gross as a membership proxy bribe we’ve seen, but was pretty typical:

“We are excited to host our annual meeting with food, games, music and other activities for the first time since 2019,” said Cullman EC Board Chairman Robert Tidwell. “The annual meeting is a celebration of the unique role members play in a cooperative business, and we look forward to hosting our members once again.” …Members can sign the registration card, fill out the ballot and submit both using the return-mail envelope included with the packet. The signed registration card and completed ballot must be received no later than Sept. 15, 2022. Members who register and vote by mail or in person are eligible to win one of 10 bill credits between $100 and $500.

If you think this sounds good, fun, and wholesome, even if not performative, rather than democratic, note two things.  The co-op is looking to “host” the members and they “play a role in a cooperative business”.  It’s clear they don’t understand that the members are their boss or for that matter that a co-op is any different than any other local business or utility.  Oh, the kicker is that they want to know in advance that you’re going to vote via the mail or at their office, where you might win some big bill reductions, but as the article reports, you “will receive a $15 bill credit” and maybe have a chance at a door prize if you actually leave work or get out of bed and go to the actual meeting. Co-op members aren’t rubes.  A chance at $100 to $500 for ten registrants is better odds than $15 dollars and one shot at a TV or home security system some business donated to the co-op.

I will never ever forget my great uncle Grady Bullock, who was a Tennessee county judge somewhere north of Memphis, telling us over a fried chicken dinner at his and aunt Hazel’s house, as we passed through when we were young, about how he followed the common practice of buying votes at a couple of dollars a head and provided the whiskey on election day.  The deal being offered by too many of these co-ops to hold onto power and influence and play pretend at democracy doesn’t seem much different to me.