1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership
Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
This first Principle is an expression of the right to freedom of association. This right of free association, namely to join or not to join with others to pursue common goals, is one of the fundamental rights in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the 1966 United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights1 . The 1st Principle asserts the right of any person to exercise free choice in deciding to join or leave a co-operative and take collective action to pursue the common economic, social and cultural interests of its members.
Many commercial enterprises imitate membership by inviting customers to join wholesale clubs, commercial loyalty schemes, frequent flyer programmes, or club card schemes. This demonstrates the business value of membership in competitive markets. Membership of a co-operative is fundamentally different to these arrangements, which are no more than marketing tools that do not grant ‘members’ rights of ownership or any involvement in business decision-making.
Membership responsibilities require constant emphasis, but they should be borne by members freely and willingly. For example, an agricultural co-operative may require that members enter into exclusive use contracts in which members are obliged to market crops, to buy inputs from the co-operative and to use its farming machinery. These user responsibilities strengthen competitiveness of co-operatives by generating market power.
Any form of discrimination based on age also needs to be challenged. Democratic renewal through training opportunities to encourage younger members to stand for election is preferable to arbitrary age barriers designed to exclude older members from active participation. Co-operative membership is in need of constant renewal. Every co-operative business needs new, younger members in order to be sustainable. The danger of control by older members, effectively stifling the engagement of a younger generation, should be recognised. A co-operative is only as strong as its next generation of members.
Social class or caste has no bearing on the right of individuals to be members.Co-operatives are open to rich and poor alike. Other social distinctions or personal characteristics should not be used to restrict the principle of open membership. Race Guidance Notes to the Co-operative Principles is also not a characteristic that can be used to discriminate against those who wish to become members. Racial characteristics are superficial and do not constitute grounds for discrimination. Cultural differences are more significant, but these differences should be celebrated as the glorious rainbow of human diversity and not used to limit membership.