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Winning Democratic Enterprise: Questions of Strategy & Opposition

Mountain Equipment Co-op, executivism and campaigning for economic democracy

by Greg Dean

Winning Democratic Enterprise: Questions of Strategy & Opposition

There’s a general air of undemocratic culture at Mountain Equipment Co-op. There have been examples, few of which I can talk about because insiders who would like to see MEC be more democratic feel, shall we say, leaned on, with their job as the pressure point. But a couple stories can be talked about without revealing workers who aren't already out in the open; stories such as the board declaring a new rule last year, after the resolution to stop doing business with a factory in Occupied Palestinian territory, that all resolutions coming from the membership would be reviewed for whether it would be permitted to reach a vote by the rest of the members. 

Certainly we are all seeing that our political democracy is jeopardized by our lack of democracy in the very powerful economic sphere. So I fired some questions off at Dru Oja Jay, who’s running in the election for the board of MEC this year, and who I know to understand issues of participatory democracy.

GD:  If you were to find high levels of controlled, centralized hierarchy in the administration at MEC, what steps, if any, would you take in regards opening up more horizontal and democratic process in the operations of MEC?

DOJ: Regardless of how responsive or unresponsive the board is to the membership, if we want to build a democratic organization, the membership needs to be able to talk to each other. Right now, you have a situation where the only ways the membership have of discussing issues as members is to go through the limited structures in place. If I want to communicate to other members, basically the only thing I can do is run for the board, and then I have to put whatever message I want to get out into the context of some circumscribed questions about my qualifications. My only other option is to show up to the AGM in Vancouver, where literally 99.999% of the membership will be absent.

For a member-owned organization where each member has an equal share, this is obviously dysfunctional by the most basic standards of democracy. The question is, how do we accomplish these significant kinds of changes to make a more participatory system that works? I think that the technical issues of enabling three million people to talk to each other are surmountable for a relatively low cost. It's mainly a question of political will, and I think that the main place that's going to come from is the membership.

GD: You’ve commented on MEC’ production partnership in Israeli-occupied territory and already raised the ire of the powerful Israeli lobby/movement: do you feel this is a liability for your campaign, and if so, how do you plan to counteract that liability?

DOJ: What invoking something as charged as Israel/Palestine does most of all, is get small numbers of people -- relative to the overall membership -- passionately involved. I think that any issue that gets people actively engaged in a democratic process has the potential to have a positive effect, in that it's a starting point for people to think about what they want from their institutions more generally. 

The potential pitfalls are the things I've pointed out: there's an attempt by the pro-Israel side to smear their opponents and prevent a real debate from happening. I think that the way to counter that is to be resolute about debating the actual issues, and not become distracted by the various sideshows that get set up. I'm referring to the attempts to frame the BDS initiatives and my campaign as being "anti-Israel" or against MEC's ethical purchasing policy. That's why my position is first and foremost to say that the membership needs the space to discuss this and other issues.

The Canada-Israel Committee is taking the tack of supporting who they see as front-runners who are also against any changes to the ethical purchasing policy that would address the issue of Israel's human rights record. I definitely acknowledge that as a strategic liability, and it's a change in strategy from their support for a single-issue pro-Israel candidate a few years ago, who I believe came in last in that election.

GD: In a recent press release titled - ‘MEC Should Reconsider Partnership with Tar Sands, Logging Companies’ - you’ve criticized what you’ve described as MEC’s conflicts in its attempts to protect wilderness as mandated by its membership. You’ve pointed out that MEC is a signatory to the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework (which you have done much work to reveal as horrible collusion between ENGOs and the logging and tar sands industries), as well as bringing attention to MEC's grants to CPAWS, which has an agreement with Suncor and Nexen. Has this helped or hindered you in reaching out to environmentalists in your election campaign for the MEC board?

DOJ: The Conservation Framework is also signed by Suncor and Nexen, as well as logging companies like Tembec and Al-Pac, which puts MEC in a direct partnership with those companies as well.

Strategically speaking, this is a difficult issue to raise, because a lot of environmentalists -- especially folks who have jobs in ENGOs or friends who work in those organizations -- are unsure about how to raise the issue. That said, I believe that most of MEC's members are people who are outside of the ENGO world. And I think that most people who take the time to get informed do find it problematic that the organization that they gave a very strong conservation mandate to is working in partnership with companies that are razing vast swaths of Boreal forest, while poisoning rivers and lakes in the north.

Again, I think it comes down to our ability to debate these issues thoroughly and inform ourselves. We've got to start from a place of affirming that we've got a right to talk to each other as members, to bring these issues up. We've should start building the space to do that. The co-op does have a responsibility to provide that space, and creating that kind of space would be my first priority as a board member. That said, I don't think that members should necessarily wait for leadership from the board on this.

Further interest? see: "Dru Oja Jay for MEC Board" on Facebook or click here.


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Topics: Cooperatives

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Greg Dean (Gregory Dean)
Member since July 2010


1051 words


Thank for the heads up, Greg!

I would've missed it if it wasn't for this.

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