The life of a mushroom is underground – the mushroom itself is the fruiting body of a much larger structure called the mycelium.
Mycelia grow from a germinated spore (shed by the mushroom fruiting body). They branch out, creating a big circle of tiny threads called hyphae. The hyphae grow outward, but they also cross each other and connect. The more connections, the more paths to collect and spread nutrients across the mycelium. Interestingly, hyphae do not increase in diameter, the way plant roots do – instead of fattening up, they branch out. When the conditions are right, the mycelium fruits: A mushroom sprouts. The mushroom releases its spores which will hopefully germinate and grow new mycelia somewhere else.
How is a co-op like a mushroom? You could look at the physical business of a co-op, the storefront or the apartment building or the grain elevator, as the fruiting body of all those hyphae feeding each other, branching to and from each other. The individual hyphae, the members, don't get fat off the branching – they just make more branches, more connections, spreading the nutrients farther and farther to grow the mycelium. The success of the fruiting body helps build new co-ops, new mycelia, in the neighborhood and beyond.
The Arizmendi Association in the Bay Area is a great example of this: Since the mid 1990s, they have been using the beneficial aspects of a franchise chain (name recognition, tested recipes, shared business plan) to develop new worker-owned bakeries. Arizmendi members, once they are profitable, pay membership fees that go a long way toward funding new bakeries, as well as providing support services to members. Another example is co-ops that donate and lend to cooperative development funds like Northcountry Cooperative Development Fund and the Cooperative Fund of New England.
I think a co-op exists because of relationships and connections between people. It grows with more such connections. But some people argue that when a co-op gets too big, those relationships get too distant, and the democracy is compromised by size. The Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain instituted a member limit on their co-ops to ensure better democratic governance, but they also own and operate plants where all the employees are non-members, and have even complained of their pay and working conditions.
What do you think?