Vol 11, Issue 9
“Hey guys, some of you may be aware of the dire circumstances surrounding the Dal Pont book. Three copies missing from the library, sold out at the Co-opt. Truly sad stuff.”
“I tried to borrow a book from the high-use section of the law library today, only to be told by the librarian that three copies (which only arrived from the publishers last week) have already been stolen - presumably by students.”
As these quotes from Facebook show, law students this semester have again been having problems with the Co-op Bookshop failing to supply the textbooks they need for their studies.
I say again, because last semester a similar problem was raised: for one subject, the Co-op had failed to order a full half of the textbooks a law professor had asked them to provide.
“I am continuing the fight but, again, your firm representation to the Co-op regarding the need for prompt supply of the book will be very helpful in getting the message across (not just for this subject but for the others too where I understand this has been a problem),” the professor implored students in an email.
The Co-op Bookshop’s supposed raison d’être is to facilitate student access to textbooks. This was the reason the organisation came into existence in the first place - two students at the University of Sydney, Malcolm Broun and John Sharwood, saw that a significant service could be rendered, and in 1958 began bulk-buying and selling textbooks at low prices out of a garage. The co-operative structure was used so that the students who bought the textbooks from them could retain democratic control of the organisation and ensure that it acted in their best interests.
Clearly, it has ceased to do so.
Criticising an Adelaide University bookshop, then CEO of the Co-op, Peter Knock, stated in 2015 that “the problem was their business model just sold textbooks”.
It is unclear why this is a problem. He stated in the next sentence that their business model was still profitable.
Though we can only speculate, the reason concentrating on textbooks may seem like a problem for the small clique that control the Co-op is that they are a hubristic bunch interested in empire building more than anything else. Ingrained in a neoliberal culture of growth at any cost, the clique is blind to the notion that growth can be antithetical to delivering value to the Co-op’s shareholders – the students who buy their textbooks. The value that the Co-op’s owners – us – see in the Co-op is its ability to provide them textbooks on time and at a good price.
Indeed, while the Co-op is succeeding in increasing its revenue growth – revenue this year is $133 million, up almost $10 million from last year – the profits on such revenue have decreased by $200k. Overall, the Co-op remains loss-making. This year total losses were almost $1.5million.
So how has the Co-op diversified its business beyond textbooks? If you go into one of their stores, you’ll find it difficult to find any books at all. What you find instead are various kinds of garish merchandise. The Co-op seems more interested in feeding us consumerist crap than delivering a valuable service. You’ll also notice that the Co-op has taken to playing very loud upbeat pop music so that your eyes don’t have to be alone in being offended.
And the crap the Co-op is selling really is crap. While the Co-operative National Law requires co-operatives to act to further the interests of their community, the Co-op Bookshop has refused to consider sourcing their hoodies, t-shirts and other merchandise sustainably or ethically. Etiko, a fair trade manufacturer and importer of textiles, was told that students don’t want to pay an extra $10 to have a hoodie they can be assured is made without sweatshop labour. Law students have shown this to be entirely wrong – the Melbourne University Law Student Society last year sold Etiko fair-trade hoodies and did just fine.
To the extent that bookshops do need to do more than selling books, owing to increased competition from online retailers such as Amazon, the evidence suggests that the Co-op is doing the opposite of what has proven successful.
In the US, for example, big bookstore chains are being out-competed by online retailers, but local, independent bookshops are doing a rebound – there has been a 25% increase in the number of smaller bookstores over the last few years. Michael Shuman, a specialist in economic development, has stated that by defining their “business model as bringing together the community, being a good restaurant point, being a good coffee house point, being a good book club point, they started bringing people back to the local bookstores”.
And such local bookshops play an extremely important role in their local community. In a now famous study in 2002, which has been corroborated by many subsequent studies, researchers found that $100 spent at a chain bookshop circulated $13 in the local economy. By contrast, that same $100 spent at a local bookshop circulated $45. Every dollar spent at a local bookshop contributed three times the jobs, income effects, and tax benefits to the local economy as compared to a dollar spent at a chain store. The ratios are even worse when local bookshops are compared with online retailers.
So what can we do? Fortunately we, as members of the Co-op, get voting rights. Enough of us working together can take back our Co-op and ensure that, once again, it is run in our interests.
The bad news is that the current clique controlling the Co-op are willing to engage in potentially illegal blocks to student participation. For example, a couple of weeks ago a contingent of over 30 students, armed with dozens of proxies, attended the Annual General Meeting of the Co-op to try and assert their rights as members and to reform the Co-op so that it reflects student interests. This was a tremendous effort given that the AGM was held in Kooindah Waters, Wyong, 100 kilometres from the Co-op’s head office in Surry Hills, and that the Co-op potentially violated the Co-operatives National Law by failing to give adequate notice of the AGM.
Nevertheless, the Co-op blocked the students’ efforts (see also here, here, here, and here). After telling the students that their proxies were invalid, the Co-op Secretary attempted to silence inquisitive members, saying, “you’re not here to ask questions. This isn’t Q and A.” The Chair then refused to address why the students’ proxies were deemed invalid, despite all specifications of Rule 52 of the Co-op’s constitution being followed by in submitting proxy votes.
This is not where things will be left. Please follow the Facebook page “Take back our Co-op” to follow moves to take back our Co-op from its current controllers.
Ultimately, if we are to ensure the democratic control of the Co-op by its members, I believe that we will have to decentralise it. Each campus Co-op must be independent of its sibling organisations, though to retain economies of scale on a number of fronts they must be federated together in a “group co-operative”.
Duncan Wallace is a fourth-year JD student
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