A Labor Day Story: Can Worker Cooperatives Lift Women Out of Poverty?

08/31/2017 12:19 pm ET

Life took a better turn for Tere, a mother of two and a Mexican immigrant, when she became a worker-owner of the ecofriendly housecleaning service Si Se Puede!. As a partner in this Brooklyn cooperative, where the business is owned and controlled by the workers, she found stable work and had better wages than at any of her previous jobs. She could manage her own schedule, which meant more time for her children and less strain on her marriage.

Chasing her own version of the American dream, Tere has something in common with New York’s colonial-era forefathers of the labor movement.

Those forefathers were men of the cloth—a group of New York City tailors who went on strike in 1768 because of pay cuts (they prevailed) and went on to establish the first known worker cooperative in the United States, according to historian John Curl, author of For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America.

Yet nearly 250 years later when the Center for Family Life (CFL), a family and social services organization in Sunset Park, first sought funding partners for a “revolutionary” initiative to disrupt the cycle of poverty for low-income, immigrant women like Tere, most philanthropies balked, thinking it was too risky. Except for one: The New York Women’s Foundation (The Foundation).

The Foundation seized the opportunity to be an early investor in this innovative business model because it aligned perfectly with our mission to support local, women-led programs that promote women’s economic prosperity, self-sufficiency and well-being.

Our initial funding grant of $30,000 in 2006 enabled the launch of the Si Se Puede!. Today, the self-sustaining worker co-op has more than 80 members (mainly immigrant women) and has provided housecleaning services to thousands of clients, while providing living wage jobs and a system of social supports and educational opportunities to its owner-members. Its success has inspired the growth of other co-ops including Beyond Care, a child care service; Émigré Gourmet, a catering group specializing in cuisines from around the globe; Golden Steps, trained home companions who assist seniors; and Brightly, a cleaning cooperative that has aspirations to become a national “fair work” brand.

Seeing that worker cooperatives could succeed in the urban marketplace and be impactful, following that initial grant, The Foundation funded the growth of the cooperative model to other low-income neighborhoods and we continue to support the Center for Family Life as Brooklyn’s leading incubator of worker-owned businesses. Most recently, The Foundation helped CFL launch the Leadership Institute, a 10-month training series for worker-owners to develop leadership in social justice and cooperative management through trainings and hands-on experience. The program builds worker-owner power through political education and strengthens cooperatives’ internal management capacity.

With the waters tested by the nonprofit sector, New York City launched its own Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative (WCBDI) in 2014, seeding it with $1.2 million – at the time, the largest municipal investment in cooperative business development in United States history. In its first year of operation, it doubled the number of co-ops known to be operating in the five boroughs. Currently, there are about 60 worker co-ops in New York City, about three times what is was when WCBDI began. Most are women-owned, by women of color. With this track record of success, on June 6, 2017, the New York City Council announced funding of $3.048 million for the WCBDI for a fourth year.

For Tere and hundreds of other striving workers in the low-wage sectors, worker-owned cooperatives offer a pathway to economic equality. An empowering business model, worker co-ops enable collaborative entrepreneurship, thereby minimizing individual risk and promoting a shared culture of productivity, skill building and democratic decision making. They have the potential to revive communities by creating a stable economic base and create a rising class of worker-owners with a vested interest in success. Rooted in the tenets of cooperation—which has deep roots in the United States--with a boost from the philanthropic sector and government investment, they are an effective and progressive strategy for building a more just economy, especially for women of color.

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