A Co-op State of Mind

New York City jumpstarts worker cooperatives

Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo

L to R: Angelina Cazares of Golden Steps Elder Care Co-op, and Daniela Salazar and Yasmin Gonzalez of Si Se Puede. (Courtesy of Beverly Judge)

In 2006, Daniela Salazar, then a 22-year-old moth­er of two, was mak­ing about $7.25 an hour doing restau­rant work and house­clean­ing. For three hours every month, she also stood on the street in Brook­lyn with 12 oth­er women pass­ing out fly­ers, rain or shine (and some­times snow).

Studies show that all of the extra work pays off. Once workers run their own businesses, they put more into them—they stay on jobs longer and are more productive and happy.

They were pro­mot­ing a clean­ing com­pa­ny of a new kind: one that would not only pro­vide them with jobs and more mon­ey to sup­port their fam­i­lies, but would also make them busi­ness owners.

That com­pa­ny was a work­er coop­er­a­tive called Sí Se Puede—“Yes, We Can” in Span­ish. The women start­ed the co-op with the help of the SCO Fam­i­ly of Ser­vices’ Cen­ter for Fam­i­ly Life, a social-ser­vice agency and advo­ca­cy group for fam­i­lies. They mar­ket­ed their busi­ness in this low-tech way for months, slow­ly build­ing up a clien­tele until they could afford a website.

Eight years lat­er, Sí Se Puede has 64 mem­ber-own­ers. It grossed over a mil­lion dol­lars in 2013. The work­er co-op may soon have anoth­er source of income: a line of clean­ing prod­ucts. Salazar’s pay at Sí Se Puede has climbed to $20 to $23 an hour, let­ting her work few­er hours a week and spend more time with her fam­i­ly, which has grown to include three children.

Back when she was leaflet­ing on cor­ners, Salazar nev­er imag­ined that the busi­ness would enjoy such success.

In the begin­ning, it was very hard to grow,” she says laugh­ing. We look back, and we are amazed.”

The work­er coop­er­a­tive mod­el, in which a busi­ness is owned and con­trolled by its mem­bers, is rarely taught in U.S. busi­ness schools, but it is gain­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a way for social ser­vice agen­cies and city coun­cils to pro­vide jobs for work­ers marooned by the cur­rent economy.

There just aren’t enough jobs for all the peo­ple who need and want them,” says Jes­si­ca Gor­don Nem­b­hard, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ty jus­tice and social eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment at New York’s John Jay Col­lege, and author of Col­lec­tive Courage: A His­to­ry of African Amer­i­can Coop­er­a­tive Eco­nom­ic Thought and Prac­tice. Work­er coop­er­a­tives address that niche.”

Social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice activists also favor work­er coop­er­a­tives as a way of enabling work­ers to par­tic­i­pate demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly in their work­place. Co-ops are seen as a key com­po­nent of what is called the sol­i­dar­i­ty econ­o­my.” That term encom­pass­es demo­c­ra­t­ic, envi­ron­men­tal­ly con­scious and social­ly respon­si­ble com­pa­nies, along with alter­na­tive exchanges such as trade and bar­ter­ing — any eco­nom­ic sys­tem that empha­sizes con­cern for peo­ple and eco­nom­ic jus­tice over pure profit.

Work­er coop­er­a­tives are one of the best sol­i­dar­i­ty econ­o­my struc­tures for solv­ing the prob­lem of par­tic­i­pa­tion and own­er­ship,” says Gor­don Nem­b­hard. When you own a busi­ness, you end up with a good sta­ble job that you have con­trol over and an asset that can appre­ci­ate over time and give you some stability.”

The work­er coop­er­a­tive move­ment got a major boost in June when the City Coun­cil of New York estab­lished a Work­er Coop­er­a­tive Busi­ness Devel­op­ment Ini­tia­tive and put up $1.2 mil­lion to fund it. The mon­ey will go to 11 orga­ni­za­tions to estab­lish 28 new work­er co-ops, cre­ate 234 jobs in co- ops and sup­port agen­cies, and pro­vide edu­ca­tion, train­ing and tech­ni­cal sup­port to anoth­er 20 exist­ing co-ops, includ­ing Sí Se Puede.

New York City is the first munic­i­pal­i­ty to allo­cate such a large sum to work­er coop­er­a­tive devel­op­ment. This ini­tia­tive res­onates far beyond New York,” says Melis­sa Hoover, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the U.S. Fed­er­a­tion of Work­er Coop­er­a­tives, a nation­al grass­roots mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports the co-op move­ment. The vis­i­bil­i­ty is real­ly huge.”

The rise of work­er co-ops

Co-ops have a long and var­ied his­to­ry in the Unit­ed States. Some 250 years ago, New York City was the site of the first known U.S. work­er coop­er­a­tive, accord­ing to his­to­ri­an John Curl, author of For All the Peo­ple: Uncov­er­ing the Hid­den His­to­ry of Coop­er­a­tion, Coop­er­a­tive Move­ments, and Com­mu­nal­ism in Amer­i­ca. In 1768, 20 jour­ney­men tai­lors walked off the job because of a reduc­tion in pay and then set up an ad hoc cooperative.

This was the first record­ed wage earn­ers’ strike against a boss in Amer­i­ca,” says Curl. To help sup­port them­selves dur­ing the strike, the tai­lors set up their own coop­er­a­tive house of call’ in oppo­si­tion to their mas­ters. Find­ing them­selves locked out and their jobs filled by scabs, they tried to make a go of their coop­er­a­tive. His­to­ry does not record their degree of success.”

His­to­ry does record the suc­cess of the Knights of Labor, an orga­ni­za­tion start­ed in 1869 by the strik­ing Philadel­phia tai­lor­ing cut­ters’ trade union that aimed to estab­lish co-oper­a­tive insti­tu­tions” to super­sede the wage sys­tem. By 1886, between 185 and 200 Knight coop­er­a­tives exist­ed all over the Unit­ed States, con­cen­trat­ed in the East and Mid­west, in indus­tries rang­ing from mines to foundries to mills to fac­to­ries to arti­sans’ shops. One could buy co-op – made bar­rels, box­es, clothes, shoes, under­wear, soap, brooms, pipes and stoves. In New York, the Knights orga­nized two leather goods fac­to­ries, a plumbers’ coop­er­a­tive, a pub­lish­ing busi­ness, a watch case fac­to­ry, a cig­ar fac­to­ry and a store to sell the cigars.

The Knights were one of the first unions to include women and to be racial­ly inte­grat­ed. They had attract­ed between 60,000 and 95,000 African-Amer­i­can mem­bers by 1887, accord­ing to Gor­don Nem­b­hard, and spawned black-owned indus­tri­al coop­er­a­tives, includ­ing an Alaba­ma cot­ton gin.

The Knights thrived for a decade but were even­tu­al­ly crushed by big busi­ness­es, which ral­lied to stamp out this new and dis­turb­ing breed of com­pe­ti­tion, refus­ing to ship goods made by coop­er­a­tives, sell machin­ery and mate­ri­als to them, or issue them bank loans.

As Gor­don Nem­b­hard doc­u­ments in Col­lec­tive Courage, oth­er pre­dom­i­nant­ly black unions and pop­ulist orga­ni­za­tions sup­port­ing work­ers’ rights, land own­er­ship and coop­er­a­tives, par­tic­u­lar­ly among farm­ers, con­tin­ued to rise at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry and the begin­ning of the 20th. Like the Knights, they were often thwart­ed: White vig­i­lantes and com­peti­tors did their best to destroy them. But many sur­vived. By 1907, W.E.B. Dubois, a strong advo­cate of eco­nom­ic coop­er­a­tion as a sur­vival strat­e­gy, count­ed 156 coop­er­a­tives estab­lished by African Amer­i­cans. Gor­don Nem­b­hard argues that these were among the roots of black attempts to build an alter­na­tive econ­o­my through­out the 20th cen­tu­ry (such as the Free­dom Quilt­ing Bee col­lec­tive, found­ed in the 1960s).

Co-ops made a come­back dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, fos­tered by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment as part of the New Deal, but they fad­ed in the post-war era. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, work­er coop­er­a­tives rose again in cities includ­ing Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia; San Fran­cis­co; Seat­tle; Port­land, Ore­gon; Boston; Min­neapo­lis; Madi­son, Wis­con­sin; New Haven, Con­necti­cut; and Austin, Texas. The Cheese Board Col­lec­tive, found­ed in 1971 in San Fran­cis­co, is believed to be one of the old­est work­er coop­er­a­tives in the coun­try that’s still in oper­a­tion. The col­lec­tive estab­lished Ariz­men­di Bak­eries, a group of fran­chise-like, but inde­pen­dent, coop­er­a­tives that sell piz­za. The well-loved bak­eries con­tin­ue to spread across the Bay Area, inher­it­ing mon­ey, exper­tise and even sour­dough starter from their sis­ter co-ops.

Today, accord­ing to the U.S. Fed­er­a­tion of Work­er Coop­er­a­tives, the Unit­ed States has more than 300 work­er coop­er­a­tives in fields rang­ing from engi­neer­ing, archi­tec­ture and com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy to taxi dri­ving, house clean­ing and con­struc­tion. Some co-ops are small enough that all mem­bers par­tic­i­pate in day-to-day deci­sions, while larg­er co-ops may be man­aged through boards and com­mit­tees. The 2,300 mem­bers of the Bronx-based Coop­er­a­tive Home Care Asso­ciates elect a gov­ern­ing board, which then appoints a man­ag­er. In San Fran­cis­co, the 220-mem­ber Rain­bow Gro­cery is man­aged by vol­un­teer com­mit­tees of work­ers and an elect­ed steer­ing committee.

Cal­i­for­nia leads the coun­try in work­er coop­er­a­tives with 56, accord­ing to data from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wisconsin’s Cen­ter for Coop­er­a­tives and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa’s Depart­ment of Eco­nom­ics. New York State has the sec­ond-most with 40, and Mass­a­chu­setts comes in third with 25. Chica­go has nine work­er coop­er­a­tives, the most well-known of which is the New Era Win­dows Coop­er­a­tive (for­mer­ly Repub­lic Win­dows and Doors), formed after fired work­ers occu­pied their fac­to­ry in 2008. Work­er coop­er­a­tives are blos­som­ing, in par­tic­u­lar, among immi­grants who strug­gle to find employ­ment because they are undoc­u­ment­ed, have dif­fi­cul­ty speak­ing Eng­lish or lack par­tic­u­lar job skills.

Many of the coop­er­a­tives around the Unit­ed States were inspired by the Mon­drag­on Coop­er­a­tive Cor­po­ra­tion in Spain, which start­ed in 1956. Today, the Mon­drag­on fam­i­ly of busi­ness­es employs 80,321 peo­ple in 289 com­pa­nies, 110 of which are coop­er­a­tives. Mon­drag­on weath­ered the eco­nom­ic slow­down bet­ter than many tra­di­tion­al com­pa­nies. Instead of lay­ing off work­ers, Mon­drag­on sim­ply trained them for oth­er careers in their net­work of busi­ness­es. Its prof­it in 2012 was 12.9 bil­lion Euros (about 15.5 bil­lion U.S. dollars).

While Mon­drag­on has been crit­i­cized for prac­tices that may exploit work­ers in the Glob­al South, Mon­drag­on spokesper­son Mikel Leza­miz said that the coop­er­a­tive cor­po­ra­tion is bound by the laws of the coun­tries in which they oper­ate. In some of the plants, we offered employ­ees [the right] to become work­er-own­er mem­bers, but the trade unions didn’t accept it,” he says. In all the plants, we [offer] work­ers nor­mal­ly bet­ter con­di­tions than our com­peti­tors.” He adds that most Mon­drag­on plants over­seas share 10 to 20 per­cent of net prof­its with employees.

Only in New York

Despite the long his­to­ry of work­er co-ops in the Unit­ed States, only recent­ly have munic­i­pal­i­ties con­sid­ered coop­er­a­tives as a solu­tion to a slug­gish econ­o­my in which jobs are scarce and well-pay­ing jobs even scarcer. Rich­mond, Cal­i­for­nia, emerged as a pio­neer of co-op devel­op­ment four years ago when May­or Gayle McLaugh­lin, a Green Par­ty mem­ber, was look­ing for ways to cre­ate jobs for low-income res­i­dents. Tak­ing inspi­ra­tion from a 2010 vis­it to the Mon­drag­on head­quar­ters in Spain, she had Rich­mond allo­cate $50,000 for a con­sul­tant to lead the cre­ation of three coop­er­a­tives, which in turn inspired an anony­mous dona­tion of $50,000 for a work­er co-op loan fund.

Last year, all eyes turned to Jack­son, Mis­sis­sip­pi, where new­ly elect­ed May­or Chok­we Lumum­ba made work­er co-op devel­op­ment a cen­ter­piece of his plan for a pro­gres­sive over­haul of the city. Lumum­ba planned to estab­lish a co-op incu­ba­tor with­in the city’s Depart­ment of Plan­ning and Devel­op­ment and apply city funds to coop­er­a­tive devel­op­ment. But Lumum­ba died in Feb­ru­ary, before he could real­ize his vision. Had he suc­ceed­ed, Jack­son would have boast­ed the most sub­stan­tial city-led coop­er­a­tive devel­op­ment in the coun­try. The new may­or, Tony Yarber, has made no moves to con­tin­ue any of these projects, but Coop­er­a­tion Jack­son — the net­work of local work­er coop­er­a­tives that Lumum­ba planned — con­tin­ues to orga­nize independently.

So how did New York City take the lead to become a bea­con for work­er coop­er­a­tive development?

Enter the New York-based Fed­er­a­tion of Protes­tant Wel­fare Agen­cies (FPWA), a 90-year-old anti-pover­ty asso­ci­a­tion made up of 200 reli­gious groups and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing day­care, domes­tic vio­lence and senior cen­ters. As the effects of the 2008 eco­nom­ic down­turn rever­ber­at­ed through the city, with the ranks of the poor swelling by almost 2 mil­lion in 2012, the FPWA was seek­ing new solu­tions to the prob­lem of pover­ty. It found it was hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ty plac­ing trainees from its work­place devel­op­ment depart­ment into jobs. Then it got wind of the work of the Cen­ter for Fam­i­ly Life, which has incu­bat­ed four suc­cess­ful work­er coop­er­a­tives since 2006, includ­ing Sí Se Puede.

The FPWA con­tact­ed the cen­ter and var­i­ous work­er coop­er­a­tives and incu­ba­tors to learn about their needs. The group also stud­ied coop­er­a­tives in oth­er U.S. cities and in Cana­da, Spain and Italy. They heard the same thing repeat­ed­ly: To get a mass move­ment of co-ops off the ground, a pub­lic invest­ment is needed.

So the FPWA deployed its con­tacts, clout, City Hall con­nec­tions and con­sid­er­able polit­i­cal know-how. First, it helped bring togeth­er work­er coop­er­a­tives, anti-pover­ty groups and sup­port orga­ni­za­tions to form the Coali­tion for Work­er Coop­er­a­tives for New York City, a grass­roots cam­paign to lob­by the city to sup­port work­er coop­er­a­tive devel­op­ment as a job cre­ation and wealth-build­ing vehicle.

They brought a lot of sophis­ti­ca­tion to how all of the peo­ple in this space were oper­at­ing in rela­tion to the City Coun­cil,” says Julia Jean-Fran­cois, codi­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Fam­i­ly Life, a mem­ber of the coali­tion. They got us all togeth­er and they sketched out an agen­da. It was a very thor­ough approach.”

In Jan­u­ary, the FPWA kicked off its year of research with a pol­i­cy report, Work­er Coop­er­a­tives for New York City: A Vision for Address­ing Income Inequal­i­ty.” It laid out New York’s income strat­i­fi­ca­tion in clear terms: Income inequal­i­ty is at a his­toric high in New York. The income of the low­est fifth of New York’s pop­u­la­tion was $8,993, while the high­est fifth made $222,871 and the top 5 per­cent made $436,931, which was about 49 times as much as those with the low­est income. Based on 2012 U.S. Cen­sus data, it paints a trou­bling pic­ture of the strug­gles of many New York­ers liv­ing in pover­ty and income inequal­i­ty. The city’s pover­ty rate rose to 21.2 per­cent in 2012 from 20.9 per­cent in 2011.

Not­ing that work­er coop­er­a­tives gen­er­al­ly pro­vide high­er wages than oth­er busi­ness­es — not to men­tion the oppor­tu­ni­ty for work­ers to share in prof­its — the report urged the city to sup­port work­er coop­er­a­tives as a way to com­bat inequality.

After releas­ing the report, the FPWA orga­nized a pol­i­cy con­fer­ence and invit­ed gov­ern­ment offi­cials. City Coun­cil mem­ber Maria del Car­men Arroyo, who had just been appoint­ed chair of the Com­mu­ni­ty Devel­op­ment Com­mit­tee, attend­ed and was blown away.

It was quite serendip­i­tous,” she says. It was like, wow — this was some­thing that we need to have a fol­low-up con­ver­sa­tion on.”

In Feb­ru­ary, Arroyo orga­nized a hear­ing before the City Coun­cil. Fifty work­er coop­er­a­tive own­ers, advo­cates, tech­ni­cal sup­port orga­ni­za­tions and city offi­cials attended.

The ques­tion that we posed was: Are work­er coop­er­a­tives a vehi­cle to help raise peo­ple out of pover­ty?’ ” Arroyo says. Every­one said, Yes.’ ”

The wheels were in motion. From Feb­ru­ary through June, local coop­er­a­tives and their sup­port­ers kept the momen­tum going by attend­ing hear­ings, bud­get meet­ings and press con­fer­ences, and orga­niz­ing a Co-op Advo­ca­cy Day on May 14 on the steps of City Hall. The coali­tion gained the sup­port of Coun­cil Speak­er Melis­sa Mark-Viverito.

Some cred­it FPWA’s new direc­tor, Jen­nifer Jones Austin, for build­ing a win­ning strat­e­gy. A child of civ­il rights activists, Austin, who took the job in Novem­ber 2012, has a long his­to­ry in social ser­vices and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, includ­ing serv­ing on May­or Michael Bloomberg’s Com­mis­sion for Eco­nom­ic Oppor­tu­ni­ty. She also worked for now-May­or Bill de Bla­sio when he was a Brook­lyn city com­mis­sion­er, and she was named co-chair of de Blasio’s tran­si­tion team.

As a result of the coalition’s orga­niz­ing work, de Bla­sio pro­claimed June 21 New York Work­er Coop­er­a­tive Day.” That same day, New York held its first annu­al work­er coop­er­a­tive con­fer­ence, titled Eco­nom­ic Democ­ra­cy and Eco­nom­ic Jus­tice: The Tale of a New City.”

The name was a play on de Blasio’s inau­gur­al com­ments in Jan­u­ary, when he spoke of New York as a tale of two cities” and pledged to take action, includ­ing tax­ing the rich, to shrink the inequal­i­ty gap. New York’s Work­er Coop­er­a­tive Devel­op­ment Ini­tia­tive offers de Bla­sio an oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­tin­guish his admin­is­tra­tion from the con­ser­vatism of the Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion and to make good on his promis­es to lessen the city’s income divide.

On June 26, the City Coun­cil vot­ed to allo­cate the $1.2 million.

Get­ting off the ground

Co-ops tend to be more dif­fi­cult to get start­ed than con­ven­tion­al busi­ness­es,” says Mar­i­lyn Lan­glois, the coor­di­na­tor of the Rich­mond Work­er Coop­er­a­tive Revolv­ing Loan Fund, which pro­vides loans of up to $20,000 for work­er coop­er­a­tive devel­op­ment and main­te­nance. But once they’re up and run­ning, they tend to be very sus­tain­able.” Indeed, it’s not easy to cre­ate a co-op with­in a sys­tem that, for cen­turies, has cel­e­brat­ed prof­its over peo­ple and indi­vid­u­al­ism over the good of the whole. All busi­ness­es need a busi­ness plan, a source of reli­able fund­ing and pro­fes­sion­als like lawyers and accoun­tants, but work­er coop­er­a­tives face the addi­tion­al chal­lenge of learn­ing how to oper­ate demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly. They must fig­ure out how to make deci­sions (by con­sen­sus, vot­ing, or some oth­er process), and then decide such ques­tions as the rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties of mem­ber-own­ers, how much mon­ey will go to work­ers as prof­its and how much will go back into oper­a­tions or reserves, how to cut ties with coop­er­a­tive mem­bers who do not work out, and how to han­dle grievances.

Not to men­tion that the founders of work­er coop­er­a­tives are often women, immi­grants, low-income peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or, who face addi­tion­al chal­lenges. They may have inter­nal­ized racism, sex­ism and clas­sism, and need coach­ing and con­fi­dence-boost­ing to believe that busi­ness own­er­ship is not only for the white, wealthy and male.

Stud­ies show that all of the extra work pays off. Once work­ers run their own busi­ness­es, they put more into them — they stay on jobs longer and are more pro­duc­tive and hap­py. Peo­ple who start work­er coop­er­a­tives also gain edu­ca­tion and orga­niz­ing skills which means that they then also con­tribute to an edu­cat­ed civic soci­ety,” Gor­don Nem­b­hard says.

A study by the Employ­ment Research Insti­tute at Edin­burgh Napi­er Uni­ver­si­ty in Scot­land reports that work­er coop­er­a­tives have long-term ben­e­fits for the work­er-own­ers, who feel more empow­ered and in con­trol than oth­er work­ers, and enjoy a far greater sense of job secu­ri­ty and achieve­ment. Near­ly 80 per­cent of the employ­ee-own­ers fea­tured in the study were hap­py to rec­om­mend their orga­ni­za­tion as a place to work.

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, coop­er­a­tive busi­ness­es don’t just make for hap­pi­er work­ers; they’re also more viable than con­ven­tion­al busi­ness­es. An April 2013 study by Erik Olsen at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri, Kansas City, found that once cre­at­ed, the expect­ed sur­vival of work­er coop­er­a­tives meets or exceeds that of con­ven­tion­al­ly owned firms.” While data was not avail­able for U.S. firms, the aver­age lifes­pan of work­er coop­er­a­tives in Cana­da is more than four times longer than con­ven­tion­al busi­ness­es, the study noted.

New York’s game plan

New York’s $1.2 mil­lion grant will be allo­cat­ed to 11 work­er-coop­er­a­tive sup­port orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing FPWA, in amounts rang­ing from $35,000 to $230,000. They include:

The Cen­ter for Fam­i­ly Life, which will incu­bate four new co-ops

The New York City Net­work of work­er Coop­er­a­tives, which, among oth­er things, will work to con­vince busi­ness own­ers in the city’s 21 indus­tri­al busi­ness zones to sell their shops to workers

The Urban Jus­tice Cen­ter, which will pro­vide legal ser­vices for start-up co-ops

Green Work­er Coop­er­a­tives, an incu­ba­tor ser­vice start­ed in the Bronx in 2003 to cre­ate green” work­er-owned businesses

The Democ­ra­cy at Work Insti­tute, which will train the City’s Depart­ment of Small Busi­ness Ser­vices so it can rec­om­mend the work­er-coop­er­a­tive mod­el to entrepreneurs

Make the Road New York, which plans to lauch two new coop­er­a­tives and con­tin­ue sup­port­ing an exist­ing co-op, Pa’lante Green Clean­ing, to become self-sustaining

Right now, the city is hedg­ing its bets. The grant expires in June 2015.

Melis­sa Hoover of the U.S. Fed­er­a­tion of Work­er Coop­er­a­tives cau­tions that a year is not enough time get a co-op off the ground. Co-op devel­op­ment is a long process,” she says. In order to be effec­tive, you need mul­ti-year fund­ing, and more of it.”

How­ev­er, she adds that what’s more impor­tant than mon­ey is the rela­tion­ship and capac­i­ty-build­ing that’s under­way — asso­ci­a­tions that can con­tin­ue even if the project isn’t renewed in 2016.

For exam­ple, three of the grantees — eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty con­sult­ing firm ICA Group, the New York City Net­work of Work­er Coop­er­a­tives and The Work­ing World, a com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment fund — have an eye toward fig­ur­ing out how co-ops can get a share of the $16.5 bil­lion New York City spends on con­trac­tors annually.

Our long-term objec­tive beyond the first year — regard­less of whether or not the city con­tin­ues to fund it — is to try to cre­ate a way that the city is spend­ing mon­ey on busi­ness­es owned and oper­at­ed by res­i­dents of the city, hope­ful­ly low-income res­i­dents,” says David Ham­mer, direc­tor of the ICA Group. That keeps the mon­ey inside the city and pro­motes eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment for the peo­ple who need it most.”

At the same time, he notes, a sym­bol­ic point has already been made. We spend so much of our time at work but with­out the rights of con­trol. What the city has done is said, That’s not right, and we’re going to put mon­ey into try­ing to change it.’ That’s a huge shift,” Ham­mer says. If we are suc­cess­ful in cre­at­ing a coop­er­a­tive econ­o­my in New York City, we’re going to hope­ful­ly demon­strate to oth­er cities and states that a co-op econ­o­my can not only exist, but thrive and change the way peo­ple inter­act with their com­pa­nies, because they are the boss. In order for work­ers to suc­ceed in the econ­o­my that we have today, we need to democ­ra­tize the way busi­ness is done. New York has made it pub­lic pol­i­cy that work­place democ­ra­cy should exist.”

Ajowa Nzin­ga Ifateyo is a mem­ber of the Grass­roots Eco­nom­ic Orga­niz­ing col­lec­tive and gets a thrill out of writ­ing about coop­er­a­tives and oth­er lib­er­a­to­ry eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment projects. She has been a staff writer for the Los Ange­les Times, Morn­ing Call and Mia­mi Her­ald news­pa­pers. Her report­ing is fund­ed by the New Economies Report­ing Project.
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