As Trump Advances a Retrograde Economic Vision, These Worker Cooperatives Chart a Different Course

Sarah Aziza February 2, 2018

Orlando Santaella Jr. and Orlando Santaella Sr. of Evergreen Energy Solutions work on a ground-mounted solar array located on Euclid Ave across the street from Lakeview Cemetery on March 25, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Duane Prokop/Getty Images for TakePart.org)

This arti­cle was first pub­lished on Wag­ing Non­vi­o­lence.

Announc­ing his pres­i­den­cy in 2016, Don­ald Trump promised the nation that he’d become the great­est job pres­i­dent God ever cre­at­ed.” His plan to accom­plish this rest­ed on a ret­ro­grade eco­nom­ic vision that would make Amer­i­ca great again,” by restor­ing wan­ing coal and man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs, as well as putting an end to the alleged assault on Amer­i­can work by for­eign immi­grants and glob­al competition.

A year lat­er, his attempts to real­ize this vision have large­ly con­sist­ed of back­wards motion. In Octo­ber, he rolled back the Clean Pow­er Plan, argu­ing that car­bon emis­sions reg­u­la­tions, rather than the wide­spread shift away from fos­sil fuels, were respon­si­ble for the decline of U.S. coal. While the strik­ing of these envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions leaves the door open for cor­po­ra­tions to exac­er­bate cli­mate change, it has done lit­tle to uplift the so-called Rust Belt,” where he gar­nered so much sup­port. Mean­while, at the Indi­ana Car­ri­er plant — where Trump made a dra­mat­ic show­ing of his deal” to keep man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs from mov­ing to Mex­i­co — hun­dreds of work­ers have been laid off, includ­ing over 200 just last week.

While the strug­gle for liv­ing wages and steady work is a real con­cern for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, these high-pro­file ges­tures are emblem­at­ic of a per­sis­tent, fal­la­cious nar­ra­tive. It is one that touts an era of bygone Amer­i­can pros­per­i­ty, which Trump, and those like him, promise can be restored through top-down, reac­tionary poli­cies. Not only does this telling obscure or scape­goat com­mu­ni­ties of col­or — which are often dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed by the loss of man­u­fac­tur­ing work and the sup­pres­sion of wages — it also eras­es the agency of the Amer­i­can work­er, who is left at the mer­cy of politi­cians and cor­po­rate executives.

Yet across the coun­try, many of the nation’s most dis­en­fran­chised are writ­ing a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. In dozens of cities, work­er-own­er coop­er­a­tives are estab­lish­ing new enter­pris­es based on joint deci­sion-mak­ing, dig­ni­fied work con­di­tions and fair pay. Uti­liz­ing their exist­ing skills and har­ness­ing new ones, these groups are lever­ag­ing their labor on their own terms, with a vision to change their indus­tries and the eco­nom­ic land­scape. And in this ris­ing move­ment, peo­ple of col­or, immi­grants and women are lead­ing the way.

There are many rea­sons why coop­er­a­tives are well-suit­ed to these demo­graph­ics, says Este­ban Kel­ly, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the U.S. Fed­er­a­tion of Work­er Coop­er­a­tives, or USFWC, a nation­wide coali­tion rep­re­sent­ing over 160 co-ops. Coop­er­a­tives are very appeal­ing for peo­ple who have been locked out of the tra­di­tion­al job mar­ket, or who tend to get locked in to jobs which have low wages and poor work­ing con­di­tions,” he said. We are see­ing a lot of momen­tum in the ser­vice sec­tors, like child care and elder­ly care, ear­ly edu­ca­tion, hos­pice, and oth­er labor-inten­sive, low-wage jobs — and these tend to be com­prised of many peo­ple of col­or, indige­nous peo­ple, immi­grants and women.”

Maru Bautista, direc­tor of coop­er­a­tive devel­op­ment at the Cen­ter for Fam­i­ly Life in Brook­lyn, New York, says she’s seen coop­er­a­tives bring a path out of pover­ty and exploita­tion for many in her com­mu­ni­ty. In our com­mu­ni­ty, there are lots of peo­ple who couldn’t find work the tra­di­tion­al way — due to lack of for­mal edu­ca­tion, a mis­match of skills or a lan­guage barrier.”

The work­er-own­er mod­el, by con­trast, allows these indi­vid­u­als to lever­age their strengths and draw on their com­mu­ni­ty. For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever had a chance to have agency in their work, their sched­ules, their pay,” explained Bautista. The cen­ter began incu­bat­ing coop­er­a­tives in 2006, offer­ing train­ing, coun­sel and small grants. Since then, the cen­ter has fos­tered 18 co-ops through­out New York City in ser­vices like home clean­ing, pet care, and repair-work.

Accord­ing to USFWC data, the aver­age hourly wage in a work­er co-op is $16.54, with an aver­age of 31 hours per week. And while com­pet­ing in the main­stream econ­o­my means these com­pa­nies aren’t able to raise wages sig­nif­i­cant­ly above the mar­ket rate, Kel­ly says the coop­er­a­tive mod­el offers many oth­er ben­e­fits to mem­bers. Joint deci­sion-mak­ing lends more dig­ni­ty to the work­place, and many coop­er­a­tives have bet­ter ben­e­fits or offer more in the way of train­ing and career development.”

For Bautista, every step of coop­er­a­tive-build­ing offers a chance for polit­i­cal train­ing, too. Every­thing we do is root­ed in social jus­tice,” she explained. We not only teach work­ers how to plan and exe­cute a busi­ness, but we also teach them about the ways cap­i­tal­ist sys­tems are at work out there, so they don’t repli­cate the same oppres­sion. We ask them, what kind of world do you want to see? And then we help them build that.”

These things take time, Bautista admits. If some­one needs to get food on the table tomor­row, start­ing a co-op may not be the answer. But when peo­ple are able to com­mit, many of them find it to be very rewarding.”

These humane, cre­ative” work envi­ron­ments, Kel­ly says, lead to a very high reten­tion rate in many co-ops, and a 2015 study found that work­er co-ops often pro­vide full-time work in indus­tries char­ac­ter­ized by part-time employment.

On the demand side, the co-op move­ment dove­tails well with emerg­ing trends, includ­ing the gig” econ­o­my and efforts by many com­mu­ni­ties to buy local. Con­scious con­sumers often grav­i­tate towards busi­ness­es that are owned and oper­at­ed by their neigh­bors, and doing so has tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits for the com­mu­ni­ty. By cir­cu­lat­ing rev­enue back into their local com­mu­ni­ty, Kel­ly says that co-ops are a great way to anchor” wealth in local economies. Coop­er­a­tives often encour­age a more humane” buy­ing expe­ri­ence, Kel­ly adds, as they tend to be small­er in size — the medi­an num­ber is nine mem­bers per co-op.

Coop­er­a­tives can sup­port and also pro­tect vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties at risk of being dis­placed by the forces of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. In Flori­da, for exam­ple, immi­grant busi­ness own­ers are using the coop­er­a­tive mod­el to solid­i­fy enter­pris­es in their com­mu­ni­ties by sell­ing their com­pa­nies to their employ­ees. This dis­pers­es the respon­si­bil­i­ty as well as the prof­its for the busi­ness, grant­i­ng sta­ble work to a greater num­ber of mem­bers and reduc­ing the risk that the busi­ness will close if the orig­i­nal own­er must relocate.

The work­er-own­er move­ment is still rel­a­tive­ly small — esti­mates range between 200 and 300 such coop­er­a­tives oper­ate nation­wide — but a grow­ing num­ber of cities, coun­ties and states are begin­ning to look at coop­er­a­tives more seri­ous­ly. Some have tak­en active steps to sup­port work­er-own­ers through fund­ing and leg­is­la­tion, as in New York City, which has spent $8 mil­lion on work­er-owned enter­pris­es in the last five years. In 2016, the city insti­tut­ed the work­er-own­er lead­er­ship coun­cil NOW NYC. The city of Philadel­phia added work­er coop­er­a­tives as a line item on their 2018 bud­get, while cities as diverse as Madi­son, Cleve­land, Oak­land and Jack­son have all passed pro­gres­sive poli­cies to sup­port co-ops.

Kel­ly cred­its these heart­en­ing trends in large part to the years of hard work put in by co-op advo­cates who have lob­bied their case to local and nation­al leg­is­la­tors. Yet the cause is much more than a spe­cial inter­est” debate, say many advo­cates — there is a viable case to be made for the eco­nom­ic pow­er of work­er-own­er­ship. Accord­ing to a 2015 study, coop­er­a­tives pro­duced rough­ly $395 mil­lion a year, and that num­ber is almost cer­tain­ly high­er now.

The field of work­er co-op devel­op­ment is just begin­ning to cre­ate the infra­struc­ture and knowl­edge base need­ed to increase its scale and impact,” wrote Hilary Abell in Work­er Coop­er­a­tives: Path­ways to Scale,” an exten­sive report for the Democ­ra­cy Col­lab­o­ra­tive, a research and advo­ca­cy insti­tute ded­i­cat­ed to pro­gres­sive economics.

A pri­ma­ry bar­ri­er to this expan­sion, Abell writes, is dif­fi­cul­ty in access­ing cap­i­tal. Many main­stream banks are wary of lend­ing to coop­er­a­tives, she says, and co-op mem­bers often lack the cap­i­tal to finance them­selves. How­ev­er, there are alter­na­tives to tra­di­tion­al banks, includ­ing Com­mu­ni­ty Devel­op­ment Finan­cial Insti­tu­tions, such as the Local Enter­prise Assis­tance Fund, which focus on sup­port­ing coop­er­a­tives. In fact, some of these cred­i­tors report being under­uti­lized, indi­cat­ing a dis­con­nect between the needs and know-how of coop­er­a­tives. Small co-ops that need out­side fund­ing may be able to find it if they have sound busi­ness plans,” Abell concluded.

Such sound busi­ness plan­ning may not come nat­u­ral­ly to all would-be work­er-own­ers. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, many of the peo­ple who are form­ing co-ops don’t have a back­ground in busi­ness and finance — and in the case of com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, women, indige­nous peo­ples, immi­grants, et cetera, there are a lot of sys­temic rea­sons for this,” Kel­ly said. So we work real­ly hard to offer train­ing in these things, includ­ing webi­na­rs, sem­i­nars, infor­ma­tion­al pack­ets, and even some direct hand-hold­ing to help them get on their feet.”

Many oth­er co-ops are tak­ing advan­tage of tech­ni­cal train­ing offered by USFWC and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions to plug their busi­ness­es into the online mar­ket, says Ana Mar­ti­na, who serves as mem­ber­ship direc­tor of USFWC and super­vis­es much of the organization’s tech­ni­cal pro­gram­ming. It’s real­ly impor­tant to give co-ops the tools to mar­ket them­selves online,” she said. This allows them to com­pete and con­nects them with clients beyond their own social cir­cles.” In devel­op­ing their online pres­ence, many are turn­ing to work­er-owned and open-source plat­forms. Tech is def­i­nite­ly a fast-grow­ing aspect of the co-op move­ment,” Mar­ti­na added.

In New York, the Cen­ter for Fam­i­ly Life has used online plat­forms to boost local home-clean­ing coop­er­a­tives through Up & Go, a coop­er­a­tive web-based appli­ca­tion that con­nects work­er-own­ers to clients. Get­ting our work­ers plugged in to tech is so cru­cial, as peo­ple are chang­ing the way they find ser­vices,” Bautista said. A lot of our co-ops don’t have a lot of cap­i­tal for mar­ket­ing, so we cre­at­ed this open plat­form where any­one who becomes a mem­ber can use this site to pro­mote their busi­ness. This has built com­mu­ni­ty among indi­vid­ual co-ops, and it makes co-ops a stronger com­peti­tor in the main­stream market.”

Look­ing ahead, advo­cates like Kel­ly hope the recent trend of steady growth con­tin­ues. He points to oth­er economies where co-ops play an influ­en­tial role — in Argenti­na, there are over 6,000 co-ops, while the num­ber in Spain and Italy exceeds 18,000 and 25,000, respec­tive­ly. Yet the Unit­ed States presents a unique set of chal­lenges, per­haps most notably the wide dis­par­i­ties in reg­u­la­tions between var­i­ous state and local gov­ern­ments. Coop advo­cates are also watch­ing to see what effects the new tax bill may have. We often find our­selves in a weird place, caught between tax laws that affect indi­vid­u­als — our work­er-own­ers — and tax laws apply­ing to cor­po­ra­tions. We have to be vig­i­lant,” Kel­ly said.

There is, how­ev­er, a grow­ing body of research on how to move the U.S. co-op econ­o­my towards scale, and with the grow­ing sup­port of state and local gov­ern­ments, there are plen­ty of rea­sons to be hope­ful. Researchers at the Democ­ra­cy at Work Insti­tute, or DWI, also tout the oppor­tu­ni­ty for coop­er­a­tives to influ­ence the larg­er econ­o­my,” argu­ing that they could change the debate by chang­ing the con­di­tions of work itself and how we dis­trib­ute the fruits of our labor.”

In addi­tion to start­ing new co-ops, many advo­cates point to con­ver­sions” as an even quick­er path to expand­ing the move­ment: DWI esti­mates rough­ly sev­en mil­lion busi­ness­es owned by baby boomers will be sold in the next sev­er­al years, with a pro­ject­ed $10 tril­lion chang­ing hands by 2025. These already-estab­lished busi­ness­es offer a fast-track to work­er-coops; they can be pur­chased and flipped” to a coop­er­a­tive mod­el, sav­ing the time, effort and cap­i­tal need­ed to incu­bate a busi­ness from scratch.
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For Bautista, the coop­er­a­tive move­ment is only just begin­ning to reveal its poten­tial. After near­ly a decade of build­ing local­ly owned-and-oper­at­ed col­lab­o­ra­tives, she says the accu­mu­la­tion of skills, aware­ness and tech­ni­cal know-how among her clients is pay­ing off. We are con­stant­ly look­ing for new ways to empow­er work­ers, and they are find­ing lots of inspi­ra­tion from each oth­er,” she said. It’s excit­ing to watch. And we’re hope­ful this will just get big­ger and bigger.”

Sarah Aziza is an Arab-Amer­i­can writer, grad­u­ate stu­dent and activist based in NYC. She has pre­vi­ous­ly worked among refugee pop­u­la­tions in North Africa, Jor­dan and the West Bank. Her areas of focus include immi­gra­tion, human rights, inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics, fem­i­nism and men­tal health. She is a lover of the sto­ry-less-told. Find her on Twit­ter @SarahAziza1 or www​.sara​haz​iza​.com.
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