Worker Co-ops Gain Traction

By Carmen Dixon and Alexis Posey

As income inequality has grown, so has interest in alternative economic practices, including economic cooperation or worker co-ops. Last year, the city of Madison, Wisconsin, allotted $5 million over a five-year period to develop worker cooperatives, and this year, the New York City Council approved an allocation of $1.2 million for 2015 toward the same goal. The New York initiative serves to strengthen and expand the pre-existing worker cooperative economy in the city.

 

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There are more than 40 worker cooperative businesses in New York City. Businesses such as Apple Eco-Cleaning and Pa’lante Green Cleaning are made up of mostly immigrant women who were once making low wages as domestic workers. Other businesses range from bookkeeping to construction to travel agencies to translation services.

 

Co-ops and their predecessors, mutual aid societies, have a rich tradition in the United States, especially among immigrants and the economically marginalized. Long before establishment of one of the first official worker co-ops in 1844 by the Rochdale Pioneers in Europe, black people had established mutual aid societies in the United States. In 1907, W.E.B. Du Bois identified 154 African American-owned cooperative businesses ranging from agricultural and insurance co-ops to mercantile establishments. Slave narratives reveal free blacks and enslaved people pooling resources to buy the freedom of others as well as to accumulate start-up funds for their own businesses. Much of this history has been recovered by Jessica Gordon Nembhard in the recently published Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.

 

Contemporary cooperative development, as in the past, has excited new interest during times of social and economic hardship. This initiative has gained national attention and has created a path for many cities. Nonprofit agencies such as our own often provide technical support and work to build relationships and foster collaboration with city agencies that play a role in economic and community development. For instance, with the support of Small Business Services (SBS) in New York City, partners provide “10 steps to starting a worker cooperative” trainings in SBS satellite locations across the city. In February, the City Council voted for the passage of Intro 423, which requires the City to report on the number of contracts given to worker cooperative businesses and SBS to report on support services provided to worker cooperative businesses. Intro 423 represents a paradigm shift for worker cooperative businesses in New York City.

 

We have been contacted by organizations in the District of Columbia who are looking to work with the local government to create a similar model. In Cleveland, Ohio, the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative, formed by a consortium of Cleveland-based institutions, has focused on six low-income neighborhoods. The Initiative aims to create “green” jobs that will “transform neighborhoods.” To date, it has formed a laundry co-op, a hydroponic greenhouse, and a solar energy company.

 

Is the United States now witnessing a revival of the age-old economic survival practices of exploited communities? Yes to the revival, but in order to achieve sustainability we must work to achieve global labor solidarity.

 

We acknowledge that some large-scale co-ops, in locations such as Spain and Mexico, have experienced challenges because of competition from other countries providing lower-cost goods. However, past and present cooperative economic practices teach us that businesses deeply rooted in their communities providing goods and services locally can be successful.

 

With the renewed popular interest in sharing economies, more businesses will develop. Activists can urge local governments to encourage and fund such development to provide models of fair labor practices and provide work in local communities. Most important, these economic models offer opportunities to join economic and political conversations to groups too long denied such access.

 

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Carmen Dixon (left) is the policy and faith organizer and Alexis Posey is senior policy analyst for workforce development for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies in New York City.

 

This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

May 25, 2017
· 33 rsvps

Join DSA's Queer Socialists Working Group to discuss possible activities for the group and its proposed structure. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

What Is DSA? Training Call

May 30, 2017
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If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
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Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
· 5 rsvps

Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Bill Barclay, chocolatehouse@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 7 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 5 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.