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.

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 79 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 37 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 19 rsvps

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.