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.

Film Discussion: When Abortion Was Illegal

March 26, 2017
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Directed by Dorothy Fadiman, When Abortion Was Illegal (1992, nominated for an Academy Award, Best Documentary Short Subject) reveals through first-person accounts the experiences of women seeking abortion before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973. We are one Supreme Court nominee away from a return in many states to back-alley abortions. Join Amanda Williams, Executive Director of the Lilith Fund, to discuss challenges to reproductive justice and abortion access. (Lilith Fund funds abortions for women in need in the Central and South Texas area.) Learn about how to participate in April Bowl-A-Thons to raise funds for low-income women. View the film here for free before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

March 30, 2017
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LGBT Activism: A Brief History with Thoughts about the Future

April 01, 2017
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Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. John co-authored Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, which was quoted by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that ruled state sodomy laws unconstitutional. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

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Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
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Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT. Here's a blog post about PHIT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

April 04, 2017
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Join Rahel Biru, NYC DSA co-chair, and Joseph Schwartz, DSA Vice-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 PM ET; 8 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 6 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
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What Is DSA? Training Call

April 05, 2017

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.

Feminist Working Group

April 12, 2017
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People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

DSA New Member Orientation Call

April 16, 2017
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You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT.