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.
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.
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.
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