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Good news for co-ops in New York with the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative

In These Times:

That company was a worker cooperative called Sí Se Puede—“Yes, We Can” in Spanish. The women started the co-op with the help of the SCO Family of Services’ Center for Family Life, a social-service agency and advocacy group for families. They marketed their business in this low-tech way for months, slowly building up a clientele until they could afford a website.

Eight years later, Sí Se Puede has 64 member-owners. It grossed over a million dollars in 2013. The worker co-op may soon have another source of income: a line of cleaning products. Salazar’s pay at Sí Se Puede has climbed to $20 to $23 an hour, letting her work fewer hours a week and spend more time with her family, which has grown to include three children.

Back when she was leafleting on corners, Salazar never imagined that the business would enjoy such success.

“In the beginning, it was very hard to grow,” she says laughing. “We look back, and we are amazed.”

The worker cooperative model, in which a business is owned and controlled by its members, is rarely taught in U.S. business schools, but it is gaining a reputation as a way for social service agencies and city councils to provide jobs for workers marooned by the current economy.

“There just aren’t enough jobs for all the people who need and want them,” says Jessica Gordon Nembhard, associate professor of community justice and social economic development at New York’s John Jay College, and author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. “Worker cooperatives address that niche.”

Social and economic justice activists also favor worker cooperatives as a way of enabling workers to participate democratically in their workplace. Co-ops are seen as a key component of what is called the “solidarity economy.” That term encompasses democratic, environmentally conscious and socially responsible companies, along with alternative exchanges such as trade and bartering—any economic system that emphasizes concern for people and economic justice over pure profit.

“Worker cooperatives are one of the best solidarity economy structures for solving the problem of participation and ownership,” says Gordon Nembhard. “When you own a business, you end up with a good stable job that you have control over and an asset that can appreciate over time and give you some stability.”

The worker cooperative movement got a major boost in June when the City Council of New York established a Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative and put up $1.2 million to fund it. The money will go to 11 organizations to establish 28 new worker co-ops, create 234 jobs in co- ops and support agencies, and provide education, training and technical support to another 20 existing co-ops, including Sí Se Puede.

New York City is the first municipality to allocate such a large sum to worker cooperative development. This initiative “resonates far beyond New York,” says Melissa Hoover, executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, a national grassroots membership organization that supports the co-op movement. “The visibility is really huge.”

Really good news on any number of fronts. More like this please!

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