Worker cooperatives in the US raising labour standards
As part of a growing cooperative movement in New York, two groups of immigrant women drive business and redirect power.
Brooklyn, New York – At a coffee shop in central Brooklyn, facing an empty square where a freezing wind blows in the early afternoon, Rocio Morales and Leydis Muñoz discuss various ideas for expanding their Brooklyn-based business.
“I believe we can do so much more,” says Muñoz, who recently became vice president of the childcare services provider Beyond Care.
“We want to be in all five boroughs of New York City. That’s the big challenge,” says Morales, who is president of the business, and adds: “We have many ideas.”
Her voice is slightly hoarse from a stubborn cold but today is bad timing for being sick.
Morales and Muñoz technically have the day off from work and are spending it each with her young child – a couple of strollers are parked directly in front of the two women, both in their 30s – but they are also attending a meeting with Beyond Care’s lawyer later this afternoon.
Morales and Muñoz are confident about the potential of their business because it follows a model that may seem obvious, but makes Beyond Care stand out in the industry of domestic work: They respect workers by ensuring fair salaries and working conditions, and support them in training and developing their skills.
Committed, highly professional nannies will attract clients who want their children in the best of hands, and that will help Beyond Care to expand further, Muñoz believes. “Because we have really good nannies. Really good,” she says with emphasis.
“Other agencies have no training. We don’t stop training. There’s always something new to learn,” says Muñoz.
“Me as a single mother,” she continues and nods towards the stroller with her sleeping toddler, “I want someone who can take care of my child.”
That philosophy is the exception rather than the rule in the domestic work industry, where workers, most of whom are women, earn substandard pay, experience little economic mobility, and rarely have employment contracts or enjoy basic rights, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who call this line of work “invisible and unregulated”.
Driving change to empower low-income women
At Beyond Care, the workers drive the change they want to see in the industry. They are able to do so because they own the business.
Beyond Care is a worker-owner cooperative, made up of 46 Latina women who work and earn their salary through the business that they also own and run. All members have invested in the cooperative and have a vote in its democratic governance, and they equally benefit from its success.
Morales, while part of the cooperative’s leadership, is a worker-owner herself, and knowingly sums up the most tangible benefits: “Better salaries, vacation, sick days.”
“I never had a contract before or was paid for sick days,” Muñoz says. “This is a real job, and we take it seriously. You have a limit, and you don’t go out of your contract.”
A current surge of interest in worker cooperatives builds on experiments with alternative economies and democratic business in the 1970s and 80s, but today there’s a new focus on the model’s potential to empower low-income workers in the US, particularly minority women.
Social mobility is generally hard to achieve for the country’s working poor, but women, whose salaries are at only 78 percent of what men earn in the US, represent two out of three low-income workers. Rather than participating in a rigged system, women cooperative worker-owners flip how business and power traditionally work.
“The democratic workplace becomes not just a job, it becomes a site of community and solidarity building,” says Rachel Isreeli, who is Worker Cooperative Developer at the nonprofit Center for Family Life, a programme of SCO Family of Services, which incubated Beyond Care in 2008 when it was founded by 17 immigrant women.
The centre has helped develop eight immigrant cooperatives since 2006, the majority all-women, and recognises an interest in the model of low-capital cooperatives, Isreeli explains. “[That] allows people to create a cooperative that works for them rather than mold themselves into an existing business model.”
In 2015, the City of New York set aside $1.2m to support 26 existing cooperatives, such as Beyond Care, and support the start-up of another 40, marking the largest sum of money ever invested in the sector by an American city government, according to The Democracy at Work Institute.
A survey undertaken by a group of organisations who have made those cooperatives possible showed that 77 percent of the entrepreneurs and cooperative members who benefited from the initiative were women, and 76 percent Latina.
Members of Beyond Care try not to work on the first Saturday of the month, when they all gather at Center for Family Life in Brooklyn for their monthly four-hour meeting. At around 9am, the women start filing into a room with turquoise walls, and chairs arranged in a classroom setting, with greetings of “buenos dias” – “good day” in Spanish – sounding through the open door.
Many arrive with coffee cups and plastic bags containing breakfasts of bagels and juice cartons, people small-talk, and a few members drop off their children with a nanny, who the cooperative hires for the occasion.
Of the 46 Beyond Care members, 45 are present for the meeting that morning, and they bring in several extra folding chairs from another room.
Morales stands up with other members of the leadership, all wearing blue T-shirts with the Beyond Care logo. Four years ago, when a friend introduced her to Beyond Care, she didn’t know how a cooperative worked. Morales says: “I just sat in a corner and listened.”
New members undergo weeks of professional training, and must be approved by existing members based on their experience and values, and worker-owners do further education around four times a year. Courses range from physiotherapy and etiquette classes to speech therapy, while workers learn to spot if a child has special needs.
“I have many years of experience, but I can see those things because of my training,” says Muñoz, who highlights how the cooperative restores professional pride and respect in an occupation that much of society undervalues.
“Some people don’t realise that this is a career and think being a nanny just happened to you. But there’s a big difference between being a babysitter and a nanny,” Muñoz says.
“A nanny is there for your child 100 percent; when they’re sick, on their first day of school,” she continues. “It’s a lot of work. If you don’t feel appreciated, it’s hard. Beyond Care makes you feel that you are appreciated. It definitely makes me feel like it’s a career.”
Years ago, Muñoz stopped working in childcare to train as a medical assistant and landed a job upon graduation.
But she missed her old work while sitting at her desk, glancing at the clock, thinking, “at this time I would be in the park with the kids,” Muñoz recalls. She initially came to Beyond Care just for the nanny training, which is available to non-members, but has now been part of the cooperative for two years.
“You have to love working with kids to do this kind of work,” she says.
On Tuesday nights, a group of nine Filipina women, together the Damayan Cleaning Cooperative, gather at a small office in Manhattan’s midtown, located on a street busy with traffic from nearby Penn Station.
“I’m coming straight from work,” says Guada Omaguing on her way up the narrow, carpeted stairs. Several of her fellow cooperative members are in a similar situation, so the women take turns bringing cooked meals to the meetings.
Holding brightly coloured paper plates, they help themselves and each other to the trays and bowls of noodles, fried fish and chicken liver, grapes and blueberries.
“Who took notes last time?” asks one cooperative member as they are about to start the meeting. “I did but I can’t read them,” answers Omaguing as she looks over her handwritten notes.
In September 2015, members of the nonprofit Damayan Migrant Workers Association founded Damayan Cleaning Cooperative, which, just as Beyond Care, receives counselling and support from the Center for Family Life. These are still the early days of the business and there are not yet enough clients for all members to work exclusively for the cooperative.
Tonight’s agenda includes approving the cooperative’s vision statement, according to which the cooperative will “promote the rights and liberation of all workers, women, immigrants and marginalised communities”, as member Emma Serafin reads to the group.
One member is concerned the statement’s use of the word “women” gives the impression that the cooperative excludes men.
Lydia Catina Amaya raises her hand to comment: “We know that in our culture, the immigrants are mostly women. They do everything for their families, they make sacrifices.” Amaya places her head between her hands for a moment and continues: “It’s particularly women who have experiences of exploitation.”
A few more opinions are voiced, and everyone agrees to keep the statement as it is.
Domestic poverty pushes millions of Filipinos, mostly women, to seek employment in foreign countries in order to provide for their families. But many end up as victims of labour trafficking and abusive working conditions.
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Fighting for rights
The Damayan Migrant Workers Association educates and mobilises workers to fight back against exploitative systems, and the cleaning cooperative is an integrated part of that movement, says executive director of the association Linda Oalican.
“So [the cooperative’s] model is not just a business model, it should be an organisational strategy to develop the power and leadership of workers.”
To Juana Dwyer, a year-long member and chairwoman at the worker association, and a founding cooperative member, that strategy is crucial.
“It’s a big thing to know your rights. It gives confidence,” Dwyer says. “Our jobs are very important to the people on Wall Street, to doctors. They can’t work without domestic workers. We make the jobs of others possible.”
Dwyer left the Philippines and arrived in the US on September 8, 2001 – a day of celebration of the Virgin Mary, she explains. That is a fact of significance to her since, Dwyer says, she used to pray to the Virgin Mary in times of hardship.
A survivor of labour trafficking like the majority of her fellow cooperative members, she spent her first years in the US in isolation at a care institution, where she was on call 24 hours a day, barely making any money. Like many other undocumented immigrants, she had no voice, Dwyer explains, and did not know her rights.
Later, she worked for different families and drily sums up the attitude of many clients towards domestic workers.
“When you work for a private family, they say, ‘We treat you like family.’ But they give you leftovers.” One client refused to pay her the agreed two weeks’ vacation, and told her it was rude of her to inquire about the missing pay by text message, then fired her and withheld her severance pay.
“Actually, they fired me by texting,” Dwyer says and scoffs at the irony. This time, however, she went to Damayan Migrant Workers Association, which helped her win back the money.
Dwyer hopes to grow the cooperative, which ensures contracts, safe working conditions and $15 an hour in wages for workers. From her experience running a business in the Philippines, she knows that requires dogged determination, and she tells anyone who will listen about the cooperative.
“When I go to my doctor, I talk about Damayan,” Dwyer says.
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But advocates have pointed out that hugely successful cooperatives abroad benefit from public contracts and laws that help elevate them, and that it may require further policy change for cooperatives in the US to expand. As Oalican points out, Damayan Cleaning Cooperative depends on clients who agree with their mission of giving workers higher wages, while many conventional companies simply will not care.
Isreeli thinks that cooperative organisations and entrepreneurs can have the mutual goal to achieve a “union between creating cooperatives and using them as a tool to change policy and standards”.
“We can create coops where members are politically conscious, involved and able, alongside community members, to change the policies while doing development work. What better people to speak to these issues than worker-owners themselves?” Isreeli says. “It won’t happen without a movement.”
At Beyond Care’s meeting, the cooperative welcomes nine new members, who receive diplomas as proof that they have done the required training and are professional nannies. The new worker-owners study the documents, and hand them over to others who ask to have a look.
The cooperative provides a community and network of professional women, who support each other in an otherwise solitary business, Morales says. And after several years in business, the leadership wants to expand that community further.
Sure, it can be hard to reach agreements among a growing group of worker-owners, Muñoz admits. “To have that many strong, independent and professional women in one room,” she says and laughs, “can be a challenge.”
But the benefits of an empowered community outweigh those challenges. “We all work for the best of the coop. We want it to grow bigger,” Muñoz says. “It’s a diamond in the rough.”
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