Sunday, February 7, 2016

Worker Coops and Economic Empowerment

I don’t know if women—or for that matter, anyone—can “have it all.” This country has an intractably imbalanced work-life culture. Add to this the deeply rooted expectation that women should act as the primary caretaker and a whole host of gendered consequences flow from employment in America. Women who work full time receive 78 cents on the dollar compared to men, or even worse, only 67 cents on the dollar when comparing female and male earners with professional degrees. Women are also less likely to have health insurance or retirement savings plans offered by their employers, according to the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers.

When viewed on a macro-level, the weight of these problems seems crippling. It feels as though there are no viable solutions to a stubborn workplace structure that discriminates against women and fails to recognize their economic contributions.

Luckily, I discovered a source of optimism in the form of worker cooperatives. As a summer law clerk at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, CA I became involved in community economic development efforts—efforts to empower communities through economic opportunities that respect the rights of workers, provide job opportunities to marginalized groups, and add needed services to surrounding communities. Worker cooperatives play an essential role in these efforts.

According to the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, a worker cooperative (“worker coop”) is a business entity that is owned and controlled by its worker members and adheres to a one member, one vote model. Workers invest in, own, and are the primary beneficiaries of their labor. You can think of worker coops as democratic workplaces that are owned and controlled by the workers themselves, as opposed to outside investors or management.

Rather than wait for a national consensus on workplace issues—like raising the minimum wage or requiring paid family leave—worker owners can set their own priorities and enact workplace policies that meet their individual needs. And, fortunately, California just made it easier to incorporate as a worker coop.

Prospera, a worker coop incubator, has helped establish successful female owned and operated ventures throughout the Bay Area. Prospera was founded in the mid-90s to specifically address the lack of economic opportunities for Latina women in the Bay Area. Prospera incubates worker coops, meaning it provides business expertise and connects entrepreneurs to start-up capital and the institutional knowledge necessary to help a business get off the ground.

In particular, Prospera has successfully incubated eco-friendly house cleaning businesses. These businesses developed out of necessity to deal with a traditionally exploitative industry that funneled predominately Latina women into low-paying cleaning jobs, exposed them to harmful chemicals, and provided little control over workplace policies. While commercial cleaning is an accessible service industry job for workers lacking professional degrees, it’s also notoriously exploitative. By melding together the accessibility of the cleaning industry with the democratic nature of worker coops, Prospera helped create an economy for women to shape their own workplaces and economic opportunities.

One of Prospera’s creations, Emma’s Eco-Clean, has generated $9 million in sales since 1999, employs 27 workers, and provides health and dental benefits along with flexible vacation time—benefits virtually unheard of in the commercial cleaning industry. The worker-owners in Prospera coops have also, on average, tripled their income compared to their pre-Prospera employment.

Worker coops are not a cure-all solution. As with any new business venture, entrepreneurs need access to capital, a consumer base, and some level of business savvy. Nonprofit incubators, like Prospera, are helpful in connecting entrepreneurs with the resources necessary to start a successful new business. But these low-income, entrepreneur-focused incubators are few and far between. Women in rural communities may find it especially difficult to access the resources necessary to start these businesses. And nothing excuses this country’s inability to deal with inequality on a larger, national scale.

Even so, worker ownership puts workplace policies in the hands of the people most affected by these policies. In the context of women’s worker-owned coops, women are empowered to set policies that meet their particular needs. This is a more localized model that gives me hope in a larger economy that disempowers workers and sets unreasonable expectations for employees and their families.

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