This is Part V of a five-part series on worker-directed cooperatives as an autonomous community self-development tool. Read Parts I, II, III, and IV. The full series will be available on Democracy at Work's Coop Talk after Part V has been published.
Part V: New York City — Where to go next?
BY KIMBERLY WESTCOTT and RICHARD WOLFF | DECEMBER 16, 2016
While New York City is already the site of several successful large worker cooperatives like Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA), a business owned and run by home health aides located in the Bronx, and Si Se Puede, a cleaning service located in Sunset Park Brooklyn, there is room for much more growth across high tech, traditional trade, and other sectors. The Federation for Protestant Welfare Agencies' (FPWA) informative 2014 report on New York City worker cooperatives highlights the legislative and economic initiatives that would support their proliferation across all communities. These include the increased allocation and availability of grant funding and low-interest loans, WSDE eligibility to bid for Minority/Women Business Enterprise contracts, and the formation of a dedicated coordinating and funding body, like the New York City Small Business Administration. As it turns out, several companies that have expressed a clear commitment to attracting and supporting the formerly incarcerated throughout their training process into a developed career pathway, like the Refoundry furniture company, would be excellent candidates for converting to the democratic worker cooperative structure because it gives each member a stake in the business.
The Community Supported Worker Cooperative as a community economic development tool
The Community Service Society believes that the WSDE generally, and the CSWC more specifically, is an ideal reintegration–community development mechanism that would not only assist in expanding training for living wage work in the prison and in the community, but would also serve to ground communities with a network of viable businesses—like Evergreen Cooperatives or the Madison, Wisconsin cooperative system—that could also provide a bridge to youth pre-apprenticeships in skilled work through long-term affiliations with unions and union worker cooperatives. This would entail expanding support for WSDEs in low-income communities of color and across all of New York City and New York State and teaching cooperative work while developing a WSDE structure within the prison system. Worker cooperatives also afford the opportunity for training alliances with community colleges and other educational providers, which could serve as the anchor for skill development. Sponsored by an individual or group of legislators in contiguous districts like those in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bed Stuy, Brownsville, and East New York, a community supported worker cooperative would not only locate needed services to the area but also incubate local businesses that would dedicate resources to training community members across all age groups -- a commitment far surpassing the city's sporadic summer youth job funding. Action points include:
- Prisons and secondary schools should introduce education in cooperative work and training in business organizations, provide supports for preparing business plans, and link workers to organizations that can provide technical assistance.
- The state and city should provide subsidies, low-interest loans, and technical support to certified worker cooperatives with developed business plans.
- The city and state government, particularly community boards and local legislators, nonprofit organizations, and members of the community, should identify and inventory the business needs of each community district then commit to locally support and subsidize a small number of these businesses as community-sponsored worker cooperatives.
- Community leaders and legislators should work with prisons, community-based institutions, and nonprofits like Democracy At Work-NY (DAW-NY), New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives (NYC-NOWC), and The Murphy Institute at CUNY to help locate and develop networks of cooperatively-owned enterprises in communities that have identified the need for their services and to make the connection with government offices that could award city and state contracts and locate other sources of funding. Linkages should be made with crucial education and training institutions like community colleges and union cooperatives that form training hubs to support incubating CSWCs.
- The city and state should commit significant resources like grants, tax breaks, low-interest loans, and low-no rent occupancy in deed-restricted public use buildings, to promote and incubate cooperative economic development in low-income communities in the process of being gentrified like Coney Island, Bushwick, and East New York.
- The state should promote WSDEs and the CSWC model to support local economic development in upstate communities shifting away from a prison-incarceration-based economy.
The history of capitalism over the last 300 years is a record of the endless ways in which governments have supported, subsidized, privileged, and assisted capitalist enterprises. The mechanisms have included corporate tax holidays and reductions, subsidies, infrastructures built to business needs, special training for corporate employees before and after employment, below-market interest rate loans, technical assistance at public expense, and so on. Given the extraordinary deficits of the capitalist model, at the very minimum forms of business enterprise alternative to capitalist corporations ought to receive comparable government supports. The goal and point is to enable citizens to choose the form of business enterprise that works best for their goals and values, be it WSDE or capitalist corporation. This is not special treatment for WSDEs. It is simple even-handedness when government is called upon to support two alternative enterprise structures. At a minimum, CSS and Democracy at Work believe that government and political parties should support a reintegration–full participation community development platform that prioritizes full participation in the workplace. This deserves comparable funding and structural support as is currently allocated to programs for full participation in community life and community self-development.
Many workers want their efforts to positively impact not only their families but to benefit their communities by transmitting learned skills and experiences. The workplace can be a site of productivity and skill transmission and a means to seed resources within the community—particularly those stunted by poverty and ravaged by mass incarceration. Structured appropriately, the workplace can also be an integrating mechanism owned and controlled by the people who participate and are co-invested in the community—an anchor to foster the development of skills and income that is worker and community self-directed. The WSDE and the CSWC are concepts whose time has come.
Kimberly Westcott is Associate Counsel at Community Service Society of New York (CSS), Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University School of Social Work (CSSW), and Co-Chair of [email protected]'s Coop Committee. Contact: [email protected]