Cooperatives In The United States
The emerging movement for a solidarity economy has many faces and takes many forms. Despite their near-invisibility in the mainstream media, thousands of grassroots solidarity economy initiatives are sprouting and thriving across the U.S. and throughout the world. Here we highlight just a few inspiring examples of projects in the U.S. that are working to reclaim the power of citizens and communities to build just, democratic and sustainable livelihoods.
COLORS: A New Democratic Worker Cooperative Restaurant Challenges the Industry
By John Lawrence
In the fall of 2005, COLORS restaurant opened in the heart of Greenwich Village, in New York City. In an elegant setting with Bauhaus and Art Deco touches, COLORS offers a creative seasonal menu based on favorite family recipes of its staff, who hail from 22 countries.
More than an excellent restaurant, however, COLORS is one part of a labor struggle to revolutionize the New York restaurant industry (see “Immigrant Restaurant Workers Hope to Rock New York,” Dollars & Sense, Jan/Feb 2004). The restaurant is a democratic worker cooperative, founded by former workers of the Windows on the World restaurant (located on the top floor of the World Trade Center until 9-11), with help from the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC-NY), a workers’ center established in 2002.
New York’s famed restaurant industry is built on exploited immigrant labor, according to a study commissioned by ROC-NY. Only 20% of restaurant jobs pay a livable wage of $13.47 an hour or higher. Ninety percent of workers have no employer-sponsored health coverage. Immigrants of color are usually in low-paying back house jobs like dishwasher, food preparer, and line cook. Thirty-three percent of those surveyed “reported experiencing verbal abuse on the basis of race, immigration status, or language.” Other illegal labor practices are common, such as work “off the clock,” overtime, and minimum-wage violations, and health and safety code violations.
COLORS aims to be different. The minimum salary for back house worker-owners is $13.50 an hour. Front house worker-owners are paid minimum wage plus tips. Tips are split more equitably among the various occupations than the industry standard. In addition, every worker-owner has a benefits package that includes health insurance, paid vacation, and a pension.
Worker-owner Rosario Ceia, a 10-year veteran of the restaurant industry, says working at COLORS has been a radical change. Besides providing fair wages and benefits to worker-owners, COLORS is democratically organized into eight teams based on occupation—managers, line cooks, prep cooks, waiters, back waiters (“bus boys”), runners, dishwashers, and hosts. Each team has a representative on the board of directors. Rosario is not only a back waiter, but also treasurer of the board. Everyone participates in decision-making, Rosario emphasized, from adopting bylaws to choosing the restaurant’s design.
Those in management, such as the executive chef, general manager, and wine director, play typical roles in providing needed expertise to the restaurant. In their day-to-day relationship with the other worker-owners, though, they are teammates, not bosses. As an additional safeguard against abusive hierarchy, all non-management worker-owners belong to the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE).
Rosario believes COLORS will benefit all restaurant workers—not only by providing a successful model of “high road” business practices, but by actively advocating for workers in restaurant owners’ association meetings. COLORS also extends its values down the supply chain by supporting fair trade, sustainable agriculture, and local producers.
The venture is also revitalizing an old labor organizing strategy of developing democratic worker cooperatives. The first union in the United States, Knights of Labor, wanted “to establish cooperative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a cooperative industrial system.” Perhaps, in addition to challenging an industry, COLORS is modeling a “new” organizing strategy for the 21st—century U.S. labor movement.
John Lawrence is a psychology professor at The College of Staten Island, City University of New York, and a member of the GEO collective. Learn more at colors-nyc.com and rocny.org.
The Anti-displacement Project
By Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo
A unique community economy built by low-income workers has been evolving in western Massachusetts.
The Anti-Displacement Project (A-DP) in Springfield is a nonprofit that serves as an umbrella for institutions and projects organized by low-income people. The group combines community organizing, social service delivery, and community economic development into a membership-based community association.
“We’re trying to carve out a little political economy,” said Caroline Murray, who has been the group’s executive director for the past 13 years. “We make sure we’re organizing for power. If it’s a tenant group, rather than demand that the landlord fix the toilet, we demand that we own it.”
A-DP started out as a housing advocacy group: organizing tenants, buying apartment complexes, and saving affordable housing from gentrification. While meeting about maintenance problems in their apartments, members realized that they had the skills to do the work themselves. Soon after, a worker’s cooperative, United Landscaping and Painting, was born. From there A-DP has continued to expand.
Now, A-DP’s community-owned assets, worth $45 million, include five apartment complexes with a total of 1,400 units, the landscaping and painting cooperative, and three food cooperatives. In partnership with a local union the group is building a worker center. A-DP oversees one of the largest holdings of tenant-owned housing in the country, and its cooperative businesses contract about $20 million a year. The organization’s greatest asset, however, is its 5,000 families—white, brown, and black low-income people—who fuel the organization by struggling together for a better life.
Next on A-DP’s horizon is a possible partnership with the city of Springfield to rehabilitate abandoned houses. The group is also considering taking on predatory lending and starting a credit union.
Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo is a member of the GEO Collective, and is on the board of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives.
Building A Farmer-Labor Alliance: Solidarity Harvest and Union Supported Agriculture
By Laura Millay, Daphne Loring, and Ethan Miller
Like their counterparts elsewhere across the United States, Maine’s industrial workers and small farmers are isolated from one another, engaged in parallel efforts to survive in the face of a corporate-dominated economy. The state’s industrial workers have been hit hard by the rapid loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs . Meanwhile, small farmers in the state are losing ground in the face of corporate-centered agricultural trade policy.
“Food AND Medicine,” an organization in Brewer, Maine, works to bring these groups together with grassroots action. Modeled on the unemployed workers’ unions of the 1930’s, the organization was created as a mutual-aid and advocacy group for workers left unemployed by plant closings. The group’s mission is clear: “In the richest country in the world, no one should have to choose either food OR medicine—but that choice is a reality for too many people in our community. Through collaboration between unions, community groups, laid-off workers, local farms, and local businesses, Food AND Medicine works to correct economic inequality and build a more just and sustainable community.”
In 2003, the organization began its Solidarity Harvest program, bringing together local labor unions and farmers in support of laid-off mill workers. More than 34 unions joined together for a July 4th Solidarity Celebration, raising $6,000 to purchase food from local farmers and create Thanksgiving food baskets for struggling families. Inspired by this work, organic farmers and local businesses responded by donating more food and resources to the project. Solidarity Harvest has grown each year and now supplies healthy food to families of unemployed workers throughout the summer and fall.
More recently, a new model of farmer-labor solidarity has emerged from the relationships built through Solidarity Harvest. Union Supported Agriculture (USA) is modeled after the concept of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Union members support farmers in the spring with the purchase of a farm share—an up-front payment $275, or $20 per week of the 14-week summer program. This initial money helps farmers buy seed and keep the farm running until harvest begins. Then, each week from July through October, the farmers deliver shares of fresh organic produce to convenient pick-up locations for USA members. Union members get back more than their money’s worth: in 2005, a $275 share provided more than $330 of food. Shares are also donated through Solidarity Harvest to families of laid-off and striking workers.
Through both Solidarity Harvest and Union Supported Agriculture, Maine’s labor unions have become a base for “solidarity consumption.” At the same time, local farmers have become a base of support for union organizing by providing affordable, healthy food to working families. As these relationships grow, so can the opportunities for community education about shared struggles and visions.
To support these efforts at building a farmer-labor alliance, contact Laura Millay of the USA Program: 207-266-8064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura Millay is an organic farmer at King Hill Farm in Penobscot, Maine, and a coordinator of the Solidarity Harvest and Union Supported Agriculture projects. Daphne Loring is a recent graduate of the College of the Atlantic and coordinator of education for the Union Supported Agriculture program.
Federation of Southern Cooperatives’ Disaster Relief Program
By Cornelius Blanding
Hurricane Katrina presented rural communities in the South with an enormous challenge. The storm destroyed thousands of acres of cropland and demolished already inadequate rural infrastructure. Farmers saw their most reliable markets disappear as millions fled from urban centers. City dwellers escaped to rural communities where they found themselves displaced not only from their homes and communities, but also from their careers.
Within three days of the storm, staff from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund were on the ground, making assessments and distributing relief supplies. As relief efforts continued, the federation, with the help of its network and partnerships, coordinated the delivery of thousands of pounds of supplies. Now, with rebuilding underway in most areas, the federation continues to work with rural communities and black farmers to build a successful long-term recovery.
Founded in 1967, the federation is a nonprofit service and advocacy association working to save black-owned farmlands and organizing cooperatives to meet the needs of rural communities. Its 20,000 low-income, rural families are organized into more than 75 cooperatives, credit unions, and community-based economic development groups across the South.
The federation now runs a disaster assessment and response team and six community centers in the affected areas to provide on-going relief, computer-assisted literacy, and job-skills training, self-help housing aid, and, with the help of the federation’s partners, workshops in cooperative development. Staff members on the ground in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana are working to organize credit unions and cooperatives in various areas of agricultural production and marketing, forestry, housing, and business development.
Long term, the group aims to promote a lasting recovery by employing self-help cooperative principles—developing housing cooperatives, and worker-owned cooperatives for clean-up, rehab, and construction as well as providing ongoing financial and technical assistance to farmer cooperatives and credit unions.
The experiences of federation members over the past year strongly suggests that cooperatives are an effective tool to help people to rebuild their communities from the bottom up.
Cornelius Blanding is the coordinator of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives’ Disaster Relief & Recovery Program. The federation’s website is www.federation.coop.
Mobile Food Co-ops for New Orleans
By Andrew McLeod
New Orleans is a risky place to locate a grocery store today. The city’s population is half its pre-Katrina level, unevenly distributed, and highly unpredictable. Some neighborhoods may see widespread bulldozing and redevelopment, while others may simply be abandoned; skyrocketing insurance rates and repair costs are contributing to dramatic gentrification in less-damaged areas. Meanwhile, miles of the city’s compromised levee system are still at risk for future failure.
The New Orleans Food Co-op (www.nolafoodcoop.org) is considering a plan that may address New Orleans’s unique predicament. The co-op, a buying club founded in 2002, has seen its membership nearly double since Katrina. Members are now considering putting one or more mobile grocery stores on the streets. Admittedly a logistical challenge, this approach could prove especially appropriate.
First, mobile stores can serve multiple areas with population densities too low to warrant more than a few hours of business per day. Routes can also be adjusted as the population continues to shift. In addition, the stores would be protected from future flooding. In the event of an evacuation the stores could go to a predetermined location, where it could continue to sell to members and other evacuees.
There is an urgent need to get food outlets back into the city, but the risks have discouraged outside investors. So the burden of bringing food back to New Orleans will most likely be left to the residents. With the help of the New Orleans Co-op, there may be new access to food that will rejuvenate neighborhoods and ease the return to the hardest hit areas.
Andrew McLeod is a cooperative development specialist at the Northwest Cooperative Development Center in Olympia, Wash.
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©2006 GEO, P O Box 115, Riverdale MD 20738