Green Worker Cooperatives supports co-operative startups in the South Bronx.
By Aric Sleeper
Mention a worker co-op or co-op-owned business in casual conversation, and most people will scratch their heads and need clarification on the concept, despite a 36% increase in the number of co-ops operating in the United States. United between 2013. and 2019. In addition to their recent growth, employee-owned and operated businesses, or worker cooperatives, have a long history in the United States and beyond.
“The idea of worker cooperatives has been around for a long time in the United States and in New York. For example, in the Bronx there is one of the largest worker co-operatives in the country called Cooperative Home Care Associates, with about 2,000 members, and there are many [worker cooperatives] international which have a long history, such as the Mondragon [Corporation] in Spain,” says Danielle LeBlanc, acting director and cooperative developer at Green Worker Cooperatives.
Green Worker Cooperatives is an environmentally-focused co-operative business incubator founded in the South Bronx by social entrepreneur Omar Freilla during the economic downturn of 2008. Co-operative developers like LeBlanc and his colleagues at Green Worker Cooperatives host a series of five-month workshops called the Co-op Learning Institute. They also provide one-on-one coaching and pro bono legal assistance to fledgling cooperative enterprises through their partner organization TakeRoot Justice and provide access to non-extractive finance through another partner organization, The Working World.
“There’s a strong need for this kind of work in New York and out of town,” LeBlanc says. “Before the pandemic, we were doing the workshops in person and were constrained by the space we had. We would do two [workshops] per year and had a maximum of around 20-30 people that would fit in the space. After switching to virtual workshops [during the pandemic]we had over 100 people sign up and about 75 people commit to the whole series.
The series of workshops begins with the global history of the co-operative model, which is based on the seven principles of operating a co-operative enterprise which were established in England by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844. The series then examines the advantages that cooperative enterprises have over other business models.
“This model can work for businesses of all sizes and even for existing businesses where, for example, the owner wants to retire and sell [the] business to the employees, who can then turn it into a co-op,” says LeBlanc. “The positive thing about a co-op is that everyone owns and makes decisions, which is important especially now that [workplace] health and safety issues are so important. Think about the [incident in the] candle factory [in Kentucky in December 2021] where workers were afraid to leave during a tornado [as they would have been fired]. Because workers are owners [in a cooperative]they tend to strike a balance between taking care of each other and making a profit.
However, there are real challenges inherent in the cooperative business model, according to LeBlanc. By definition, owners of a co-operative business need to work together to get things done, and not everyone finds it natural to work well in a group.
“In life, we’re not always used to working together to make collective decisions,” says LeBlanc. “We don’t have many opportunities in life to make collective decisions, but that’s what co-operative enterprise is. You really have to think and learn how to manage collective decision-making, which is why it’s one of the first topics we talk about in the… [Co-op Learning Institute]. You have to know yourself, and that can sometimes be a challenge.
Green Worker Cooperatives has graduated a number of entrepreneurs from its institute over the years and has helped found many co-operative enterprises, such as White Pine Community Farm, Revolutionary Seeds of Harlem, WE ARE EARTH and Solar Uptown Now Services.
“Solar Uptown Now Services was formed by a number of people who had completed solar installation training [conducted] through a workforce development program, but couldn’t find a job after completing their training, so they decided to start their own solar installation business,” says LeBlanc. “They went through our [Co-op Learning Institute] program and started their own cooperative. Now they have a number of projects and are working to get their general contractor license so they can bid on their own.
Green Worker Cooperatives received a grant from the New York Community Trust, which is a community foundation for the city, to work in collaboration with three doula cooperatives in New York that are graduates of the Co-op Learning Institute such as the Uptown Village Cooperative. With the funds, the doula cooperatives established partnerships with local hospitals and a mentoring and training program for future doulas. Through these doula cooperatives, more than 13,000 services have been provided to New York families.
“The funds allowed them [the doula cooperatives] to stay viable and move their services online during the pandemic. It also helped them grow the network of doulas in the city, and it was a big success,” says LeBlanc.
Guiding entrepreneurs through the process of creating and growing a cooperative business into a viable business is the most rewarding aspect of LeBlanc’s work, as the unique businesses that emerge from the Institute of Cooperative Learning would never have may never have existed without the help of Green Worker Cooperatives.
“What’s the chance that some economic developer or someone from up high will come and try to start a co-op business in Brooklyn that turns shipping containers into community farms, or starts a compost co-op or a doula co-op?” The people we help are so invested in their own communities, and just hearing them talk about their business is also a joy.
Going forward, LeBlanc and his colleagues at Green Worker Cooperatives are looking to expand their resources. After seeing a surge in interest in their online workshops, they want to hire additional cost-effective developers so they can offer more workshops and increase their reach.
“Right now we have about 75 people attending a Zoom meeting, and it would be great if we had the resources to offer classes more nights in the week or at different times of the year,” says LeBlanc. “Finding a way to spread the word to bring more resources to cooperatives [business] building here in the city is my dream and my goal.
This article was produced by Local economy of peacea project of the Independent Media Institute.
Aric Sleeper is a freelance journalist whose work, which covers topics such as labor, drug reform, diet and more, has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other local California Central Coast publications. In addition to his role as a community journalist, he has served as a government analyst and bookseller.