Worker Coops And Unions – Together Again

March 13, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco

Rafiah Vitalis and Omar Freilla.

Rafiah Vitalis and Omar Freilla.

Bronx, NY – Innovative worker cooperatives throughout the five boroughs have gotten a significant boost this year from both Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and a progressive City Council. Now, advocates for hungry worker-owned businesses hope that organized labor starts to embrace them equally as well. 

The City of New York’s prior $1.2 budgetary commitment is currently helping nascent worker cooperatives around town to grow and prosper. And next week, Mayor de Blasio will officially green light a new effort to begin tracking the amount of business the city is actually doing with worker owned businesses.

Over the last several years, Green Worker Cooperatives in the Bronx, has helped about 19 different groups establish worker cooperatives in a variety of industries, ranging from heating and air-conditioning to baked goods. About eight of them are still in operation, or about to launch. Another three are still trying to make a go of it. 

The largest, Caracol, provides language translation services to “just about every social justice organization in New York City,” according to Omar Freilla, coordinator, Green Worker Cooperatives. Initially, the three women who founded Caracol were making $20 an hour. Two years later, the worker-owners now command $50 an hour fees, enjoy a staff of 10, and count international news organization Al-Jazeera as their biggest client. 

“There is an old guard of the labor movement that hears worker coops and are highly skeptical, and don't want to have anything to do with them,” Freilla says. “But there is a place for a union within a worker coop. Particularly, when you talk about larger worker coops.”

The venerable United Steelworkers appear extremely supportive of worker coops, having entered into partnerships with Spain's Mondragon cooperatives, as well as helping to launch new worker cooperatives here in the U.S. 

Despite a chill, relationships between labor unions and worker cooperatives actually have a rich history. 

“There was a time when labor unions fully embraced worker coops and worker coops were seen as a way for unions to really control the means of production in the classic sense,” Freilla says. “Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, you had coops that were actually fully backed by labor unions. Going back to the AFL, and later to the IWW. Now, in just the last few years, there have been efforts to come back to that and try to build it up again.”

The more than 2,000-member Cooperative Home Care Associates [CHCA] based in the Bronx, is the largest worker cooperative in the United States. Its affiliation with 1199 SEIU helps provide staffers with healthcare, as well as the clout necessary to help agitate for improved industry standards. 

At this point, Radix Media in Brooklyn is a lot smaller than CHCA, but the three-member worker cooperative found a welcoming spot with the Amalgamated Lithographers of America when it joined the union about a year ago. 

“I think the tide is definitely turning,” says Lantz Arroyo, Radix Media worker-owner. “Even five years ago, worker cooperatives were kind of seen as taking jobs away from union shops. They were seen as competitors in a lot of ways. But I think that’s changing now.”

Millions across the United States and Canada already belong to worker cooperatives. In Europe, the unionized components of worker cooperatives handle grievances and are known as “social councils.”

“When you get to a scale like Cooperative Home Care Associates that has 2,000-plus workers, and larger coops in Europe, there is a recognition that the larger you get, the more bureaucracy can settle in, and so, there's still a need for unionization,” Freilla says. 

Rafiah Vitalis, one half of the newly-launched Diaspora Destinations, calls the training she and her business partner Natasha Coombs received at Green Worker Cooperatives, “solidarity in action.”

“The cooperative model allows you to dream big and then have that dream become a reality,” Vitalis says. 

The deadline to apply for Green Worker Cooperative's next five-month coop academy is coming up in June.

March 12, 2015

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