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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

From Rangi-Changi to Wabi Sabi: Supporting the Development of a Worker Cooperative in an Urban Immigrant Community

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January 22, 2009
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By the Center for Family Life

The Challenge

In urban centers across the US there are growing numbers of men and women struggling to enter into or sustain their engagement in the competitive, regulated labor market. These men and women face multiple challenges including limited literacy and numeracy skills, limited English-language fluency, legal documentation issues, acculturation issues and a host of other social, emotional and economic challenges. They have not found a secure place in the US market economy. While their work yields a multitude of desirable products that have value in the marketplace, these workers have occupied a kind of nether world of "under the table" employment, day labor, temporary labor or episodic employment. Work, in this nether world, is a cash-based, largely unregulated, invisible activity that does not ultimately serve as a foundation for long-term or even short-term economic stability.

The organization of work in this marginal economy could be well described using the Nepali phrase "rangi changi" which roughly translates as something that has great energy, but is complex and chaotic. This rangi changi work environment is a bustling, busy and demanding place, often fraught with risks for those who enter it. In it tremendous outpourings of human effort yield poor compensation for workers, who churn through it anonymously and without ownership or control of their roles or the products of their labor. Poorly paid, inadequately protected workers require the support of family, neighbors and community to gather sufficient resources to meet their own and their families' basic human needs. The intersecting and interrelated worlds of the competitive market economy, the marginalized "rangi change" day labor economy, and the household economy have been conceptualized as being essential elements in the "solidarity economy."

Even a superficial analysis of the complexity of the "solidarity economy" raises a critical question for human services providers: can community based service agencies (NGOs) play a meaningful role in supporting marginalized workers to achieve economic stability? NGOs have long played a part in helping to support families at the level of the "household economy," providing day care, after school care, recreation and other services that enable parents to work while children are safe and cared for. Further, NGOs have traditionally provided many "human services" including family counseling and case management support for families in crisis. Our question coming into this project was: is there a place for our agency, the Center for Family Life a human services NGO, to partner with workers and to support them to negotiate more advantageously in their work lives and to derive greater reward from the hours that they commit to work?

Our Local Experience

Sunset Park, in Brooklyn, New York, where our agency is located, is a community of approximately 120,000 people. According to the 2000 census, 49% of local residents are foreign-born, but the actual number is likely much higher. Many immigrants live and work in the margins, making it difficult to pinpoint an exact number of community members who live here. Mexican and Chinese immigrants make up the largest and most visible immigrant groups in the neighborhood. Our agency, the Center for Family Life, is one of the oldest social services providers in the community, and has perhaps the broadest scope of services, touching one in ten families in the neighborhood.

For nearly two decades, the Center has offered traditional job readiness and placement supports to residents in our neighborhood. As community demographics have shifted and the neighborhood has become a community of new immigrants, traditional models of adult employment services appeared to have less relevance for our program participants. More and more frequently we have encountered clients who could benefit from the Employment Program's training components and soft-skills building (ESOL, resume-writing, etc.,) but were still unemployable despite their newfound skills.

We began to look broadly at alternative strategies to connect people to work, strategies that would be accessible and sustaining to all of the individuals that we serve. Further, we took what was for us a radical shift in how we approached the challenge at hand. We made the decision to take a serious and respectful look at how people in our community were in fact working, as many were working at one or multiple jobs for long hours everyday, often seven days a week. Work was happening all around us in the rangi changi parallel world of poorly paying, unregulated, invisible labor, and we committed ourselves to learning more about its rules of engagement and its outcomes.

We asked ourselves, once we understood more about this rangi changi world of work, could we, in partnership with those working in it, figure out how to leverage its energy and creativity and minimize some of its risks. Could we find ways to articulate structure in and around it and ultimately place it under the control and direction of the workers? In a concept borrowed from the Japanese, could we move from rangi changi to "wabi sabi"- a traditional Japanese aesthetic sensibility based on the art of finding beauty in imperfection "especially the modest, the rustic and imperfect in the physical world." We set out to find if we could capture some desirable territory within the regulated competitive labor market work world, occupy it and establish our own order and aesthetics, and actualize the inherent wabi sabi within it.

The Strategy

The strategy that we ultimately adopted was to promote the incubation and creation of a cooperative business. This strategy has as its essential feature a commitment to partnership with neighborhood workers in all phases of project planning, implementation and assessment. Further it is designed to accomplish two key goals, the first is to bring to the surface what is working well and what has successfully served as a platform for the energy, creativity and industry that yield highly desirable work products- the "wabi sabi" in the current "rangi changi" work environment. The second goal is to identify access points into "markets" for work and its products, and to develop strategies for addressing the complexity of pay for work that takes place outside of a regulatory environment- a delicate matter. Our strategy developed over time, involved a great deal of learning by trial and error and above all called for an exquisite sensitivity to where we were finding traction and gaining ground in our process, and where we were loosing our way. This vigilance about process and attunement to places where energy is vital and where it is stagnant will be perhaps the most elusive element in any replication of this strategy. This related to more of an aesthetic sensibility than a teachable skill. The cultivation of this vigilance and attunement, however, is critical to the success of the project.

The development of the strategy appeared to have several clear stages which included 1- initial outreach to neighborhood workers to learn about their work experiences, 2-gaining consensus to begin a cooperative work group, 3- identifying a governance structure and "rules of engagement" or bylaws, 4- organizing the curriculum for the planning and roll-out phases of the cooperative, 5- marketing and data gathering around outcomes, and 6- promoting ongoing skill development related to the procedures for producing a marketable product, and to the skills of entrepreneurship. These phases overlapped throughout the development of the strategy and learning from each phase contributed in an iterative fashion to the understanding and learning in each successive phase.

Who Benefits

The benefits of a successful launch of a worker's cooperative are felt at a number of levels. First there are the worker's themselves who gain at two levels that promote their sustained economic stability. Workers gain income, which is clearly a boon, and at a secondary level they gain an enriched social network which for many is as critical as money in the bank. In the informal family economies of the neighborhood workers in our community, savings, investments and other tools of wealth building are largely absent. The presence of other adult wage earners who can assume helper roles- either through, for example, lending cash, providing child care or sharing a meal when a family is in crisis, and the presence of a social service agency that can provide wrap around supports and crisis intervention, are both highly stabilizing. Anecdotally, we have seen a decrease in depression among several of the women in the Coop and an increase in positive goal-setting and self-care.

Benefits are also felt by the partnering agency as the cooperative can generate high rates of job placement with high hourly wages. Further, if the NGO has a mission to promote positive outcomes for individual adults, families or children, the ability to establish meaningful, long term partnerships with neighborhood families around jobs and work can deepen the NGO's impact in the communities that they serve. "Stories from the field" related to worker successes and strengths can support an advocacy agenda.

Not the least of the potential benefits to the partnering agency is the repair of feelings of isolation and lack of recognition that many marginalized workers express toward traditional NGO employment services, as these services have largely failed to help them achieve economic stability. A meaningful moment in the life of this project was when participants in one of our cooperative businesses shared with us that before the cooperative, they had been deeply hurt when they saw other neighborhood residents use our services and find jobs, while they seemed to be beyond help. Repairing these relationships was important to our agency as we aspire to serve all neighborhood residents with equal care and attention.

Benefits are also clearly felt by those who purchase products from the worker cooperative members. Work products of high quality are inherently rewarding to those who purchase them, but clients are further gratified when they purchase products from workers who they know to be decently paid, supported to develop English language skills, and provided with adult basic education, counseling or other supportive services. An indirect effect of the presence of a worker's cooperative is to heighten awareness of the circumstances of marginalized laborers who provide similar products, but who work in dangerous or uncontrolled environments. This heightened awareness from potentially influential, dominant culture consumers can be leveraged into support for advocacy to address the fundamental imbalances present in the regulated marketplace.


Our approach to assessing the success of the model has evolved over the life of the project. As our need for information about the impact of our project and our interest in quantifying this impact has grown, we have developed a few different approaches to assessing outcomes. First among these approaches was a simple accounting of all of the jobs that our members obtained, the hours that they worked and the pay that they received for their work. This simple accounting has allowed us to calculate an average hourly wage, and it has also allowed us to calculate total earnings by the group and to trend these earnings over time. The first cooperative business officially launched in November 2006 (after an 11 week planning/training process) and during the initial months business was slow (Total earning among the 15 members was approximately $5,000). Since April 2007, after some positive publicity and increased referrals, the coop is now earning approximately $20,000 per month.

A second approach has been to measure client satisfaction with each member's work. This takes the form of a client satisfaction survey that inquires about satisfaction with questions about quality of work, communication, overall satisfaction, etc., and which can produce a "score" that can be trended over time for each individual or can be aggregated for the entire group and trended over time for the cooperative as a whole. The ability to obtain quantitative data on satisfaction is useful for targeting training needs both for individuals and for the business as a whole, and it is also useful in marketing. A third approach has been to poll members themselves about their experiences in the cooperative business. This is, at present, an informal process and would be strengthened through a more rigorous approach to analyzing the members' narrative responses using a qualitative data analysis approach.


At this time Center for Family Life in Sunset Park has incubated three worker-owner cooperative businesses: the We Can Do It! Women's Cleaning Cooperative or Si Se Puede!, the We Can Fix it! Cooperative, a handyperson/light construction coop made up of 8 men and 4 women, and lastly a child care coop called Beyond Care Child Care Cooperative that consists of 25 women worker-owners. The three cooperatives are run by immigrants from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, South America and South East Asia. The main focus of all the coops is to develop internal leadership, provide educational/training opportunities for its members, to create living wage jobs that will be done in a safe and healthy environment, and to engage in a democratic process and provide support to one another.


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