I was an organizer with the Boston Workers Alliance and the executive director through my 20s. We were predominantly for people who are under- and unemployed, the thinking being that the conventional labor sector was organizing people with jobs. But we had a whole sector of people who had trouble just getting into work.
So I tried to build a kind of political base around that. Most of our members ended up being people who had criminal records and that barrier to employment. A lot of our work was around policy. We helped pass the Ban the Box policy in Massachusetts, which was precedent setting at the time.
But then coming out of that victory, a lot of our members were saying we still can’t get jobs, or the jobs that we can get are terrible. And they treat us poorly. So what else can we do?
And that’s where we started getting into worker co-op development. We had interesting relationships with the recuperated factories movement in Argentina. They had come up to the U.S. and we got to host them. Which meant our members got exposed to the idea of worker ownership.
Also our co-founder, Chuck Turner, who was a city councilor at the time, and one of my mentors, was a longtime Boston-based community organizer. At one point some years ago he worked at the ICA Group, as their education director, so he always had this perspective.
So a lot of inspiration was seeded by Chuck, and the workers in Argentina. And we ended up trying a few different projects. The first one was a vegetable oil collection company, retrieving veggie oil from restaurants and turning it into biodiesel.
That company ended up failing miserably, partly because it was severely undercapitalized. There was the incident with the old truck we found on Craigslist which had an oil spill in a residential neighborhood, with vegetable oil flowing down one of the streets and fire trucks coming out. Which is just to say we learned a lot about the pitfalls of trying to do business without the proper support or planning.
Then, as we tried being a growing cooperative, we got a bunch of community gardening space, with a bunch of our members growing food and distributing it for free to other members. And then, partnering with MassCOSH, an immigrant worker center, and Boston Center for Community Ownership, we ended up starting CERO Co-op, which is a composting business that is still running today.
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