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The Ecosystem Behind Up & Go and the Millions NY City Council Spends on Worker Co-op Development

By Duncan Wallace

The Long Read

  • How did a small faith-based organisation address poverty by creating hundreds of worker-owners?
  • How did a network of New York-based organisations win millions of dollars each year for worker co-op development from New York City Council?
  • Where does the platform co-operative Up & Go fit in to all this?

In the last blog in this series I ended with a short discussion of the platform co-operative, Up & Go, which, given it embodies the principles that make platform co-operativism so important, has rightly received substantial attention.

During my time in New York I was fortunate enough to meet with Maru Bautista, the Director of the Cooperative Development Program at the Centre for Family Life (CFL), the organisation that managed the process of bringing about Up & Go (she presented on the platform at the platform cooperativism conference (at 27.30)). I also met with a number of the people and organisations involved in the wider context of the worker co-operative movement in New York which ultimately made Up & Go possible.

This blog will tell that wider story including how New York City Council came to be spending millions of dollars each year on worker co-op development.

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Bautista gave her presentation at the conference entirely in Spanish, reflecting the fact that the community CFL serves is substantially an immigrant population with large numbers from Puerto Rico and Central and South America. At the bagel shop around the corner from CFL, where I went to grab a coffee, the workers switched easily between English and Spanish when conversing with customers.

Founded in 1978, CFL had been running a traditional employment centre (together with a wide range of other social services), helping people prepare resumes and go on job interviews. In the early-to-mid 2000s, staff noticed that it was getting harder and harder for people with language barriers or undocumented status to find work.

At a conference around that time, a staff member heard about Prospera, an organisation in California which partners with low-income Latina immigrants to build worker co-ops. CFL staff decided to present the worker co-op model to participants of a CFL English class, mostly women. They expressed interest in the idea – they already knew about, or had participated in, co-operatives in their home-countries and were attuned to the idea of cooperative work.

CFL decided to develop a 10-week curriculum to prepare the participants for starting a business, which included classes on basic business skills and democratic governance. They also found an important ally – the Urban Justice Centre – whose lawyers helped them draft and finalise bylaws and incorporate the business as a co-op once they were ready.

The result of this initial foray into worker co-operative development was Si Se Puede! (“We Can Do It!”), a worker co-op whose members provide cleaning services. The co-op delivered – members saw their income jump from $7 an hour to $20-$25. Si Se Puede! currently has more than 100 workers and annual revenue in the millions of dollars.

Clearly CFL were onto something. Development of Si Se Puede! was a volunteer project by CFL staff, but its success gave them something to show funders who, as a result, began to finance the program.

CFL became a “co-op incubator”. It follows an intensive model of incubation which can last for years and means that CFL focuses on creating only one or two co-ops per year. It continues high support-levels following the creation of a worker co-op, with staff attending meetings, assisting with back office services, providing training as well as general consultations as issues arise. The main business expenses that the co-op may have, such as office space, office manager salary, and printing are covered through CFL until the co-op has become financially self-sufficient. One of the most important aspects of CFL’s development support is teaching how to conduct meetings, communicate effectively, and build a professional business environment that constantly considers client satisfaction and quality service.

Around 18 co-ops have been created in this way since the program began in 2006.

Meeting with Maru Bautista (third from left) and worker co-op members at CFL in Brooklyn (I’m fourth from right)

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The early 2000s also saw the creation of another worker co-op development organisation at the other end of town, in the Bronx. Omar Freilla, its founder, had been working as a community developer in the area, and was involved in local resistance to the imposition of various waste dumps on local properties.

One of the justifications put forward for the waste dumps was that they would bring jobs. Freilla, involved with debunking this justification, became interested in the idea of alternative ways of creating work for residents. Instead of just working to block destructive forces, he decided to turn towards positive, affirmative action.

In 2003 he founded Green Worker Cooperatives, “a response to high unemployment and decades of environmental racism”. A worker co-op development service, the organisation currently operates out of a former money-printing factory – when I met him he told me he likes to think that the building, through Green Worker, continues to create money for people. His program differs from the more intensive CFL model in that it runs courses that several prospective worker co-ops enrol in at the same time, and doesn’t provide subsequent back office services. Its advantage is that it has the potential to increase the number of worker co-ops much more rapidly.

In 2009, Freilla, together with worker-owners, academics, attorneys and other co-op advocates, met to attend CFL’s Annual Fair Work Symposium. The conference birthed the NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives, or “Nick Nock”. Since its inception, the Network has met in-person monthly to develop their mission statement, provide resources to one another, and, by offering its “Co-op Chat”, create a supportive space for people interested in learning about co-operatives, as well as those already immersed.

Meeting with “Nick Nock” in Brooklyn (I’m far left)

This provided a pre-existing network for when the New York-based Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), a 90-year-old anti-poverty association made up of 200 religious groups and community organizations, came on the scene.

In the aftermath of the 2008 GFC, the FPWA was seeking new solutions to the problem of poverty. It found, as CFL had, that it was having difficulty placing trainees from its workplace development department into jobs. Then it got wind of the CFL’s work. The FPWA researched worker co-ops extensively and wrote a report, “Worker Cooperatives for New York City: A Vision for Addressing Income Inequality”. It also brought together the Coalition for Worker Cooperatives for New York City, a grassroots campaign to lobby the city to support worker co-operative development as a job creation and wealth-building vehicle.

The FPWA then organised a policy conference and invited government officials. City Council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who had just been appointed chair of the Community Development Committee, attended and was convinced that the proposal had merit. She in turn organised a hearing before the City Council which fifty worker co-operative owners, advocates, technical support organisations and city officials attended.

Later that year, in the days following the inaugural Nick Nock annual worker cooperative conference, the City Council voted to allocate $1.2 million to worker co-op development.

The money went towards funding 11 worker co-op supports organisations, including:

The City has since upped its funding, with $2.2 million allocated in 2017. The money has invigorated the worker co-op ecosystem in New York. Before 2014, there were fewer than 25 worker co-ops in the city; now there are perhaps more than 90, Osman Ahmed, Senior Policy Officer with the FPWA, told me. New York City Council reports that 36 were created in 2017 alone. Further, the organisations involved in the program have not only more security for their operations but have been able to expand them. Nick Nock, for instance, was an all-volunteer organisation until the City funding allowed them to hire full-time staff.

Mural at the Green Worker Cooperatives office in the Bronx

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It was in this context that the Robin Hood Foundation, an organization dedicated to fighting poverty in New York City, received a grant to develop a task-based work platform. They got in touch with CFL, and the platform which would ultimately become Up &Go was put in motion.

As stated above, CFL has an intensive approach to co-op incubation which includes extensive back-office services. Marketing has been one obstacle for the worker co-ops gaining independence from CFL – answering phones and taking orders can be difficult where there is a language barrier, and maintaining databases and printing fliers require know-how and money. CFL has estimated that $1,000 was being spent on fliers just to secure a single repeat customer. Further, apps like Handy and TaskRabbit had advantages that the co-ops did not: an online presence, credit card payments and easy scheduling tools.

Robin Hood funded a team from Cornell University to develop, in close collaboration with CFL and worker-co-op members in the cleaning services industry, a platform designed to be highly attentive to the worker-owners’ needs. An important part of the process was constantly reflecting on the ownership structure of the technology. This all meant the platform took three years to develop.

Launched in May 2017, Up & Go has the following features:

  • It is a platform co-op, owned by three worker co-ops
  • It retains the worker co-ops’ original pricing for their services
  • 5% of worker co-op profits from the platform go towards running it
  • The three co-ops that own the platform meet monthly, creating, says a general manager of one of the co-ops, a “real sense of community and purpose”.
  • There is no individual reputation system for workers

Further, consistent with the principle of cooperation between co-operatives, CoLab Cooperative, a worker-owned digital agency, did the buildout.

Whatever the success of Up & Go, the manner of its development is something to take careful note of.

It was not a top-down initiative; as stated by Trebor Scholz, the key challenge for the platform was more social than technical; the app is complimentary to a pre-existing community; its function is to facilitate the growth of an important ecosystem.

These are important design principles and should be followed wherever possible.

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The above story took place over a fifteen-year period beginning with people and groups starting initiatives independently of one another. There was a focus on projects that required low initial capital outlays, working with people whose culture suited them to cooperation. Further, this allowed the build-up of an evidence base which acted as a launch pad.

Those involved in the initiatives soon got together through conferences and meetings and began to create a coalition, sharing resources and information.

The coalition itself became a resource for organisations such as the FPWA to draw upon when it advocated to government for funding. The funding, in turn, has provided the coalition with an anchor institution which has allowed them to turn themselves into an ecosystem.

The importance of a variety of actors working together cannot be overemphasised. It should be remembered that NY-based Co-operative Homecare Associates, the largest worker co-op in the US with more than 2,000 staff and in operation since 1985, didn’t in itself lead to more co-ops.

The worker co-op ecosystem in New York remains fragile, but its potential is exciting. As it continues to be added to with complimentary organisations, such as Up & Go, who knows where it can lead.

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