As she was leaving a supermarket in southwest Detroit in 2015, Maria Perez spotted a note on a bulletin board near the exit, saying a church not far from where she lived was training people for jobs. Perez had been looking for work and had a feeling this might lead to something.
When she arrived at Grace in Action, an old funeral home-turned-church in the heart of Detroit’s Mexican community, she realized that this wasn’t job training, but a meeting about worker-owned cooperatives. She had no idea what a cooperative was, but decided to stay anyway.
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She learned that worker co-ops are businesses owned by workers that operate democratically. Each member gets a voice in how things are managed and what services or goods to provide. Opposite of a corporate business model, members of worker-owned cooperatives share the responsibility of generating new business, and all share equally in profits.
And then Perez met Carolina Torres-Merlo, a recent immigrant from Venezuela, at the meeting. The two hit it off and decided they would work together. They attended weekly training sessions in 2017, and after more than a year of brainstorming ideas and regular meetings on how to build a co-op, they launched Cleaning in Action, a green cleaning company.
Five years after joining forces, Perez and Torres-Merlo have more work than they can handle. They work 25 to 35 hours a week, have four office cleaning contracts, and get regular calls to clean houses, organize basements, and clean out garages.
“Shifting domestic labor to a cooperative model is potentially great, especially for workers from immigrant backgrounds who have historically been taken advantage of by the cleaning industry,” said Suzanne Bergeron, professor of economics and gender studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
“Domestic labor is typically low-paid and insecure, despite the fact that it is the essential work that keeps the economy going.”
As a co-op owner, Torres-Merlo makes her own schedule, allowing her time to take her son to and from school and drive him to his many activities, something she could not do when she worked at a manufacturing plant.
The two are proud of their success and wish others would join the worker-owned movement, but recognize that it’s no small task to teach the concept of a co-op to a community of many immigrants already leery of being exploited.
“People in the neighborhood don’t know what worker cooperatives are,” said Idalis Longoria, director of cooperative development for Grace in Action. “Sometimes they think it’s a pyramid scheme.”
Longoria manages six existing co-ops and is regularly recruiting to train more.
She starts by reaching out to people within the Grace in Action network to gauge their interest. Then she sets up one-on-one meetings to further explain how a co-op works, describing the benefits such as skill training, voting power, and good wages.
Longoria’s job is to help create 200 worker-owned co-ops by 2030.
According to the Democracy at Work Institute, a national federation of worker co-operatives, there are 465 verified worker co-ops in the United States. They employ roughly 7,000 people and generate more than $550 million in annual revenue.
Worker-owned co-ops can be traced back to the early labor movement, when workers, especially artisans and craftsmen, formed cooperatives after a strike.
“Cooperatives have an important place in creating a future of work characterized by higher wages, increased equity, better working conditions, economic security, and community development,” said Bergeron, the U-M Dearborn professor.
Bergeron thinks, teaches, and writes about women and solidarity economy initiatives, including cooperatives. “There are a lot more formations of co-ops after a financial crisis, which usually grows out of the community,” she adds.
At Grace in Action, the co-op movement started roughly 20 years ago when Mexican Industries, a Southwest Detroit-based auto parts maker, abruptly closed after workers voted to form a union. Nine hundred mostly Latino workers were laid off, and the economic impact on the community was immediate.Read the Full Story
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