By Emily Canosa
Work. The daily grind. It’s not too complicated, huh? Find an employer. Follow their orders. Help them make money. Get paid. That’s how it’s supposed to go, right? That might be the traditional view of work, but its far from the only one. Take activist Tawana Petty, for example. She thinks the whole concept needs a major overhaul.
“It’s time to change the way we think,” says Petty. She was the local organizer for Detroit 2012, one of a number of conferences that have grown out of the Boggs Center in Detroit bringing together participants in reimagining work and the ways we sustain ourselves. In the city the unemployment rate is nearly twice the national average, and more than a third of residents are at or below poverty level. For Petty, we are overdue for change: “We have to get away from that system of if you don’t have a lot of money, then you just don’t have a life.”
Petty is not alone in her rejection of common approaches to labor and economy in our society. Bena Burda, owner of the Ypsilanti-based fair trade clothing company Maggie’s Organics, says that she has seen the effects of low wage, repetitive jobs on workers, resulting in worker disenfranchisement and dips in product quality and timeliness. Her answer to this problem has been that of the worker co-op: a worker owned and democratically controlled business. Burda has played a part in starting two worker co-op sewing factories; one in Nicaragua, and one in North Carolina. As a Michigan company, Burda hopes to one day be able to satisfy some of her manufacturing needs with a worker-owned sewing operation here in Detroit.
In an effort to turn this interest into an actual enterprise, Maggie’s Organics has joined with the nonprofit Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI) in the Springwells neighborhood of Detroit, who have identified advanced sewing skills as a resource their community already has. Along with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the Center for Empowerment and Economic Development (CEED), the Center for Community Based Enterprise (C2BE), Michigan fashion designers and potential worker-owners, a working group has formed under the name Sew Detroit to determine best practices and next steps for a sewing co-op in Southwest Detroit.
“I believe in business structures that allow workers to own their businesses and control them democratically,” says co-op developer and educator Adam Konner. Konner, who represents C2BE in the Sew Detroit working group, explains that co-ops benefit local communities by sharing profits among workers—workers who use those resources locally.
“Worker co-ops are by definition locally-owned businesses. All profits go to the workers, benefiting their families and their community. Workers aren’t going to decide to lay themselves off and send their factory overseas,” Konner says.
The worker co-op structure also guarantees workers a voice in determining how the business is run. This an important difference from the top-down business models prevalent in our society, which have tendencies to maximize profit at the cost of work conditions. In a co-op model, Burda says in a Sew Detroit worker-owner recruitment video, not only do workers decide their own business practices, but “every worker has a vested interest in every product made.”
The worker co-op model has already met with success in Detroit. Joey Landis of the Rock Dove Couriers bicycle service says they chose the worker co-op model because they “wanted each person in a part of the business to have equal responsibility and equal benefits.” Landis recently started another worker co-op, the curbside bicycle-powered recycling service Detroit Greencycle, with business partner Shayne O’Keefe. As his second worker-owned business venture, Landis assures us, “starting a worker co-op is easier than you think.”
Still, there are significant differences between forming a business based in democratic decision making among a group of two or three people, and starting one on a larger scale. Minsu Longiaru, executive director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan (ROC-MI), has kept this in mind while working on a team to bring a version of the successful worker-owned restaurant COLORS from New York City to Detroit. While COLORS New York started as a worker co-op and evolved into a training program, Longiaru says they aim to develop this process in reverse in Detroit—allowing the businesses to grow out of a strong skill base. Currently, COLORS Detroit functions as a hospitality and food service training program of ROC-MI, and has plans to open the COLORS Co-op Academy in Spring of next year.
The Co-op Academy would serve as an incubator for worker-owned good food businesses, while being based in and strengthening collaboration among local social and food justice movements in Detroit. The creation of worker co-ops is not just about job production or economic growth–it’s about justice.
“One of the things through our work at ROC that we really want to lift up are the really strong and important connections between the food justice movements and movements for racial and economic justice in this country,” says Longiaru.
She identifies U.S. society as being at a juncture where people are becoming aware of where their food comes from and whether it is grown conventionally or organically. But for Longiaru, that’s only half the picture. The food system is also riddled with inequality.
“Workers are disproportionately of color, and it’s one of the lowest paying industries in the country,” she says. “At the end of the day we just have to believe that if people can get to a place where they care about how a tomato is treated, then people really will get to a place where they can care about how the human being who grew, prepared, and served that tomato was treated.”
Like Longiaru, Konner feels that starting worker co-ops provides not just economic stimulus, but viable economic alternatives; for embedded within them are concepts of equity, community and participation.
“It’s important because we believe in it,” says Konner. “We believe in creating a more democratic economy.” This is why C2BE exists to assist in starting and strengthening worker co-op and community-based businesses in Detroit.
Petty acknowledges the difficulties of change, and that the current system is not going to go away overnight. She points to Detroit-based organizations that already employ alternatives, such as Back Alley Bikes and the Hub with their earn-a-bike program and collective decision-making processes. The worker-owners of Singing Tree Garden, a small-scale sustainable farm near 6 Mile and John R, are also exploring effective democratic decision-making and barter exchange.
“It’s not enough,” says Petty, “to pat ourselves on the back for small triumphs within our current economic system. “It’s imperative that we develop new ideas and worker co-ops and reimagine the way we think about our livelihoods, ‘cause the jobs aren’t coming back.” And if they continued to organize society around profit, exploitation, and inequity, it’s not clear that we would want them.
If you’re interested in starting your own worker co-op, contact the Center for Community Based Enterprise for resources through their website at c2be.org. Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio also offers a free worker cooperative toolkit downloadable from their website at evergreencooperatives.com/evergreen-toolkit.