2014-04-18

Co.Exist

A Worker Cooperative That Proves Alternative Economic Systems Aren't Only For The Privileged

You hear worker co-op, you think crunchy granola types. But the Wellspring Collaborative is pioneering a program that provides employment for people who need jobs the most.

No one really likes having a boss. So why not be your own boss? And no, this is not yet another post about the benefits of freelancing.

Worker cooperatives are a unique kind of business that are democratically owned and governed by the people doing the labor. Without any bosses on the job, each employee acts as both worker and owner. Now one group, the Wellspring Collaborative, is looking to jumpstart the growth of worker cooperatives in an unlikely place: inner-city Springfield, Massachusetts.

“We have a commitment to hiring from Springfield and from communities that are pretty marginalized in terms poverty and unemployment,” Emily Kawano, co-director of Wellspring Collaborative, tells Co.Exist. “We're very conscious about not wanting alternative economics to become ghettoized in homogenous, white, affluent communities.” The collaborative acts as an umbrella organization that helps launch new cooperatives in the city.

Their first co-op, the Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative, opened last week. Starting an upholstery shop may seem like a strange choice, but there is a good reason. The nearby Hampden County Jail has a strong vocational training program including a specialization in upholstery. So the new business provides an opportunity to people who have the hardest time finding work.

Two of Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative's first three employees come from the jail training program. The third was long-term unemployed until finding work at the cooperative.

The cooperative's workers are earning $11 per hour, $3 above Massachusetts minimum wage. The Massachusetts minimum wage is set to increase to $11 per hour in mid-2016, but the co-op has opted to offer a higher wage from the get-go.

There are also some good vibes from doing handiwork in the building where the cooperative is based. Colloquially referred to as The Monkey Wrench Building, 143 Main Street in Springfield has its claim to fame as the birthplace of the monkey wrench.

The biggest goal of the project for the people behind Wellspring is to diversify the alternative economics landscape. Kawano, former director of the Center for Popular Economics and coordinator of the Solidarity Economy Network, knows first-hand that “worker co-ops are mostly in relatively affluent communities and founded by mostly white, relatively well-educated folks from middle-class backgrounds.”

The region where Springfield lies is incredibly economically stratified. In Hampshire County to the north are the college towns of Amherst and Northampton, separated from Springfield and Holyoke by the Holyoke Range.

“We call the Holyoke Range the 'tofu curtain,'” says Kawano. “We're extremely co-op rich in the upper valley, but when you go south there are virtually no co-ops.”

Although worker cooperatives often take root in more privileged areas, there is a growing trend of interest in worker co-ops in disadvantaged communities. New York City councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo recently chaired a hearing on whether worker co-ops can be a solution to poverty. Arroyo represents the South Bronx, where unemployment is 14% and the poverty rate is 39%.

According to Arroyo, support for encouraging worker cooperatives was “unanimous” throughout the hearing. Now Wellspring is part of this emerging concept that worker cooperatives are economic solutions for marginalized communities rather than just boutique enterprises for the advantaged.

Even though the upholstery co-op has only recently opened, Wellspring is already looking forward to future ventures. “The next project in the pipeline is a hydroponic greenhouse. There's a lot of interest in food in the area. The local hospital, Baystate, is really enthusiastic about the prospect of local food from us,” says Kawano.

Wellspring's plan is to use major local spenders such as Baystate Health and the nearby colleges as “anchor institutions” that could supply the bulk of business for the new cooperatives as they start out. Doing so helps establish the new businesses while also keeping more money in the area.

“If you want to believe in cooperatives as a form of ownership and as something that's beyond a capitalist approach--that's more equitable and stable--it has to be something that's available to not only affluent, well-educated folks. It has to work for everybody.”

[Photos by Melita Podesta]

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  • Erbin L. Crowell

    For over 170 years, co-ops have empowered working people to have more control over their economic lives. The International Labour Organization promotes the contribution of co-ops to employment and economic rights, and more recently the UN declared 2012 the International Year of Co-ops, recognizing the contribution of co-operatives to poverty alleviation. It is very exciting to see renewed interest in co-ops as a viable economic alternative for working people and their communities. The goals of the Wellspring effort are laudable. However, the Wellspring Upholstery Corporation is not incorporated as a co-op and its parent non-profit has veto power over workers on a number of important decisions, undermining the principle of democratic member control that is essential to the co-operative model. As excitement about co-ops continues to grow, it will become more important than ever to be clear about what we mean when we say "co-op".