February 25, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Worker cooperatives eager to get a crack at the city’s $17 billion procurement and purchasing pie are pushing a new initiative before the City Council this week that could help knock down some important barriers that the innovative start-ups continue to face.
Intro. 423, would require the Small Business Services agency to begin tracking the level of business the city is doing with worker cooperatives throughout the five boroughs, as well as issue annual reports on how it could be doing a better job of providing worker/owners greater economic opportunities.
“The big guys get the vast majority of these contracts,” said Wayne Ho, chief program and policy officer, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. “And we know that what get measured, gets noticed.”
New York City has already made a $1.2 million budget commitment to worker cooperative business initiatives aimed at building upon the roughly 23 worker cooperatives now active around town.
By further supporting the kinds of worker cooperatives that lift the wages of traditionally low-income earners, while also supporting communities, advocates believe that the city can make good on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision of making New York City a world leader in combatting income inequality.
“It would transform the city overnight if we had businesses engaged in city contracts that were employing people at living wages and keeping most of that money in the communities where they’re actually based,” said Omar Freilla, coordinator, Green Worker Cooperatives.
Recording €5 billion annually, the 100-year-old Cooperative Construction Consortium in Italy is that country’s largest construction company employing some 20,000 people. Overall, close to 10 percent of Italy’s workforce reportedly belongs to worker-owned cooperatives.
According to Chris Michaels, executive director, New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives, the Big Apple could, indeed, replicate that same kind of success here if it removed economic barriers and raised awareness about the viability worker cooperatives.
“Intro. 423 presents a bold and progressive new vision for the future of New York City’s economy,” Michaels said.
Natasha Coombs, a worker/owner with a Bronx-based travel business called Diaspora Destinations, as well as a recent graduate of the Green Worker Cooperatives’ incubator program, is committed to realizing that promise.
“Right now, I have my day job, but I definitely want to transition into building upon this dream that we have,” Coombs said.
The City Council is set to vote on Intro. 423 on Thursday, February 25.
“We need to help people move out of low paying jobs and dead industries, and into a model that can help people join the middle class,” said Councilmember Helen Rosenthal [D-6th District].
With a total of seven businesses, fellow Councilmember Carlos Menchaca [D-38th District] represents an area in Brooklyn with the highest concentration of worker cooperatives in the city.
“The number one thing I hear from cooperatives is, just get out of the way and allow us access to the wealth generation that the city has,” the councilman said. “Government is going to get out of the way, and we’re going to open the doors.”
Like many other small businesses, advocates for worker-owned cooperatives say the groups face many of the same kinds of problems attempting to secure large-scale contracts with the city, as well as qualifying as M/WBEs —Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises.
Since 2006, the Center for Family Life in Brooklyn has helped some 200 residents build cooperative business — most of them run by low-income, immigrant women.
“As a result of Intro 423, we’ll have the ability to clearly identify the positive impact that cooperative businesses — and the marginalized immigrant women and men who compose them — can make in lifting up our city by providing essential services,” said Julia Jean Francois, director of program services, Center for Family Life.