Three years ago, Daniel Lopez injured his knee. The 37-year-old native of Mexico never had health insurance, so he waited until the pain got so bad, it wouldn’t allow him to work anymore. Only recently did he get surgery.
His knee is still swollen. “It hurts,” he says. He can barely walk, much less work. But he wouldn’t miss a meeting of his United Handymen Workers Cooperative.
Lopez is a founding member of the cooperative, which came to life last year with the support of the Center for Family Life (CFL) in Sunset Park. It is run and owned by immigrant workers.
In this relatively hipster-free part of Brooklyn, CFL’s Cooperative Development Program has helped create employment for more than 200 immigrant workers in recent years, says Corinna Zuckerman, a cooperative developer at the center.
All co-ops are owned by the workers, who decide collectively on their own salaries and benefits, their strategies and their decision making processes.
“Nobody is a boss over here,” explains Lopez.
The CFL cooperative developers support and accompany the cooperatives for about ten years. They follow a “heavy touch approach” in the beginning (e.g. providing office space, advising on business strategy, helping with licenses and much more) but then gradually phase out their support, says Zuckerman.
Si Se Puede, the first and most successful cooperative supported by CFL, specializes in cleaning services. Formed in 2006, it is now the third largest cooperative in the U.S. with more than 100 worker-owners, according to Zuckerman.
The largest worker-run business in the U.S., Cooperative Home Care Associates, is also based in New York City and employs more than 2,000. United Handymen has seven members at the moment.
While there is no comprehensive U.S. government data on cooperatives, the Democracy at Work Institute estimates that there are currently more than 300 worker cooperatives operating in the country – and numbers are rising.
New York City, in particular, has become a hot spot of this alternative way of doing business. In recent years, the city has embraced cooperatives as a means of creating decent jobs and addressing income inequality.
In 2015, the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative helped create 21 new co-ops, according to the New York City Department of Small Business Services. This year, the City Council said it aimed to back another 22 new co-ops. It allocated $2.1 million (double the 2015 funding) to support worker cooperatives and co-op developers, like the Center for Family Life.
“Everybody loves co-ops now,” Zuckerman says.
For Zuckerman, a worker cooperative is not an end in itself. “We want to support workers in their lives,” she says. At CFL, they offer members services like family counseling, a food pantry, free immigration support, and free tax services.
Through collective decision making and the experience that workers’ voices are valued, the cooperatives also provide a space where members develop leadership skills and can join forces to build a movement and “confront oppressive systems,” Zuckerman says.
When a new cooperative starts off, members go through a 12-week class where they are trained in their profession, but also learn about democratic decision making, get leadership training and discuss issues like discrimination against immigrants.
Daniel Lopez completed the cooperative training successfully. With the help of CFL staff, he prepared for the test and got a contractor’s license for home improvement. With this license, United Handymen may offer moving services, painting, flooring, tiling, renovations, and furniture repair and assembly.
“I feel so proud of myself,” says Lopez.
Lopez started selling socks at age four. He worked in the mornings and went to school in the afternoons. As a teenager he would take on a job in the sock factory. He never finished high school.
“You want to study, but you don’t get the chance,” Lopez says about his childhood.
When he came to the US 16 years ago, he started helping out a relative who works as a handyman. He learned to take on more advanced jobs over time and eventually joined a handymen company.
Now, he says he can build a house from the basement to the roof. But he doesn’t want others to make a large profit from his labor anymore.
At United Handymen, workers decided that the cooperative keeps 30% of what workers earn through the cooperative. This covers costs like training, licenses, business insurance, the website, marketing and gradually also book keeping and customer services. CFL cooperative developers and workers want to guarantee customers high quality services across all the different co-ops. So they make sure the workers are well trained for the jobs they offer.
High standards and a good reputation also allow the workers to charge prices that are fair for them as well as the clients. “A lot of companies will offer cheap labor for cheap money,” says Lopez, “but then the customer is not going to be happy.”
In his experience, customer satisfaction and word-of-mouth are the most important ways to get new clients. And this is the main concern at the moment. After eight months, business is still going slow for United Handymen. So far, they don’t get enough assignments for the workers to live on just that.
“Any kind of business, when you start it’s very hard,” says Lopez.
Zuckerman and Lopez are confident that there is a market for their services and that time will prove them right.
At the United Handymen workers’ meeting in a conference room at CFL in Sunset Park, five members, the office manager and two co-op developers discuss short-term and long-term advertising strategies, like public events in Brooklyn’s parks or an app for cooperatives. If their strategies work out and they are able to grow, Lopez dreams of renting their own office space, buying their own tools and their own cars. “Like a real big company,” he says.
Then, they can also get health insurance for all members, Lopez says, patting his knee.