The idea of a cooperative, or co-op, where everyone who works at a company is also a part-owner, is nothing new. New York state is home to more co-ops than anywhere else in the country. To wrap up our series on work and labor, we’re checking in with Brooklynites who are organizing and maintaining worker co-ops, and in the process creating a less exploitative, more equitable workplace, way of life, and world. • Brooklyn, USA is produced by Emily Boghossian, Shirin Barghi, Charlie Hoxie, Khyriel Palmer, and Mayumi Sato. If you have something to say and want us to share it on the show, here’s how you can send us a message: https://bit.ly/2Z3pfaW
• Thank you to this week from Yvonne Marquez.
• Transcript: https://bit.ly/3k81smR
Brooklyn, USA is a podcast that blends short documentary, hyperlocal journalism, personal narratives, sound art and audiovisual experimentation to reflect the diversity and beauty of our borough. We deliver New York stories told by the people who live them, and cover issues that impact our community in its own voice. #BKUSA
66 | The Solidarity Economy - Episode Transcript
Brooklyn, USA | December 14, 2022
[MUSIC BED: Drone swells] Khyriel Palmer: You’re listening to the Brooklyn, USA podcast – an occasional audio love letter from Brooklyn to the world.
[Clip from The Rural Co-op - circa 1945 to 1955]
[upbeat music] Narrator: There are a lot of doubters every time any new business gets started. Maybe there are even more doubters when you try to start a co-op. Means a lot of people getting together. Many people don’t wanna take the trouble. But by 1938, most of us were pretty well convinced of the co-op way of doing things. [FADE OUT clip]
Khyriel Palmer: The idea of a cooperative, or co-op, where everyone who works at a company is also a part-owner, is nothing new. Throughout history, coops have formed in response to moments of economic and social stress. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of co-ops in the United States increased by 30%. And nowhere more than New York state which has the highest number of co-ops in the country.
Khyriel Palmer: To conclude our series on work and labor, we’re checking in with some of the people getting together and “taking the trouble” to operate as co-ops, and in the process creating a workplace, way of life, and world that’s less exploit-ative and more equitable.
Khyriel Palmer: This week, we’re catching up with member-owners from Brooklyn Packers - a food sourcing, packing, and distribution co-op based in Bed-Stuy. But first, we hear from the
Center for Family Life, a co-op incubator in Sunset Park…
[CENTER FOR FAMILY LIFE]
[FADE UP MUSIC: Light, swelling instruments] Amalia de la Iglesia: We work with worker cooperatives, which means that the workers in the co-ops are also owners. So in this case, they're businesses that are offering a service. All of the workers in the business are also co-owners of the business. So they all have one vote and they make all decisions pertaining to the business democratically.
Amalia de la Iglesia: My name is Amalia de la Iglesia and I'm the project manager for Up & Go, which is the online booking platform that the co-ops use. I started as a co-op developer at Center for Family Life. We help bring groups of people together to form co-ops, and then we support co-ops once they're up and running and in managing their businesses. The communities that we work with are primarily immigrant, Spanish-speaking, a lot of times lower education. This population faces a lot of barriers when it comes to traditional employment, and most of the members in the co-ops that we work with have a history of salary theft, of abuse in the workplace, or of just working, you know, minimum wage. So co-ops provide a model and a tool for people who are kind of shut out of the traditional labor market and are a way to have power in the workplace, to make a fair salary and also to develop a lot of skills. [FADE OUT MUSIC]
Julieta: Mi nombre es Julieta... [translated] My name is Julieta, I'm in the cleaning business for homes and businesses. I'm part of the East Harlem Cooperative.
Julieta: Un día típico... [translated] A typical day is getting there very early to clean. Sometimes it's really dirty. So then sometimes I get home really tired at the end of the workday because yes, it's very, very laborious.
Julieta: Cuando llegué aquí en Nueva York... [translated] When I arrived in New York, I did various things. I was a waitress. I worked in a pizzeria.
Julieta: Pues, antes... [translated] Before, I would earn whatever my boss wanted to pay me. But not here.
Amalia de la Iglesia: [FADE UP MUSIC: Slow, instrumental] We incubate a co-op almost every year, around one per year, and we have kind of a running waiting list of people who are interested in the co-ops. And those are either people who are referred from partner organizations or who come in seeking employment and face barriers to traditional employment and are looking for an alternative. It's definitely a time commitment and there's like administrative work and a whole business to manage outside of just being a worker. We're pretty intentional about trying to build community and taking our time with the incubation process, which is why it's a year long process. And we have like a kickoff weekend where members talk about their shared vision and dreams for the co-op and talk about where they came from, what brought them to the co-op, and kind of like using their imaginations to ideate like what would their... What's their dream? [FADE OUT MUSIC]
Julieta: Cuando me dijeron trabajo, dije, "Wow"... [translated] When they told me work, I said, "Wow." I mean, I became hopeful. I said to myself, "I will get paid well, there's no boss, no stolen wages." I mean, I thought all of that was great. And then I realized that it was true.
Julieta: Para lograr algo, tienes que sacrificar muchas cosas... [translated] To achieve something, you have to sacrifice a lot of things. You have to leave your kids, your house and spend money. [FADE UP MUSIC: Slow, instrumental]
Julieta: Todos los Jueves... [translated] The meeting was every Thursday. Every Thursday meeting, we would learn different things. From there we formed committees, the marketing committee, the Finance Committee, the membership committee members. And so every person has their own role within the cooperative. You learn every day, there's always something new. And the nice thing about this is that we have CFL to help us.
Amalia de la Iglesia: We also start with kind of like some social justice framing of what are the intentional structures in place that -- and the oppression in place -- that has made it difficult for people with these identities to participate in the economy and to be successful. It can be difficult to switch that mindset, and to think of themselves as owners and realize that they have autonomy and that they're making something that's theirs. As the business is running is when members start to think of themselves as owners more, especially as they feel more empowered and have received more training and understand different parts of the business better.
Julieta: Yo creo había muchos cambios en mi... [translated] I feel like I've had a lot of changes because I used to be a closed-off person. I didn't like talking with other people. So now that I've been in the cooperative, it's given me the ability to share with other people, talk because I used to get nervous or felt like crying or I would get red. But I've been improving on those things day by day, and I feel like I've gotten a lot better.
Julieta: Cuando uno no sabe bien el idioma... [translated] When you don't know the language and you get sent to work in places with people who speak a different language than yours. Well, it's a challenge, but I'm not scared. I used to be scared because everything seemed impossible to me. But it's better to keep yourself informed. Knock on doors. Go to organizations that can help you. Why? Because if you want to better your life, you have to do that. [FADE OUT MUSIC]
Amalia de la Iglesia: Conflict is a normal part of working in a group and it always comes up. Most of the conflict in cops arises later when they're actually working and there's income and there's maybe differences in how much people are contributing to the co-op.
Julieta: Por siempre, digo que es como una familia disfuncional... [translated] Well, I always say it's like a dysfunctional family, right? Because everyone has their own way of thinking. But we're doing well so far. [FADE UP MUSIC: Slow, instrumental, low beat]
Amalia de la Iglesia: The average wage that domestic workers and especially cleaners make is $15-16, somewhere in there. Once people join the co-ops, the last time I ran the numbers, they were making around $33/hour, on average. So they basically double their earnings through the co-op. What I've heard a lot from members is that outside of just earning more hourly, they also have more flexibility through the co-op because they can set their own hours. A lot of members will talk about feeling like they have more time for their families.
Julieta: La ventaja es que... [translated] The advantage is that we get to set our availability, the days we want to work, or if you have time, you take personal time. Because, well, you can go to the doctor or do other things, see your kids, do things around the house. So it's nice.
Amalia de la Iglesia: Being able to be owners of their own businesses means that they're building something that's theirs and they're building wealth for their communities. I really think that this model is part of a bigger shift towards building community wealth and not having all the wealth always be like in the hands of a few corporate employers and everyone else being exploited in the workplace.
[FADE OUT MUSIC]
Steph Wiley: I'm Stephen. Steph T. Wiley. I'm a founding worker-owner of Brooklyn Packers [MUSIC: Tuned percussion] and its farm-share brand Brooklyn Supported Agriculture.
Karna Ray: I'm Kara Ray, no middle name [laughs]. I am a worker-owner at Brooklyn Packers. I've been with the Packers since, oh, 2020 at this point.
Steph Wiley: Brooklyn Supported agriculture is essentially a farm-share, which is modeled after the CSA -- the community supported agriculture model is where a farm will pre-sell their crops to community as kind of like insurance against what might happen in a season. And so they get the money upfront and then they give those, the community shares every week of their crops. Traditionally, CSAs are from one farm and we aggregate produce and other products from many different farms. What makes the co-op approach different then -- I shouldn't call it traditional business because co-ops are traditional, but a traditional, a more like modern traditional business is... this is specific to our cooperative: we make decisions together. Like decisions that are going to make a huge impact on the whole company, we make those decisions together. Like governance, financial, big financial decisions whether we're going to buy a piece of equipment or not, how much we get paid every week. Those are the types of decisions we make together. And, you know, one person, one vote. So it's like in a lot of ways, it's a true democracy. But then there's other differences that are not so business-related. Like we're a small community, we care about each other and we take care of each other in a lot of ways.
Karna Ray: I'd also include in that that like, you know, the financial model of a lot of food distribution companies is essentially that the people that are on the ground doing a lot of the work, whether it's delivery drivers, packers or whatever, it's, the pressure is down, comes down to them to be essentially paid as little as possible to make the financial model work. We all take a 1:1 pay ratio, meaning that what one of us gets, all of us gets. So that like even if there are more management-style tasks or more administrative tasks or more packing-style tasks that like they all get treated with the same respect and dignity and we all get paid the same for them. [FADE OUT MUSIC] I think that's a big difference just because, like so much of the movement of food throughout the city and generally as an industry is predicated on really bad labor practices and essentially paying the people that are doing the majority of the work the least. In our small microcosm of being a) co-op, and b) having a 1:1 pay model can be a kind of microcosm to see how that can be different
Steph Wiley: So there's just a study that came out recently that said that the pay ratio between an average worker to an average CEO is like $1:$617 or something like that, which is crazy if you think about it.
Karna Ray: [FADE UP MUSIC: Slow, ambient] Before the pandemic, I was working as a touring musician, and then as the pandemic came around and quarantine measures were started, essentially my entire life and how I made money fell apart. Steph is a friend of my partner and they were asking her if she knew anybody that was looking for work, and I jumped at it. So when I initially started, I was just starting with packing hands, just getting stuff into the orders and stuff. There was an increased volume because people couldn't go to grocery stores. So I kind of got my hands in at the most basic function of what goes on at Brooklyn Packers, and then over time realized that it was a place where like a lot of my feelings about labor could be instantiated in a kind of smaller, more tangible place from there, really enjoying the work. I love fruits and vegetables, I love food and it's just like a nice substrate for something that I felt important in terms of the labor space. When the pandemic really picked up, there's a lot of different work that we were doing that was like getting a lot of food into a warehouse that we had at the time and then getting it out to a variety of different emergency food programs in the city. And then as time went on, I think that the more emergency food stuff kind of dissipated, and I realized that the thing that actually drew me towards it was the cooperative model and how it could be an alternative economic model for essentially any industry and how it could work. For most people, I feel like you go to work and you have your small range of things that you have any agency over, and it's usually pretty grim, like what things you actually have control over in your life. I think that the risk is probably higher in functioning as a cooperative in that your decisions actually do have some output and some consequence in how your life operates. But I find that entirely enlivening. The issues that we run into on a day to day basis, whether they're operational or whether there are differences of opinion about how things should operate, they all feel like meaningful difficulties in a way that I don't think I've ever had in a working situation before. [FADE OUT MUSIC]
Steph Wiley: You know, the cooperative model is interesting because it can exist in so many ways. I think the future of business is cooperative. I think that's really the only way. And I also know that worker-owned cooperatives have to be supported by solidarity economy-leaning sectors from like food co-ops to housing co-ops and all those other things. [FADE UP MUSIC: Slow, ambient]
Karna Ray: You get caught in your like the little silo, and it's like, I just come into a warehouse and put the stuff in bags and send it out and stuff. But like if you look at broadly across this map, it describes all these different types of cooperatives that Steph just described. Luckily, in Central Brooklyn where we have most of our operation, it seems like it's a hotbed of this new movement of cooperative development. There are just like a lot of people around that are interested in doing it. And it's a more the merrier situation, because I think that you have people that form cooperatives that are already thinking how they can integrate into a larger picture of how cooperatives could network together and form a bigger boat or a bigger raft in the solidarity economy. So yeah, the more the merrier. And it seems like there are already a lot.
Steph Wiley: The real impact of co-ops is on human beings, you know? They've they've done studies on working-owned cooperatives and, you know, specifically about how, you know, your outcome, the outcomes of being in a network uncooperative outweigh the outcomes of being in a traditional business. You tend to make more and you tend to stay at that business longer. When I say the future is all co-op, I believe in that. I believe that if you're in a housing co-op and you can be, um, have ownership of your own space, of your own living space, and you can, and you're part of a food co-op that you can have ownership of, of what you eat, you know, food sovereignty, like, what are you eating? Where is it coming from? Like, all those things are important. Where is your money actually going? How is it circulating in your, in your own, in your own neighborhood? Who are your neighbors? Like how are they doing? Because a lot of times how your neighbors are doing, it really impacts how you're doing. Co-op banks. Like, where is the money that I'm depositing going? Is it going to China? Is it going to Sweden? Is it going to, you know, some far off place that does not benefit where I am? So let's do that, too. It all has to work together for it to be the most impactful.
[FADE OUT MUSIC]
[VOICE MEMO MONTAGE]
[ring] ring] [voicemail] Machine: Your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice message system. At the tone, please record your message… [beep]
Misha: My name's Misha and I'm from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and I am a UX designer.
Ethan: My name is Ethan Woods. I live in Brooklyn, New York, and I'm a certified arborist.
Jack: I'm a general dentist here in Park Slope. My name is Jack Irwin. I've been in this office for 34 years.
Kyla: Hi, guys. My name is Kyla Primus, and a couple of months ago, I was a sales associate at Staples.
Anonymous: We're over in Bushwick, in Brooklyn, outside of elsewhere, which is like a multidimensional event venue space. I've been looking for a job for almost a year now at this point, so I haven't really gotten any hits, and so I still need to find a way to make money. So I started selling cannabis because of the new regulation. Basically, New York state law says that we can gift cannabis for at the very most a donation. And so I'm able to collect donations off the street from various people, which in turn helps me pay my bills. I don't really want to share my identity. Just for the simple fact is cannabis is still federally illegal.
Kyla: One of the craziest experiences that I've had there, I think are all usually related to stealing. I really didn't realize how much people would really just take anything that they could. And so on my first day of orientation, we went around the store with spider tags, which were kind of like those anti-theft monitors or like the metal detector monitors. And we were putting them on everything from Bounty rolls to cases of water to even boxes of envelopes. And at the end of the night, you would still come and you would find out that somebody had ripped open a box or that somebody was trying to leave the store with a whole case of water underneath their cart like you would not notice.
Ethan: My primary role as a tree climber. So most of the time my work involves getting up into the canopy of a tree and doing some sort of service for a client like deadwood-ing, where we're cutting out the hazardous deadwood of a tree, clearing their roof-line of branches that might be whacking the edges of their housing, or in some cases, removing trees. Usually when they're in a state of decline, or if they're what we call volunteer trees, which are trees that are not planted by people, but instead by birds, squirrels or the wind dropping seeds into awkward corners of people's front and back yards.
Misha: I currently work at a large corporation. And I have to say that I don't love this work. I hate spending hours in front of a computer just sitting. That as a lifestyle is not working for me anymore, after about ten years of doing that.
Jack: What do I do as a dentist? A little bit of everything. As a general dentist, you see everything from kids with cavities to people with broken teeth, to fixing a person's smile, to making somebody comfortable so they can go eat their whole meal as best they can.
Anonymous: If I don't have a job, job or I get a weekly paycheck, I'm out hustling, finding my food, finding the money to put in my pocket to pay my bills. I applied for literally everything from internships all the way to c-level roles across multiple industries. I left no industry or management role untouched. Most of the interviews I did have were for senior managers, directors and c-level roles. I actually was able to make it to the last round of each of those interviews as well, but they were able to find another candidate that they thought was more fit for the position. It's a tight labor market out there right now. Again, I'm not the only one going through this. So it's all about -- uh, what's the word -- adversity. So being able to overcome that situation. So whether you got to go find a side gig, whether it's delivering packages as a private contractor or selling cannabis out in the street like I am, it's not the most ideal situation to be in, but this is what it is for now, and it's working. So it's like, I can't complain about much, to be honest.
Kyla: The reason that I specifically chose to get into retail is because I wanted a lot more experience with people and the different personalities that you can encounter. Because all of the customers who come into the store are the same people that you meet on the train every day, are the same people that whatever field you're going to eventually, you will continue to see them. And so I just wanted to expose myself to difficult situations in which I would have to de-escalate things that I think retail really is able to mold you to kind of take anything that's thrown at you and let it roll back off of you. And you kind of just continue to go for it regardless of the interactions that you have with one person.
Ethan: One of the biggest challenges we face doing this work in the city is bringing all the tree debris through people's apartments. One of the toughest jobs I ever worked there was a client who had a antique Victorian style doll house right by their back door. It was so fragile that they were afraid to move it. So instead they asked us to carry all the branches around the dollhouse and just avoid it, which, as you can imagine, was pretty tough. But we made it through the day without any dollhouse damage.
Jack: I'll say this once: you better enjoy what you're doing and you better enjoy dealing with people. I've been doing this... Now I'm finishing up 45 years as a dentist. So obviously I probably like what I'm doing. What I don't like, I'm sure all of us would agree, is dealing with insurance companies. That is not fun.
Misha: Currently I make internal applications and I work at a company that's so bloated that we can continue to work on internal applications that are rarely used. Or if they're used, nobody really cares about them and they just continue to chug along and they continue to hire designers to support them, even though nobody cares about them. And we really feel that. But, you know, that's the job. And so we need to continue to work on these applications that nobody cares about. And like the uselessness of that, you know, which comes from the top down is really felt. And I think that's kind of a soul-sucking experience.
Kyla: I don't think people give enough credit to people who are sales associates or retail workers. They think it's a really simple job and some parts of it are simple. Some parts of it aren't that demanding. However, you have to realize that when people come to you, there is a sense of entitlement that they usually have. And while this isn't a bad thing because of course you're paying for a service or a product, the person on the other side of the register is still like sort of absorbing your energy. And so when you come to them angrily or in a demeaning manner, you're kind of transferring that negative energy on to them. And they're dealing with so many people continuously. So if someone is a introvert, I think retail is going to be incredibly difficult because by the end of one interaction, you can feel like your social battery is drained.
Anonymous: I think my race has played a role of me not being able to find a job. I actually, I shortened my name to make it sound less Black or less African-American, and I actually started getting more interviews and screening calls, coincidentally. The best interview I had was with a top four consulting company, and they actually made me feel like I was a human person. They gave me feedback, and it felt great even though they rejected me. But out of all the interviews I had, and the screening calls I had, they were literally the only company to give me feedback. And it's bullshit that the job market is that way. And I feel for anyone who's going through the same situation as I am, not in regards to race, just just trying to find a job. And they go through all these interviews and projects and they get rejected and they get no feedback. Because "Okay, how do I improve? What do I do better?" They don't know because no one will tell them.
Kyla: Overall, working in retail was incredibly rewarding because of the people that I met in management, but also because of little interactions that I would have throughout the day where I would learn something new about someone or somebody would just leave like a little gem or some piece of knowledge with me. Because you're just encountering them in their everyday lives and you're having this interaction, I feel like you begin to create, as transient as they are, little bonds with other people. And especially if they're regulars that continue to come in, you kind of see like the growth of their kids or you see a little bit of their everyday life as you become a part of it.
Ethan: One of the things I like the most about doing this work is getting to be in the canopy of trees, especially during the spring and the summer. Green spaces in the city can feel kind of scarce, so the opportunity to be completely immersed like that is something I try really hard not to take for granted. Another aspect of the work I really like to do, when I get the chance to do it, is root and soil work. Many of New York City's trees suffer from being buried too deep in soil that's overly compact. So that means their roots really struggle to grow in the ways that they would otherwise grow in more natural environments like a forest. So the opportunity to work the soil, to really rejuvenate it feels like something that's truly restorative and really focused specifically on the tree's well-being, which feels really important for me as someone who really tries to cultivate a deep respect for them as beings.
Jack: You know, what's the good part? You set your own hours, you work for yourself. You better be driven to succeed because everything falls on you.
Anonymous: What I'm doing out here on the streets now, what I do like about it the most is this: I do have my own control. I can run my business or operation the way I see fit. It's very chill, very relaxed. I don't have any metrics or goals I'm trying to hit every day. My only goal is, again, just to pay my bills. Once I can pay my bills, I'm a happy man. And that's all that I really need.
Misha: I also feel tremendously grateful. You know, I realize that a lot of people are struggling in not only their careers, but like just trying to work to meet their basic needs. And I think everybody has their struggles at every level of life. And, you know, this is just a snapshot into mine. I try to remind myself to stay in the mindset of, of feeling grateful that I have this skill set and that I am able to work a job that is, for the most part, pretty comfortable and hope that when I feel safe enough financially, I will go find work that is more meaningful and more helpful to society and my community. That is... That's really what I want to do.
[MUSIC BED: Beat with space-y melody] Khyriel Palmer: Brooklyn, USA is produced by me, Khyriel Palmer…
Emily Boghossian: and me Emily Boghossian,
Shirin Barghi: and me Shirin Barghi
Charlie Hoxie: and me, Charlie Hoxie
Mayumi Sato: and me, Mayumi Sato.
Khyriel Palmer: …with help this week from Yvonne Marquez.
Khyriel Palmer: You can learn more about the Center for Family Life and their co-op incubation at their website, www.centerforfamilylife.org.
Khyriel Palmer: To find out more about Brooklyn Packers, and to order fresh, local farm products, go to www.brooklynsupportedagriculture.com.
Khyriel Palmer: Thanks to everyone who called in to share their thoughts about work with us.
Khyriel Palmer: If you want to tell us a story, or somehow end up on the podcast, check the show notes for a link to our guide on recording a voice memo on your mobile phone and sending it to us on the internet. And if you like what you hear or think we missed something, comment, like, share and subscribe, and follow @BRICTV on twitter and instagram, for updates.
Khyriel Palmer: For more information on this and all BRIC Radio podcasts, visit www.bricartsmedia.org/radio.
[FADE OUT MUSIC]