Worker co-ops blossom in Sunset Park

January 10, 2012 Heather Chin
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In June 2006, the Center for Family Life (CFL) in Sunset Parkstarted its first worker cooperative, Si Se Puede! (We Can Do It!),with a small group of women enrolled in CFL’s English as a SecondLanguage classes who had expressed interest in starting their ownbusiness.

They wanted to ensure fair worker treatment and wages, yes, butalso reveled in the opportunity to create something of their ownand to take pride in providing high quality work for their clientsand neighbors, explained Luz Maria Hernandez, Si Se Puede!’scurrent president and one of the original co-op members.

Now, after five years of hard work, the all-female cleaningcooperative excels at operating on its own. Its members supportthemselves as well as an office manager – their first employee -and their co-op serves as inspiration for two other cooperativessupported by CFL: Beyond Care!, a childcare co-op, and GoldenSteps, a non-medical eldercare co-op launching this month.

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The impact on Si Se Puede!’s members has been profound.

At first, I didn’t take it that seriously because there was noassurance of success, admitted Hernandez. [It was difficultbecause] when we were forming the cooperative, it took a year tostart getting work. What got me through it was the women in thegroup and the support from CFL.

Now she’s seeing the fruits of her labor. After attendingmeetings, meeting the women and finding out the issues, I startedto become more invested, the Sunset Park mom explained. Thehighlight for me is that we’ve gotten where we wanted to be. We’revery informed on how to do quality work, to guarantee quality forthe price we charge.

For single mom Irene Alcanta Gonzalez, aspiring for that successkeeps her motivated through these first months of her co-op, GoldenSteps, for which she was just elected secretary.

At first, it was a really incredible feeling to be chosen outof 90 people. It gave me a feeling of value, said Gonzalez, whoheard about the co-op from staff at a domestic violence supportprogram. I live in Brownsville [and] it’s been a lot of sacrificeto balance working, taking care of my children and coming here. Iwant it to be successful. I believe it will work. I see everyoneworking hard and going to extra meetings. I hope for a good job anda just salary so that I can keep supporting my kids.

Golden Steps just finished a 12-week training program, whichincluded business planning, learning the skills of the job, agraduate certificate and building a co-op, said Vanessa Bransburg,CFL’s cooperative coordinator.

We are the incubator. We house it until they go off on theirown. We act as consultants, helping them learn how to make[business] decisions. There’s very low overhead because it isservice-based.

In addition to taking charge of her own future through her work,Hernandez says she believes in the ability of the co-op model tohelp others. The work we’re doing in co-op development, I believeit’s very important in the community, she said. I want to giveback to the co-op as much as I’ve gotten from it… I want thegrowth of co-ops so [more] people have the opportunity for goodjobs and a better life.

CFL modeled its cooperatives on successful versions in New Yorkand California, and conducted surveys amongst its existing adultstudents to determine market demand and the skill set of thoseinterested. Those selected to launch a co-op are chosen based on acombination of interest, ability, perceived dedication andavailability.

Elected officials such as Councilmember Sara González andCouncil Speaker Christine Quinn have taken notice, both pledgingtheir support for expanding the co-op models as a way to createeconomic development in immigrant communities.

I recognize these women as my neighbors and I’m delighted theyhave found a way to become successful while helping others in theirown neighborhood said González. Programs like these serve asprime examples of why I’m proud to [support the work done byCFL].

CFL will also be helping to create a NYC Network of WorkerCo-ops and be part of Quinn’s goal of funding two more co-ops nextyear – one between CFL and the Urban Justice Center, and one inQueens. The only other NYC co-op incubator is the Greenworkers inthe Bronx.

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