A line in Trusty Amigos’ proposed marketing material is the subject of tonight’s debate. Some members think that they should offer extra services in addition to dog walking and pet sitting, like watering plants or tidying up. Others are not so convinced.
“Then [clients] will want more, and will add on more things,” Silvia Meza, 40, says with a frown in Spanish, leery of being asked to do more without an increase in compensation.
But José Juarez, 46, thinks it might give Trusty Amigos a competitive advantage.
“It’ll make us stand out from the rest,” he says in Spanish.
After a friendly debate, the group decides to remove house care from the pamphlet but leave in plant watering.
“Consensus?” Rosangela Garcia, 33, who’s leading tonight’s meeting, asks the group. Her frame is delicate, but her smile broad. She wags her thumb in the air.
Thumbs wave in agreement and the group erupts in a chorus of “consensus.” Garcia giggles. Soon they’re on to the next agenda item: uniforms.
When Trusty Amigos opens for business in May, it will be New York City’s newest worker cooperative, one of just over 20 co-ops in the city. The group’s 16 members have been meeting weekly for eight months now, pounding out the details of their pet service, their logo, marketing materials, and how clients will be divided and assigned. Most of Trusty Amigos’ members hail from Mexico, many of them are currently jobless or underemployed, working odd gigs as they surface.
Worker cooperatives are collectively owned businesses that advocates say can lift historically disadvantaged groups out of poverty. One member gets one vote on company decisions, though larger co-ops can have administrative hierarchies and varying salaries.
The oldest New York City worker cooperative, Cooperative Home Care Associates, dates back to 1985 and now has over 2,500 members, the majority of whom are working class and immigrant women of color. There are an estimated 111,171 cooperatives around the world, 83 percent of which are in Europe, according to2010 data from the International Co-operative Alliance.
The worker cooperative model has long languished on the fringes of New York City’s business community. This is the case, advocates say, because co-ops struggle to qualify for traditional loans and because there is an overall lack of awareness that they exist as a viable business option for budding entrepreneurs.
But now increased attention from a progressive City Council may be tipping the scale in their favor.
City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who was appointed to chair the Community Development Committee this year, called a hearing on worker cooperatives in late February.
Dozens of members of New York City’s worker cooperatives showed up, hoping to testify on behalf of the model. The throng filled the hearing room and overflowed into an adjoining room.
“Usually in a hearing you hear opinions on both sides of the argument. In this situation there was no opposition,” Arroyo said. “Absolutely, this is a vehicle that we can use to help create opportunities and lift people out of poverty.”
Arroyo’s home district in the South Bronx is already home to one of the few worker cooperative incubators, Green Worker Cooperatives, that helps get new co-ops up and running.
February’s hearing was called in response to a report issued by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, a public policy analysis nonprofit, earlier this year. The report analyzed the success of the worker cooperative in New York City and beyond.
In many cases the members’ salaries doubled or even tripled over what they had been before, Noah Franklin, a senior policy analyst at the Federation said.
“Someone who’s making $8 an hour is now making $25 an hour. That makes a big difference,” he said. “Members of worker cooperatives [are] able to provide a better life for their family, their children, help their children go to college – things they didn’t think were possible.”
The example of Yadira Fragoso, 32, a member of Si Se Puede, clearly illustrates what Franklin is talking about. Before joining Si Se Puede, a cleaning cooperative, five years ago, Fragoso worked at a restaurant and made only enough to pay rent on a room that she shared with her two children. Now she said she makes enough to rent an apartment in Windsor Terrace and even has savings. “It’s not just cleaning,” she said. “It’s a school for all of us, women without much education. If you want to learn the cooperative will teach you.”
While worker cooperatives pay their members radically higher hourly wages than their non-co-op counterparts, the businesses remain competitively priced. This is due largely to the fact that the pay ratio between entry level employees and CEOs remains low. According to the Federation’s analysis of worker cooperatives, that ratio never exceeds 1:6.
In non-cooperative businesses this ratio can soar much higher. In the average Fortune 50 company, CEOs earned 379 times as much as lowest level staffers, according to a CNN Money analysis from 2012.
Derek Jones, a professor of economics at Hamilton College who has studied worker cooperatives, cautions that there is not an abundance of studies that categorically demonstrate that worker cooperatives can lift people out of poverty.
“There is some evidence on this point but not a lot,” Jones wrote in an email. “For many worker co-ops [that were established in Europe] in the past in the UK, France , Spain…this was not the key reason for their establishment and job security was a bigger concern.”
The members of Trusty Amigos can’t count on job security just yet. They face the same upward battle that entrepreneurs do with startups: attracting a steady stream of clientele. And yet the mood at the weekly meetings in Sunset Park is one of jovial camaraderie and healthy debate.
Even though the business hasn’t yet started, for many members of the Trusty Amigos co-op, this is the first work environment in which they’ve been asked for their input.
“It’s not like other jobs where the owner says what you have to do and we all have to do it,” Isaac Meza, 42, who works part time for a dry cleaner, said. “Here it’s very different. We all decide what we need, what we don’t need to do, and we go with consensus. We’re not used to that.”
For Silvia Meza (no relation to Isaac Meza) who’s worked a slew of cleaning and service gigs and is currently unemployed, her love of the cooperative comes from something even more fundamental than consensus. Dark locks frame her wizened face.
“They take into account your way of thinking,” she said, and with a knowing pause she added: “that you also have thoughts. That’s what I like about the cooperative.”
Gwynne Hogan is a multimedia journalist studying at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter.