Latina Nannies to Create Worker Co-op on Staten Island

Guadalupe Villamil and Anavelia Romero, with coordinator Juan Cuautle at La Colmena in Staten Island. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Guadalupe Villamil and Anavelia Romero, with coordinator Juan Cuautle at La Colmena on Staten Island. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Babysitters Guadalupe Villamil, 34, and Anavelia Romero, 42, both Mexican, have a few busy months ahead of them. Aside from working and tending to their families, they are two of the 20 women who are seeking to launch the first worker cooperative on Staten Island in January 2017. Their business will be child care services.

A year ago, the workers – all Latina and with babysitting experience – began to consider joining together in a cooperative. They reached out to the Sí Se Puede! Women’s Cooperative – which offers cleaning services – and the Beyond Care Childcare Cooperative. According to Romero, what attracted them the most is that, in this type of organization, the workers are able to manage their time and be with their own children. “If I have a personal inconvenience because I have to go to the doctor, for example, I know that I will not lose my job.”

The mother of three said that the life of immigrants is very hard but this type of organization will allow her to have a schedule and social benefits. Villamil explained that another reason that led her and Romero to start thinking of a cooperative is that “we can own our own business.”

In a worker cooperative, all members are owners and are at the helm of an organization that earns its money from their labor. It may be for- or nonprofit, but the purpose is that the workers benefit from their own work. Decisions are made by a majority and each worker votes on the way she or he thinks the cooperative must be managed. No external investors determine its direction or are there to make a profit.

“Each cooperative adopts the management structure it considers best, but it is the workers who make the decisions. There may be a board of directors to perform operative functions, but it does not have the capacity to decide, only to execute strategies. For instance, it can hire a president, but the president and the board will only implement what the worker-owners say,” said Juan Cuautle, from the Center for Family Life, an organization that helps “incubate” these worker cooperatives.

During the process of forming the cooperative, the Center for Family Life reached out to community organizations to ensure the best interest of the workers. In this case in Staten Island, it was La Colmena, an organization led by Chilean-born Gonzalo Mercado that helps day laborers get OSHA-certified and provides legal and educational help, among other things, aside from promoting the Mixtec culture on the island.

In the beginning, some 30 female workers became interested in forming the cooperative, but not all of them fit the profile to do it as they did not have enough time to dedicate to the project during its formation. “This takes about 12 weeks, during which leadership development, business management and technical aspects are discussed.” The 20 women who are launching the cooperative have taken a 15-week training course from Cornell University, which is assisting them in the process.

“I have cared for children for many years and I have my own but, after the training sessions, I have realized the things I have been doing wrong,” admitted Romero, to which Villamil agrees. They were taught nutrition, CPR, first aid, educational topics regarding children’s growing stages, “and even how to talk to parents when we see behaviors that could indicate that the child may have a health problem,” said Romero, adding that, as a mother, she understands that this is a sensitive matter, as “no one wants to be told that there is something wrong with their child.”

At the end of this phase, the Center for Family Life leads the workers through the process of creating the cooperative’s bylaws, as well as incorporation, developing the services and marketing. “We offer technical counseling until they are able to take control of the corporation,” said Cuautle.

The Staten Island group is in that part of the process at the moment. Recently, they have been discussing names for the cooperative. They are also working on contracts – with the help of the Urban Justice Center – job descriptions, worker benefits, how to organize the work and services, how much to charge and the availability they will offer customers. Villamil said that they want to create questionnaires so that customers can tell them their opinion on the service and the babysitters, which will help the cooperative to make adjustments. They are also thinking about a logo and about hiring an accountant to handle their taxes.

Romero explains that the group may open up to new members – who would have to adhere to the bylaws and agree to a background check – if there is enough work. “The most important thing,” said Villamil, “is that the children are happy and safe.” She remembers that the Sí Se Puede! Cooperative started out with 13 people and now has 300 members.

At the moment, Villamil works doing house cleaning and waitressing, and said that she is eager to know “how much work we are going to get to see what comes next.” She admitted that she is in need of “a job on the side, in case this doesn’t work.” Though cautious, she is optimistic, because she has seen the way more and more families are settling their homes in this borough, particularly in the southern part of the island, which will secure her work security through the cooperative. “There are many nannies, but we all have our certificates here.”

For now, the group is holding its meetings at La Colmena’s new offices, which opened three months ago. Taking advantage of our presence, Romero jumped at the opportunity and asked Mercado to let them use the offices as their headquarters until they are able to have their own facilities. Mercado smiled with a look of complicity.

A place to dream

Both Romero and Villamil have their hopes set on this cooperative, and they work every afternoon on its launch. “In the future, I see myself having social benefits and traveling with my family,” said Romero.

“We are going to be stable; we will not have financial need; we will have a name. I see myself in a few years being stable and having a future,” agrees Villamil. “The beautiful part,” said Romero, “is that the 20 members think the same way; we all see ourselves that way in the future: having our own business, financial freedom and working conditions that are good for the community.”

Cooperatives as a viable path for immigrants

There are 65 worker cooperatives in New York. According to figures by the NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives published in March of this year, 99 percent of worker-owners are women, 70 percent of all cooperative members are Hispanic, and 97 percent of members do not possess a college degree. The city has approved a budget of $1.2 million to finance the development of worker cooperatives.

Ana Martina Rivas, membership director for the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFCW), explained that many workers see cooperatives as a way to obtain social benefits, pay social security, get sick and vacation days and health insurance. For many immigrants who have problems with their legal status and people who, “for whatever reason made a mistake in their youth, have been arrested and now carry a lifelong stigma when seeking employment,” they represent a way into the job market. New York City has eliminated restrictions on the latter case, but other states have not.

“Between the last 2 and 5 years, the growth of cooperatives had been spearheaded by immigrant Latinos, especially by women. From the organization we are trying to make more of our communication in Spanish,” explained Rivas.

USFCW figures indicate that there are between 300 and 400 worker cooperatives in the country, 150 of which have been operating since the beginning of the century and which have some 7,000 members. Their revenue totals an approximate $400 million, and 31 percent of them have annual incomes of more than $1 million.

The largest cooperative in the U.S. is Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA), with 2,000 members.

The guide most cooperatives follow is the book published by one of Spain’s largest worker cooperatives, Mondragón Corporation.

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