Ask 21-year-old Cristina about the most horrible experience she’s had as a domestic worker and her answer is immediate. “This one lady made me clean the floor of a whole apartment on my hands and knees. There was a mop right there, but she wouldn’t let me use it.”
Worse, the two-hour job paid just $14, total. “Out of that I had to pay a babysitter for my daughter,” she continues, shaking her head at the memory while pacing the floor with her 8 month old son. As if on cue, Yasmin, her 3 year old, begins to wail.
While Cristina concedes that this employer was atypical, she quickly points out that the first housecleaning and babysitting jobs she obtained after leaving Mexico four and a half years ago paid $80 to $90 per 12-hour shift. “I was making around $400 a week for 60 hours of work and was paying $120 a week for babysitting,” she says. “The main woman I worked for was kind to me, but I was not making enough to live on.”
That changed in 2008 when Cristina was introduced to the Si Se Puede!/We Can Do It! Women’s Cooperative. Launched by the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, a social service and advocacy group founded in 1978 by Sisters Mary Paul Janchill (1920 – 2009) and Mary Geraldine Tobia (1941 – 2000), Si Se Puede! is part of CFL’s Worker Cooperative Project. The group’s goal is to become what they call an “incubator of worker cooperatives”—businesses that don’t require much start-up capital and that build on people’s existing skills. And in the last few years, the Project has been on a roll.
Since 2006, the Project has assisted community residents in creating three women-owned and managed cooperatives—Si Se Puede!, the Beyond Care Child Care Cooperative, and the Color Me! Cooperative, a 6 month old indoor house painting business. The Émigré Cooking Collective—which offers catering services, cooking lessons, and market tours—is also affiliated with CFL and specializes in Latin American, South Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisine.
“Five or so years ago, CFL was running a traditional employment center, helping people prepare resumes and go on job interviews,” says Vanessa Bransburg, CFL’s Coop Coordinator. “As the economy began to tank, staff noticed that it was getting harder and harder for people with language barriers or undocumented status to find work. One CFL worker began investigating coops and started chatting about them in an ESL class. Most of the women in the class were already attuned to the idea of cooperative work; they knew about the artisan coops that exist throughout Latin America and liked the idea of working together to build a business. It was clear that most of them wanted to work, rather than rely on their husbands or partners for money. And most of them already had experience cleaning houses and offices.”
The idea of a women’s cleaning coop swiftly took root and together with CFL staff, the participants chose the name Si Se Puede! and developed a 10-week curriculum to prepare themselves for starting the business. Classes covered rudimentary skills—from how to provide high-quality customer service, to doing publicity and promotion, to using the most effective and least toxic cleaning products. They also tackled more complex themes, from the nuts-and-bolts of democratic governance to analyzing different models for working cooperatively. Along the way they found an important ally—the Urban Justice Center—whose lawyers helped them draft and finalize bylaws and, later, incorporate as a not-for-profit cooperative corporation under New York State law.
The coop now has 28 members, all of them immigrants from Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Each pays a $40 monthly fee for administrative expenses—including childcare and snacks during weekly meetings. While this fee is expected to increase once the coop hires an office manager/scheduler, members like Cristina say that the dues are a small price to pay for what is received. She needs no prompting to sing Si Se Puede’s praises. “Now, thanks to the coop, I have jobs that take me three to five hours to complete,” Cristina says, “and I make the same amount I used to make for 12 hours of work. I can also control my hours, which has been the biggest benefit, especially now that I have two children. Plus, I’ve gotten so much help from other coop members. I don’t have any family in the United States so the other coop members have become my family.”
As Cristina continues speaking it is obvious that she is thrilled to have put her $7 an hour days behind her. Indeed, Si Se Puede! members keep the entirety of what they earn: $90-$125 for cleaning a one-to-two bedroom apartment, $180-$250 for cleaning a house. Separate fees for additional services—scrubbing an oven or refrigerator, doing laundry, organizing a closet, or walking a dog, for example—are added on and are included in a written contract that outlines expectations, fees, and terms of employment that both parties must sign before work begins.
Bransburg estimates that members earn $20 per hour. “The majority of members work regularly, sometimes every day, but they can call in and say, ‘I want to work every day this week, but only one day next week.’ This means the women feel less pressured than they did before they became coop members.”
At the same time, like all coops, membership in Si Se Puede! requires participation in the day-to-day management of the business and there is work to be done beyond the payment of dues. For one, members must spend three hours a month promoting the coop to potential clients. This might mean staffing a table at a summer street fair or handing out Si Se Puede! literature in upscale Brooklyn neighborhoods.
This old-fashioned, grassroots outreach has paid off; the coop now has more than 1,300 people in its database—from one-time users to weekly clients. What’s more, they’ve scored work not only from individuals but also from yoga studios, stores, and a Fort Greene bed & breakfast.
In addition to doing outreach, members are also required to attend weekly meetings where business decisions are hashed out. Some meetings are devoted to skill enhancement—and have included training in time management and health and safety. Since decisions are made by consensus, Bransburg admits that the meetings often run long so that issues can be fully addressed.
Current hot topics include how fast Si Se Puede! should grow. Should membership be capped, so that the coop remains small, or should it be opened to new members? If they choose to expand, will increased numbers inhibit participatory democracy? Can they avoid a more traditional hierarchical structure if they double or triple in size?
Not easy questions, these, but Si Se Puede! members and CFL staff agree that change is inevitable if the coop is to continue to thrive, and all are confident that the business is strong enough to weather growth spurts and challenges. In fact, Bransburg says that interest in the Si Se Puede! model is burgeoning and groups like Make the Road New York and Catholic Charities are looking to CFL for help in establishing similar projects in other parts of the city.
“Plus, the United Nations has declared 2012 to be The Year of the Cooperative,” Bransburg laughs.” We’ll have to see what that means for the coop movement.”
For more information:
Si Se Puede!: www.wecandoit.coop firstname.lastname@example.org 718.633.4823.
Beyond Care Child Care Coop: www.beyondcare.coop email@example.com 917.463.0399.
Color Me! Cooperative: www.colorme.coop firstname.lastname@example.org 718.569.6633.
Émigré Gourmet: email@example.com 718.633.4823.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.