Community members in Far Rockaway gather for one of the early meetings about cooperatives. (WNV/Peter Rugh)
Three and a half months ago, the walls upstairs at the Church of the Prophecy in Far Rockaway, a low-income coastal neighborhood of New York City, were covered with maps of where help was most needed. The church was a hub for the Occupy Sandy relief effort after Hurricane Sandy. Now, nearly five months after the hurricane struck, the maps have been replaced by posters extolling the virtues of collective struggle and art made by neighborhood children enrolled in Occupy Sandy’s twice-weekly after-school program.
“The kids missed a month and a half of school,” explained Luis Casco, a member of the church’s congregation who pulled strings to help move Occupy into Far Rockaway. The after-school program was, in part, his brainchild. “We figured we’d start helping the kids and we could win over their parents. Then we could actually start bigger projects,” he said.
One of those bigger projects is a worker-run cooperative initiative, organized by Occupy Sandy and supported by the Working World, an organization that specializes in incubating collectively owned businesses.
During Occupy Wall Street, protesters spent thousands of dollars printing pamphlets and posters to spread their message. Watching money flow into the corporate companies whose principles they protested, a small group of participants planned to start their own printing cooperative founded on the principles of equal responsibility, ownership and pay.
Two and a half years later, two workers’ cooperatives that developed out of the movement are finding new ways to keep their businesses –and principles—going now that they’re no longer taking to the streets to occupy public spaces such as Zuccotti Park. They’re occupying their time with their businesses, while still helping to promote the movement and its message. And both cooperatives are surviving the tough economic climate with an age-old practice: printing.
You spoke of emerging co-ops. What kinds of ideas are being attempted? Can you talk a little more about the lessons coming out of these efforts?
The emerging co-ops include a copy shop, a screenprinting business, a tech support firm, and a worker-owned restaurant. Most of them are directly related to operations that were put into place during the occupation of Zuccotti Park last fall. OccuCopy provides flyers, stickers, buttons, and posters to working groups within Occupy Wall Street in addition to outside orders. The screenprinting co-op is emerging from a guild of dedicated volunteers who produced t-shirts and posters at large mobilizations and on site at the park for anyone who wanted on a donation basis. The tech support firm is emerging from the work of several talented web developers who have been behind the many websites and applications we've used at OWS. The worker-owner restaurant folks also want to develop a community supported kitchen as part of their model, and they're all folks who were involved in the OWS Kitchen that at one point fed more people each day than any of the largest soup kitchens in NYC. All of them have representatives who meet regularly to discuss our projects and our shared vision for co-op development in our city.
A few of the lessons learned have been specific to OWS and our relationship to General Assembly, which I won't go into, but suffice to say we learned pretty early that not every self-identified radical supports co-ops as anti-capitalist economic development. I think that came as a bit of a shock and made us aware that there is a lot of misunderstandings about how co-ops work and what their role has been in social movements. We also all felt somewhat uneasy about incorporation--should we be nonprofits, LLCs, co-ops under NY state law, B corporations, etc.? What we learned from the wonderful folks at the Urban Justice Center is that incorporation doesn't really matter that much, actually, and it's really about how you write your by-laws and structure your practices that matters.
Occupy Salem Free University will host the forum “Building a Cooperative Economy: From Mondragon to Massachusetts” on Monday, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m. at 217 Essex St. (The Gathering).Tony Dunn, a longtime labor activist, who is starting a worker-owned business in Lynn, will talk about his recent trip to Mondragon in Spain. He will be joined by Eric Johnson, an active member of the U.S. Federation of Cooperatives, who works at Red Sun Press, a unionized worker-owned business in Boston.
While unemployment reaches Depression-era levels, the politicians talk about cutting deficits, ignoring the needs of the 99 percent. How do we build a new economy based on the needs of the people? Mondragon is a network of worker-owned co-ops that is Spain’s seventh-largest corporation. The Mondragon cooperatives employ more than 80,000 people and virtually never lay anyone off.