Norma Sanchez's hand still flutters to her chest when she remembers the incident that was the beginning of the end of her career as a $5-an-hour janitor. She was mixing heavy-duty cleaners in a supplies closet when the mixture exploded, filling the space with caustic smoke. Unable to read the English labels, she had accidentally combined ammonia and bleach. The Oakland resident's lungs ached for a month but taking a night off seemed impossible. "Now I look back at all of that and I say, 'Wow, I was really suffering,'" she said.
Today, Sanchez, 35, cleans with baking soda and natural Castile soap and takes sick days when she needs them. She is one of dozens of low-income, low-education, sometimes undocumented workers who have gone into business for themselves thanks to a boom in worker-owned cooperatives.
Organizers at the Bay Area's two co-op associations say their membership rolls have swollen in the past several years even as the broader economy has faltered. That's partly thanks to expansion among hip mainstays such as Arizmendi Bakery, Berkeley's Cheese Board Collective, bike shops and artisanal collectives. But a different kind of co-op is also gaining in popularity. Responding to what they say is a remarkable interest in entrepreneurship, nonprofit organizations are launching programs that provide leadership training, management support and other tools that help workers become their own bosses. "That's the reason I'm interested in co-op development," said Melissa Hoover, director of the San Francisco-based U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. "I'm super glad the world has a lot of bike stores, but I'm more interested in how co-ops are used as a tool for economic development."
Hannah Dreier writes in the Oakland Tribune.