Power to the people

I originally wrote this in Dec 2011 for the Otesha Project UK blog

Are workers’ cooperatives the way forward in creating green & decent jobs?

As Hanna mentioned in her recent blog, one of the biggest challenges our Greener Jobs Pipeline project faces is convincing employers to take on young and ‘untested’ apprentices.

So of course the obvious solution is to take on job creation ourselves by becoming employers, preferably creating jobs where the employees have a real stake in the business, are paid living wages and have opportunities for career advancement! Easy peasy. Ha.

Before you call me an unrealistic idealist, this model does exist. It’s out there and it’s actually working. And yes, it’s even working in the middle of a recession. It’s working in Spain, in Venezuela, in the UK and in even in TV-land.

I recently came across a really inspiring American example, Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio. The explicit goal of this inter-linked set of cooperatives is to employ local people while building thriving, profitable businesses. Evergreen is based in a poor, mostly black area of Cleveland, where the median income is less than $19,000 (£11,800). In 2009, they launched two worker-owned businesses: Evergreen Cooperative Laundry and Ohio Solar. They’re also in the process of breaking ground on a year-round hydroponic food growing project, Green City Growers.

Basically, I love everything about them. They’re employee-owned, profitable, green and all about spreading wealth rather than just creating jobs. In mainstream business-as-usual, that’s subversive stuff.

Why does it work?

  • Money talks. Evergreen received a big cash injection to get going. For example, the start-up costs for Evergreen Cooperative Laundry were $5.7million (£3.6 million), contributed from national and local government bodies, tax credits, a community foundation and two banks.
  • Contractor buy-in from the start. Several of the project’s ‘anchor organisations’ that helped get it up and running are now large contractors for their services, including the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. The laundry business scored two big nursing home contracts pretty quickly, and Ohio Solar has been busy weatherizing and installing PV panels on buildings belonging to almost all the anchor organisations. In fact, the whole project was convened by the Cleveland Foundation when they set out to answer the question “why is it that so few benefits and so little wealth from our most profitable local institutions are flowing to local people?
  • Well trained staff. Evergreen recruits their workers from a local charity called Towards Employment, which provides all sorts of job readiness training for local residents. They also hired expert management and technical skills from outside the community to help get the cooperatives up and running.
  • Big ambition combined with realistic short-term goals. They want to seed a network of inter-related cooperatives, eventually employing around 5,000 people, but they’ve got the good sense to start small and test things out. As far as I can tell, so far they’re employing around 22 people (15 at the laundry and 7 at Ohio Solar) with plans to grow to around 50 per cooperative. Each business has also committed to put 10% of its profits back into a Cooperative Development Fund to help launch more social enterprises.

That’s not to say that they don’t have their challenges as well. It’ll be interesting to see how well these businesses thrive and grow over the long run, especially when they start looking for clients beyond the initial anchor organisations, and whether they eventually manage to hand over the management to community members instead of the outside experts who were initially hired.

But no matter what, Evergreen has been successful in creating green and decent jobs for Cleveland’s residents. On any scale, that’s a success in my books!

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About lizmcdowell

I am a strategist, facilitator, social entrepreneur, campaigner and occasional tetra-pak wallet-maker. Learn more about me at http://flavours.me/lizmcdowell

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