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People power meets pedal power

Cross-posted from the Otesha Project UK blog

It’s no secret that at Otesha we love bikes. It’s also no secret that we think green & decent jobs are super important if we’re going to find a good way forward out of this whole ecological/economic collapse situation (let’s face it, it’s kind of a mess right now).

Recently I wrote a blog enthusing the power of worker-owned cooperatives because when the jobs aren’t there, why the heck not make them ourselves, right? This time around, I wanted to follow up on my mostly American example by showcasing some homegrown people-powered projects.

So, enter Brixton Cycles and the Edinburgh Bike Co-op – two lovely places that between them have created hundreds of jobs, including more than 120 co-op owners, since they opened their doors. Both of them operate on the same basic system – if you’re a co-op member then you’ve got equal rights, equal responsibilities and equal ownership. No member is higher up the food chain than another, and no member is immune to the risks that come along with any kind of businesses. Both shops take on workers on a trial period, where after a year of employment they become eligible to join the co-op. Right now, Brixton Cycles has 13 co-op members and the Edinburgh Bike Co-op (which has also opened shops in Aberdeen, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield) has around 100.

If you want to know more, I’d recommend reading up on the Brixton Cycles history and checking out this article on what it means to Edinburgh Bicycles Co-op to work cooperatively.

And this year is the UN’s international year of co-operatives, which aims “to raise public awareness of the invaluable contributions of cooperative enterprises to poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.” Hear, hear!

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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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