Paid care and cleaning work usually entail poor working conditions and are often performed by migrant women.  In addition, isolated workplaces make it difficult to confer with colleagues and often expose workers to arbitrariness and abuse from clients (Yeung 2018). In New York City’s care and cleaning sectors, worker cooperatives offer an increasingly popular alternative to the usual corporate or private employment. These people-centered enterprises undermine capitalist logics by dint of the fact that all member workers are also the owners of their enterprise, and thus control it (Gordon Nembhard 2014). Democratic decision-making within the cooperatives is ensured by equal voting rights for all members.
Research has shown that worker cooperatives help to circumvent precarious labor conditions (Berry and Bell 2017), reduce income inequality (Jones Austin 2014), and counter economic marginalization (Gordon Nembhard 2014). From a historical viewpoint, the cooperative movement has mostly flourished in economically difficult times: after the Great Depression in 1929, during the years of high unemployment in the 1960s and 1970s, and most recently in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007–2008 (Gupta 2014; Jackall and Levin 1984; Pavlovskaya, Safri and Hudson 2016). The financial improvements that arise from worker cooperatives are considerable. However, as I argue in this article, the potential of worker cooperatives goes beyond the economic sphere: individuals acquire knowledge and skills related to business management and collective decision-making, which can lead to greater self-confidence and agency in other spheres of life.
This article is based on the author’s fieldwork in New York City between November 2018 and June 2019. Nine different migrant-led cleaning or care worker cooperatives were selected in order to analyze the changes in the everyday lives of migrant women who had chosen to become members of a worker cooperative. The data includes 20 interviews and three group discussions with mostly female cooperative members and organizers from cooperative incubator organizations, six participant observations, and a quantitative survey filled out by 71 mostly female cooperative members.
Empowerment in everyday life
The fact that worker cooperatives can help prevent precarious working conditions, reduce income inequalities, and counteract discrimination in the labor market (Berry and Bell 2017; Gordon Nembhard 2014) also becomes clear in this research: before they joined the cooperative, the research participants earned between 7 and 20 US dollars an hour; with the cooperative, they earn approximately 15 to 30 US dollars per hour. Their co‑ownership of the cooperative has also enabled many of them to reduce their working hours and be more flexible in choosing their schedules. Nevertheless, especially in the business start‑up period, they devoted much unpaid time to the self-organization processes, which was very stressful for them and their families. However, many of the cooperative members explained in the interviews that the skills they learned in this process, such as business management, collective decision-making, and expressing their opinions in front of others, were useful to them both in paid labor and in family life. Because migrant women are often structurally excluded from decision-making processes owing to their gender and origin, such changes are all the more significant. The ability to speak up in front of others, combined with enhanced social support through teamwork within the cooperative, leads many research participants to feel safer at work. Guadalupe, a Mexican care worker, reported:
The cooperative office sends me to a job, and I’m much safer there [compared to my previous no-cooperative job] because all of my co‑workers know exactly where I am. (Guadalupe, 38). 
Many women reported increased self-confidence in dealing with clients. For example, Carina, a member of a childcare cooperative, from Guatemala, said:
When the family [had] another child, I asked [the clients] to pay me more. I wasn’t scared anymore that they could say no because I had this confidence from being part of the cooperative (Carina, 46).
For many workers, membership of a cooperative also brought about changes in family life. The better wages, the acquired knowledge, and the enlarged social network often helped them to become more independent from their partners. In addition—although most of the women still bear the main responsibility for care work at home—more than two thirds of the survey participants who answered the related survey question reported a fairer distribution of unpaid domestic work within their couple relationship. However, the dilution of traditional gender roles resulting from the wife’s new status as the self-employed higher earner also often led to conflicts in the partnership. They sometimes ended in separations that were made possible by greater independence. The cooperative member Giovanna, for instance, mentioned while speaking of her separation from her partner that “[w]ith the cooperative, I felt more able to take decisions in my life” (Giovanna, 33). Sometimes the membership of a cooperative also led to more equal relationships. For example, in the case of Fernanda, a Colombian member of a childcare cooperative:
Through the cooperative, we as women are empowered in the family. […]. [My husband] used to see me as subordinate because he made all the money. That’s how I saw myself too. I saw myself as so small and thought I had to respect everything. He brought the money, so I had to respect what he said. Now, I no longer see myself that way. I make my own decisions and they—my husband, my children, and my mom, too—they all see this part of me. […] My husband has changed: he is nicer and takes me into [consideration]. It’s not like [before when] he used to decide everything (Fernanda, 46).
Several research participants also reported a transformation in their parenting since joining a worker cooperative. During the interviews, they mentioned that they had learned to apply skills and knowledge acquired within the cooperative to the upbringing of their children. Alba, for instance, noted that the type of communication she had learned through democratic decision-making in the cooperative has changed the way she talked to her son:
Since I [have been] in the cooperative, I have learned how to better communicate. And I feel that I communicate better even with my children. My son is in the middle of his teenage years, so I have to negotiate with him: “If you do that, I’ll give you this.” And he says, “Where did you learn this way of talking, Mom?” (Alba, 41).
The acquired skills and knowledge related to communication and work collaboration, but also to the English language, computer technology, or business management, increases the cultural capital of worker-owners, which in turn positively influences their agency within the family.
Finally, membership in the cooperative—and notably the better wages, greater working-time flexibility, and acquired skills and knowledge—has also changed the migrant women’s leisure time. Almost two thirds of those answering the related survey question mentioned enjoying more leisure time compared to before cooperative membership. One worker-owner reported:
I like doing sports. With the co‑op, I can choose a shift that starts at 11 a.m. Like this, I can bring my kids to school at 8 a.m. and then go to the gym before I start working. I love that flexibility (Maria, 40).
In addition, since joining their cooperatives, many migrant women spend more time on political activism. For example, Elena, a Mexican woman in a cleaning cooperative, reported:
Before I was in the cooperative, I would have never attended protests—never, never! Since I have joined the cooperative, I’ve become aware of a lot of these [social-justice] issues (Elena, 38).
Engagements are diverse and range from participation in protests to organizing neighborhood collectives and lobbying politicians. Such political participation is often supported by training courses—for example, on labor rights—offered by NGOs, which the co‑op members attend during their cooperatives’ start‑up phase. Silvia mentioned:
Now, I have much more time to educate myself. There are a lot of activities and lectures in the [office of an NGO], which I can now attend in my free time (Silvia, 44).
Moreover, as a result of their cooperatives, the women are already organized as a group, which makes it easier to extend their organizing together. Worker cooperatives thus provide support for women to raise their own voices in public, which is probably the most visible form of empowerment.
A promising approach for organizing cleaning and care labor
In this article, I have unpacked the processes of empowerment and self-determination within worker cooperatives. These processes are particularly relevant for migrant women who face considerable hurdles owing to their gender-, race-, and class-related position in society. Through cooperation, marginalized groups can gain more agency and thus greater influence on the conditions of their everyday lives. In this way, these groups challenge and partially alter power relations in society. A greater dissemination of the cooperative model could thus not only lead to a democratization of the economic system, but also to broader social emancipation. Worker cooperatives demand a great deal of unpaid commitment from members. Nonetheless, membership ultimately provides them with greater freedom of action and thus reduces the discrimination they experience.
Worker cooperatives face further structural challenges such as gendered work segregation and the global inequalities that enable wealthy people to outsource their reproductive work to migrant women—topics which would certainly benefit from more attention by researchers and policymakers. It seems likely that the cooperative movement alone will not be able to reconfigure capitalist power structures at a societal level. This research has nevertheless shown how the empowerment of discriminated groups—in this case, migrant women—can be enhanced through worker cooperatives. Given the current economic upheavals and historical examples of cooperatives as a form of self-help in times of crisis, worker cooperatives offer a promising approach for the future organization of cleaning and care work—and not only in New York City.
- Berry, Daphne and Bell, Myrtle P. 2017. “Worker cooperatives: alternative governance for caring and precarious work”, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 376–391.
- Gordon Nembhard, Jessica. 2014. Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, University Park: Penn State University Press.
- Gupta, Clare. 2014. “The co-operative model as a ‘living experiment in democracy’”, Journal of Co-operative Organization and Management, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 98–107.
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- Jones Austin, Jennifer. 2014. Worker Cooperatives for New York City: A Vision for Addresing Income Inequality, January, New York: Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.
- Komposch, Nora. 2020. “‘Als Genossenschafterin fühle ich mich sicherer.’ Wie sich New Yorker Care-Arbeiter·innen mit Kooperativen selbstermächtigen”, Widerspruch – Beiträge zu sozialistischer Politik, no. 75, pp. 145–151, Zürich: Rotpunktverlag.
- Pavlovskaya, Marianna; Safri, Maliha; and Hudson, Lauren. 2016. NYC Worker Cooperatives Survey: Round 1 – Detailed Public Report, report prepared by the Solidarity Economy Research Project (SERP) for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), New York, 1 March.
- Yeung, Bernice. 2018. In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers, New York: The New Press.