A Labor Day Story: Can Worker Cooperatives Lift Women Out of Poverty?

Life took a better turn for Tere, a mother of two and a Mexican immigrant, when she became a worker-owner of the ecofriendly housecleaning service Si Se Puede!. As a partner in this Brooklyn cooperative, where the business is owned and controlled by the workers, she found stable work and had better wages than at any of her previous jobs. She could manage her own schedule, which meant more time for her children and less strain on her marriage.

Chasing her own version of the American dream, Tere has something in common with New York’s colonial-era forefathers of the labor movement.

Those forefathers were men of the cloth—a group of New York City tailors who went on strike in 1768 because of pay cuts (they prevailed) and went on to establish the first known worker cooperative in the United States, according to historian John Curl, author of For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America.

Yet nearly 250 years later when the Center for Family Life (CFL), a family and social services organization in Sunset Park, first sought funding partners for a “revolutionary” initiative to disrupt the cycle of poverty for low-income, immigrant women like Tere, most philanthropies balked, thinking it was too risky. Except for one: The New York Women’s Foundation (The Foundation).

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