Wellspring Collaborative article [repost]

Wellspring Collaborative’s worker-owned upholstery business provides entry-level jobs to underemployed inner-city

By Laura Newberry | laura.newberry@masslive.com

SPRINGFIELD – When Carlos Perez moved from Puerto Rico to Waterbury, Conn. in April 2012, his main priority was finding good work.

Perez could barely speak English and soon found that the language barrier would be an impediment to steady employment. He cycled through a series of temp jobs, mostly in factories, punctuated by unpredictable periods of joblessness.

The 26-year-old Holyoke resident has come a long way since then. His English has improved considerably, and he’s worked at Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative for two months now. He earns a modest $11 an hour, he said, but this job is different from the others. If all goes well, Perez could be a part-owner of the company in less than a year.

“This job saved my life, pretty much,” Perez said as he took a pair of shears to a charcoal-colored fabric draped over a plywood work table.

On a micro level, Perez’s story reflects the goals of Wellspring Collaborative, a Springfield-based economic development project that draws on the purchasing power of the area’s largest employers to provide a market for new, worker-owned companies.

The upholstery company, which launched in Dec. 2013, is the umbrella organization’s first business. While building a small but dependable staff has proven more difficult than expected, according to Wellspring’s directors, the company has been able to rope in loyal and repeat business from what economists call “anchor institutions” – hospitals and colleges, namely.

Perez is part of this experiment. And so far, he said, it’s going pretty well.

Back into the community

With a small staff of four, it’s surprising how much work Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative is doing for some of the area’s biggest institutions. Chief among them are the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Dartmouth and Lowell and Bay State Health and Mercy Medical Center. The company is also branching out to libraries and restaurants.

Most of its work is entry-level upholstery, mainly auditorium seating and restaurant-style booths.

Wellspring and cooperatives like it are an increasingly popular way to develop business in communities hard hit by economic recession. According to Wellspring’s research, less than 10 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion that local anchor institutions spend on goods and services goes to Springfield businesses, and, consequently, very little is fed into the low-income neighborhoods that surrounds those institutions.

One of the main pillars of co-op ideology is to provide job training and entry-level work for unemployed and underemployed inner-city residents, which is especially important in Springfield, said Wellspring co-director Fred Rose.

Rose explained that Springfield, which has the lowest adult employment rate of all New England municipalities, simply doesn’t have enough entry-level jobs for people who live in the city.

“As the economy’s changed, there’s been a big influx of new people moving into the city, especially the Latino and Puerto Rican community,” he said. “And there hasn’t been a job base to meet their needs. “

Finding people that will benefit from Wellspring’s limited but promising employment opportunities wasn’t difficult. But keeping them was another story, said Wellspring’s other co-director, Emily Kawano. The business went through about a dozen employees before the current staff, a seemingly stable one, came to be.

Upholstery calls for a particular skill set, Kawano explained, including attention to detail and patience. And some employees didn’t buy into the concept of a co-op and left to find more traditionally structured jobs.

“We’re looking for that kind of inclination in people where they act like this is their business, as opposed to, ‘I’m just waiting around for the boss to tell me what to do,'” Kawano said.

Workers get weekly, on-the-job training led by Evan Cohen, Wellspring Upholstery’s manager. Cohen also owns Alliance Upholstery, a Wellspring partner that houses the cooperative business in its shop on Main Street.

Training involves workers in decision making, problem solving and brainstorming what could be going better within the company.

Workers who stay with the business for a year will have the opportunity to pay a one-time membership fee of about $1,000, which basically amounts to buying a share of the business, Kawano said.

“We wanted to set it at a level that’s serious and feels like a substantial investment, but is realistic,” Kawano said of the buy-in amount.

Cohen said for many of his former employees, the idea that they could own and run a business within just a few years was daunting.

“Some come from being incarcerated, and it can seem foreign to them,” Cohen said.

Bob Demerjian, a 40-year-old Indian Orchard resident, will have been with Wellspring for a year on Dec. 15. He said he plans on paying the $1,000, and looks forward to playing a bigger role in company decision-making.

“I enjoy that role, being on the management side of things,” he said. “I like being in the middle of it all.”

The theory behind cooperatives, Kawano explained, is that when workers have financial stake in a company, they see their job as a more serious commitment; and commitment among workers sets the foundation for a stable business.

The promise of stability is a welcome one for Demerjian. He’s held many jobs since he graduated with an English degree from UMass, which he joked left him “unprepared to do anything but drift through life.”

Demerjian would be the company’s first worker-owner.

“It’s a lot of unknowns to me, how it’s all going to work, but that’s the point,” he said. “I’m working toward something, and I’m growing with the business.”

Finding a niche

Wellspring focuses on simple, entry-level upholstery for a reason, Cohen said.

“We’d like to stick to our genre,” Cohen said. “ The work we’re doing is simple, but good. We have repeat customers.”

Evan explained that the upholstery market in the greater Springfield area has dwindled a great deal over the past few decades. Up until the 1970s, there were five large upholstery factories in the Pioneer Valley. Most have closed.

“We have a niche in the commercial end of upholstery,” he said.

Wellspring is forging a niche through environmental upholstery, too. One of Wellspring’s overall goals is to be as environmentally conscious as possible, Rose said. In the upholstery world, that means using fabrics that are free of toxins such as fire-retardants, an option hospitals especially find attractive.

Wellspring’s umbrella organization also plans to open a greenhouse in 2015 that is expected to grow produce for college dining halls and hospitals – a more steady business than upholstery, Kawano said, and one that will require a larger staff.

Starting somewhere

Kawano acknowledged that Wellspring’s workforce is still small. But she said she has faith that the organization’s strategy grounded in workplace democracy will yield more jobs.

“You have to start somewhere. Our vision is to continue to develop cooperative businesses as well as to grow jobs within existing businesses,” she said. “Some, like the upholstery shop, will start off with a small number of workers, but others will start off at a larger scale.”

She used Mondragon Corporation, a federation of worker cooperatives based in the Basque region of Spain, as an example. It started off in 1956 with five employees who assembled paraffin heaters. Today, Mondragon employs more than 74,000.

Cohen said his staff will grow as the business continues to prosper. The lofty shop is a sprawling 3,200 square-feet, and there’s plenty of room – it’s just a matter of getting more work.

“The more work we have,” he said, nodding to the obvious, “the more people we can hire.”

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Distinguished Senior Lecturer and Director of Master of Public Policy and Community Practice, Tufts University Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning

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