UEP Student Assesses the Potential for an Immigrant Worker Cooperative in RI

In her master’s thesis, Janaki (Jan) Blum examines the challenges and opportunities of Fuerza Laboral in its efforts to incubate a worker cooperative of building cleaners in Rhode Island.  

Founded in 2006, Fuerza Laboral (FL) is a nonprofit worker center based in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  FL largely focuses on programs that address labor exploitation of Latino immigrant workers through education and organizing.  In 2014, FL and its partners formed the Cooperative Business Incubator (CBI) program to help launch worker-owned cooperatives and to promote alternatives to the capitalist model of business enterprise.  Jan’s thesis incorporates a feasibility analysis, which looks at the potential formation of a building cleaning cooperative by FL.

The thesis is centered on four research questions:

  1. How does FL think about and go about the process of incubating cooperatives?
  2. How does FL relate to other similar initiatives?
  3. What is the potential for a cleaning cooperative in Central Falls, Rhode Island (RI), that would provide a living wage, safe and stable employment, as well as opportunities for educational and occupational training?
  4. How can establishing worker cooperatives be better facilitated by immigrant worker centers in RI (and beyond)?

The literature review covers the history and recent resurgence of worker cooperatives and worker centers. Worker cooperatives are “independent businesses are democratically owned and controlled by their workers according to shared principles and values.”  Worker coops differ from conventional firms in that they prioritize the employment of worker-members over maximizing profits for shareholders.  Worker Centers are community led nonprofits that support low-wage, non-union workers.  In contrast to traditional unions, worker center membership is often determined by ethnicity not by industry and they serve their members by promoting the enforcement of labor regulations not by collective bargaining.

The feasibility study notes the intense competition that a cleaning cooperative would face in a saturated market of cleaning services. It was recommended that the cooperative be structured as a limited liability company (LLC) that consists of five or fewer members. The study found that a commercial cleaning enterprise, as opposed to residential cleaning, might be more attractive despite some of the costs associated with it. Working in both residential and commercial cleaning sectors is another option to help build the cooperative’s business feasibility.

The role that Fuerza Laboral played as an immigrant worker center was found to be valuable in facilitating the incubation process. Although the study could have benefited from expanding on the market and financial aspects, the partners of the study are optimistic that findings from the study will bring about more support for the worker-cooperative model in Rhode Island.

Janaki Blum focuses on community economic development, and has research experience in affordable housing, food systems, and science. She has studied or worked in educational, non-profit and for-profit environments in the USA, Europe, and Asia.

Read Jan’s full thesis here: A Clean Break: Fuerza Laboral’s Quest to Incubate a Cleaning Cooperative in Rhode Island

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