Berkeley Pledges Support and Funding for Worker Co-ops

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

East Bay Express – By Jean Tepperman

Andrea Hurd of Mariposa Gardening was nowhere near retirement when she decided a few years ago to convert her business to a worker cooperative. She had grown her company and developed her own style of ecological garden design. “As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I felt a huge passion for building a larger company,” she recalled. But at the same time, she didn’t want to become a full-time business manager like many successful contractors. Now, as a worker-owner of the Mariposa Gardening Cooperative, she shares management and gardening with other worker-owners.

Hurd said she couldn’t have done it without a lot of help — participation in the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s Worker Co-op Academy and a year of mentoring from Project Equity. Co-ops need extra support getting started, said Jordan Klein of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development, because of “the general unfamiliarity with worker co-ops as a model.” In addition, he said, co-ops sometimes face barriers getting financing, or even simply filling out forms required by local or state regulations.

“I also wanted to help build a better economic base for the community,” Hurd added. “The landscaping industry is historically very exploitative of its workers.”

Worker-owners of co-ops like Hurd’s have been active in pushing Berkeley and Oakland to provide city support for co-op development through the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (or NOBAWC, which they pronounce “no boss.”) “People’s lives are changed by working in a worker co-op,” said former co-op member Foresta Sieck-Hill, now a network staffer. “There’s personal growth and the potential to contribute to the local community. Think about the Cheeseboard. What a gift to work as a baker: make a living wage, and be surrounded by this vibrant community. Most people who work in restaurants work for slave wages for someone who doesn’t appreciate them.”

Last week, the Cheeseboard’s longtime home committed to a new strategy for fighting economic inequality and building the local economy: city support for worker cooperatives. The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously on Fe.26 to include co-ops in the city’s small-business revolving loan fund; give co-ops, along with women- and minority-owned businesses, preference for city contracts; and provide ongoing technical assistance to help existing small businesses convert to worker cooperatives.

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