By: Zhengyang Xie & Rob Persons

On February 29, 2024, Westchester Cooperative Network (WCN) co-hosted an information session on worker-owned cooperatives with the county office for economic development, Westchester Catalyst, in White Plains. Convening a panel of leaders in the regional cooperative movement, WCN highlighted the different aspects of cooperative enterprises to inspire cooperative development in Westchester. WCN was delighted by the great turn out and high level of audience engagement. WCN believes this event was a big step toward building a solidarity economy in Westchester. Here are a few takeaways: 

WCN co-founder Delia Marx opened up the panel by providing a background on worker co-ops and their benefits. Worker-owned cooperatives are enterprises owned by the workers and managed through a one worker, one vote principle. Compared to conventional businesses, worker co-ops provide better wages and benefits plus a stronger sense of belonging and job satisfaction. WCN believes worker-owned cooperatives would benefit Westchester residents by providing stable employment, economic democracy, and opportunities for marginalized communities to own their labor. The two main ways to form a worker cooperative are to start-up a new business as a co-op or to convert an existing business to worker ownership. WCN is a non-profit that connects people interested in both approaches with organizations that support cooperative development.

The other panelists included Joe Marraffino, a loan officer from Cooperative Fund of the Northeast, Andela DeFelice, managing director at Co-op Hudson Valley, Joél Mejia, founding member of Mi Oh My Hydroponic Farms cooperative, and Saduf Syal, coordinating director of NYC Network for Worker Cooperatives (NYC NoWC). 

Angela and Joe talked about how loan funds can support worker co-ops by not only providing capital, but also taking a hands-on approach to ensuring long term success. They do this by assisting the development of a business plan, as well as providing training, support and connections with other cooperatives. Rather than seeking only the highest return on investments, cooperative loan funds value sustainable success and community empowerment over short term payouts. Joe also talked about how cooperative conversions can address the ongoing ‘silver tsunami’ of retiring business owners. Baby boomers currently own 40% of the small businesses in the US. For business owners who are looking to retire or step back but don’t have a successor, selling to their workers is a great way to keep their legacy alive while maintaining long term job stability for their workers.

Joél Mejia shared experiences starting-up a worker-owned farm in the Bronx. Now with five worker-owners doing vertical farming, the co-op provides locally grown food as their way to fight against food insecurity. Joél explained how co-op values put community and interpersonal relationships over profit and power. New York City has one of the largest cooperative ecosystems in the country, as Saduf Syal pointed out. This is important because worker co-ops face greater barriers to entry than conventional businesses. For example, the multiple owners structure make it more difficult to be approved for loans by conventional banks. Therefore, creating ecosystems to support cooperative development is essential. NYC NoWC offers a model for a successful cooperative network, which WCN is working to learn from and connect with.

The audience participants were mostly small business owners. After the presentations, there were many questions during the Q&A session about the possibilities of converting existing businesses into worker cooperatives as well as what support resources exist in Westchester. 

WCN is encouraged by the event and looking forward to continuing to promote cooperatives in Westchester.