“When the workers get together and decide how to distribute the income in such an enterprise, would they give the CEO $25 million in stock bonuses while everybody else can barely get by?”
Three and a half months ago, the walls upstairs at the Church of the Prophecy in Far Rockaway, a low-income coastal neighborhood of New York City, were covered with maps of where help was most needed. The church was a hub for the Occupy Sandy relief effort after Hurricane Sandy. Now, nearly five months after the hurricane struck, the maps have been replaced by posters extolling the virtues of collective struggle and art made by neighborhood children enrolled in Occupy Sandy’s twice-weekly after-school program.
“The kids missed a month and a half of school,” explained Luis Casco, a member of the church’s congregation who pulled strings to help move Occupy into Far Rockaway. The after-school program was, in part, his brainchild. “We figured we’d start helping the kids and we could win over their parents. Then we could actually start bigger projects,” he said.
One of those bigger projects is a worker-run cooperative initiative, organized by Occupy Sandy and supported by the Working World, an organization that specializes in incubating collectively owned businesses.
The initiative is well suited to Far Rockaway because worker-run enterprises have a history of flourishing in environments of economic distress or political upheaval. In 2001, when Argentina defaulted on its international loans and the country’s ownership class fled, Argentines took over abandoned factories and established networks of producers and distributors. In Venezuela, worker-run cooperatives were at the heart of the vision for 21st-century socialism, and Hugo Chavez’s administration helped create tens of thousands of collectively owned businesses over the last 14 years. Most notably, Spanish workers in the Basque region created the Mondragon Corporation, the world’s largest federation of cooperatives, during the Franco dictatorship in the 1950s. Today more than 250 enterprises operate under the Mondragon banner, and the federation, which spans 77 countries and employs 83,000 workers, has been widely praised.
“Collective approach pays big dividends,” read a headline about Mondragon in The Financial Times last year, while the New York Times noted the “use of workers’ share capital and loans” has enabled the federation to remain stable through vacillations in global markets, including the ongoing financial crisis.
While Mondragon shows what is possible down the line, Far Rockaway residents are at the very beginning of the process. At one of the crowded early meetings of the cooperative initiative, children and adults buzzed about, fraternizing with disposable plates of food in their hands as extra folding chairs were arranged. Several parents whose children attended the after-school program arrived, bringing their friends and neighbors along. Most were Spanish-speaking immigrants who, having spent their lives working for someone else, were eager to learn more about cooperatives.
Many in Far Rockaway lost their jobs when Hurricane Sandy rendered commutes impossible for flooded local businesses. For those without U.S. work papers, finding new employment has been difficult.
“It’s really hard to find a new job when you don’t have papers,” Casco explained. “Their homes were destroyed, they don’t have the resources to go to welfare and FEMA ain’t helping them.”
Luis Casco, a resident of Far Rockaway, has been one of the main organizers of community initiatives post-Sandy. (WNV/Peter Rugh)
Others, such as Olga Lezama, managed to keep their jobs after the storm, but the prospect of holding on to the profits of their labor has piqued their interest. Lezama currently works as an upholsterer for a high-end furniture company. By Lezama’s calculations, her boss makes approximately $500 every hour off the furniture that she and her co-workersupholster, while she earns roughly $100 a day.
“It hurts my feelings and my pockets,” she said. “My job and my efforts and my everything goes to them.”
By her side was her husband, Carlos Lezama, a carpenter who specialized in cabinets. The pair hope to work with others in the community to form a home-design cooperative, a service in high demand after the storm, which ruined the ground floors of most of the region’s low-lying bungalows.
“We go to stores and buy cheap furniture, cabinets and stuff, and we’re wasting our money,” Lezama said. “In two months, the cabinet is no good. So we have go buy it again. Our people deserve good stuff.”
Workers controlling capital
Occupy Sandy has allocated $60,000 of the $900,000 it raised in the initial flood of generosity following the storm toward forming cooperatives, an initiative they hope to spread across storm-affected areas if it proves successful in Far Rockaway. The Working World, an organization that provides zero-debt micro-finance loans to new cooperatives, has offered to provide monetary support, but for now the organization is mostly lending advice and training. At one of the early meetings, Brandon Martin, The Working World’s founder, showed the crowd a slideshow of other projects the organization has helped launch. Images of a beekeepers’ cooperative in the countryside of Nicaragua and a shoe factory in Buenos Aires glowed on the wall behind Martin as he outlined the benefits of workers sharing resources and making decisions democratically.
“A cooperative is workers controlling capital, instead of capital controlling workers,” said Martin. “It’s about reorganizing the economy around who’s really in control.”
The Working World finances itself by collecting a small percentage of the profits that member collectives generate, money that the organization reinvests in establishing new enterprises. Martin explained that the idea originated in ancient Sumeria where the word for interest was the same as the word for calf.
“If the cow I lent you has babies,” explained Martin, “I loaned you my cow, so I can have some the babies. That would be the interest.”
But if the cow was sterile, the Sumerians didn’t collect interest. The same works for Working World’s loans today. The organization only collects once a cooperative generates a steady profit, a model that avoids forcing people into debt if their business fails.
The Sumerians, for their part, eventually altered their lending practices such that they collected interest regardless of the outcome. The legacy of that shift is still with us today; few in Far Rockaway can call their surroundings their own. Walk through the neighborhood in the middle of a business day and you’ll see iron grating pulled down over storefronts and plywood covering the windows of large shopping complexes. Those stores that are open often bear the insignias of chain outlets that carry money out of the neighborhood and into the coffers of large corporations. Worker-run cooperatives, in contrast, could offer a way for community members to sell the products of their labor without selling their labor itself — a shift that would keep capital within the community and cash in the pockets of workers.
A handmade sign advertises the cooperative workshops in the window of Church of the Prophecy. (WNV/Peter Rugh)
At the following cooperative meeting a week later, the crowd had grown. People discussed plans for a scrap metal business and a cleaning-workers’ collective. One man pulled a citizens’ band radio out of his winter coat, explaining that drivers in the taxi cooperative he hoped to form could use it to communicate. He’d been doing research; nine other drivers were needed to secure an operating license from the city.
There is obvious enthusiasm in the neighborhood for worker-run enterprises. But are there limits to what these businesses can achieve while embedded in a broader economic framework of competition and exploitation? And does the focus on cooperatives represent a shift in direction for Occupy, one that veers away from a direct fight for systemic transformation?
“We can’t fight the city,” one Occupy Sandy organizer confided. “But we can build co-ops.”
Building an alternative
Richard Wolff, professor of economics at the New School and author of Democracy at Work, a study of cooperative businesses, argues that forming cooperatives can be the first step in enacting a sweeping social and economic shift. Wolff envisions a transformation, similar to the social shift from feudalism to capitalism, in which cooperatives replace corporations and goods are distributed through a democratically planned economy.
The cooperatives that Wolff talks about, and the ones that Occupy Sandy is aiming to establish, are more accurately known as worker self-directed enterprises: businesses that organize democratically collective ownership at the point of production.
“When the workers get together and decide how to distribute the income in such an enterprise, would they give the CEO $25 million in stock bonuses while everybody else can barely get by?” Wolff asks rhetorically.
He stresses the difference between the productive and distributive side of economies, explaining that worker-run cooperatives are the often-overlooked prerequisite for achieving an egalitarian distribution of wealth and resources. “There is the question of what exactly an alternative to capitalism is,” he explains. “I’ve stressed worker-self-directed enterprises as a different way of organizing production.” On the other hand are markets, which distribute the fruits of production. Wolff believes that the mistake of many 20th-century socialists was to imagine that the elimination of markets would create social egalitarianism, even though production had not yet been reorganized into a democratic model.
Given the pull between the productive and distributive side of economies, cooperatives must form networks to survive. Collaboration between networked enterprises allows these businesses to curb market pressures and, if the network manages to spread, to gain political power.
As Brandon Martin emphasizes, also, workers in new cooperatives must labor long hours to meet production quotas, just like with any other business, since their enterprise still has to compete for a market share. “Can one cooperative change that?” asks Martin. “No. But a cooperative economy might.”
Olga Lazema, however, isn’t thinking about the theoretical potential for cooperatives to challenge capitalism. She’s imagining the positive possibilities for her own neighborhood.
“A lot of people, their houses went like nothing,” she said, referring to Sandy’s destruction. “They have nothing. We could go there, build a small kitchen or whatever they need. Why not?”
There is a national trend of closing hospitals under the guise of saving taxpayers money. Brooklyn and Queens have been and continue to be negatively affected by the same trend, despite the fact that closing hospitals doesn’t actually save anyone money. The bed to patient ratios in Brooklyn and Queens are considerably lower than the state average of 3.1 per 1,000 patients, 2.3 and 1.7 respectively. Not only do patients and their families suffer, but so do the thousands of healthcare workers that have lost their jobs. There is no bail out in sight for the sick, uninsured and under-insured working class neighborhoods in the outer boroughs.
•Parkway Hospital – Opened 1963, closed 2008. Located in Forest Hills, Queens, it had 251 beds and employed approximately 600 people. Half of those employees were members of the healthcare union SEIU/1199.
•Mary Immaculate and St. John’s Queens Hospitals – St, John’s was founded in 1891 and served the Elmhurst, Queens area. Mary Immaculate, founded in 1902, was located in Jamaica, Queens. Both closed in 2009. The hospitals were run by Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers and were sold to Brooklyn Queens Health Centers of New York(BQHC) when Saint Vincent’s filed for bankruptcy in 2006. BQHC created a separate subsidiary, Caritas, that would own and operate the hospitals while maintaining their Catholic identity. Due to mismanagement, Caritas filed for bankruptcy and the hospitals were forced to close. They collectively had approximately 422 beds and treated an estimated 100,000 emergency room patients per year. 2,500 – 3,000 jobs were lost.
•Peninsula Hospital Center – Opened 1908, closed 2012 due to lack of funds and a lab that failed state health inspection. The closing of this hospital leaves only St. John’s Episcopal Hospital and a few urgent care centers on Far Rockaway. Peninsula Hospital had around 170 beds and served a community of over 100,000 residents, Approximately 1,000 jobs were lost.
•Victory Memorial Hospital – In operation in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn for 107 years, Victory Memorial closed its doors for good in 2008. It had 254 beds. Its closing has left 300,000 residents to use the already overburdened Lutheran Medical Center in Sunset Park or Maimonides Hospital in Borough Park. Over 900 jobs were lost.
•The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Caledonian Division – Caledonian, affectionately nicknamed Caly by the Flatbush, Brooklyn residents it served, was opened in 1910. In 1982, “Caly” merged with The Brooklyn Hospital and officially became The Brooklyn Hospital Center. It had 190 beds and an emergency department that was vital to the 20,000 residents who have inadequate or no insurance.
•St. Mary’s Brooklyn Hospital – Opened in 1882, closed in 2005. Located in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn St. Mary’s saw an average of 36,000 emergency room patients a year, many with little or no insurance. It had over 240 beds. 930 jobs were lost.
Three months after Superstorm Sandy, thousands of New Yorkers are still recovering. We took a look through some of the numbers and this is what we found.
Second Costliest Storm in U.S History: Sandy was surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina in total damage. Sandy unleashed over $65 billion dollars in weather destruction in less than five days.
Total number of homes affected by power outages: 8,100,000. Sandy damaged infrastructure to a point where some electrical grids simply shut down. People in at least 17 states were left without power in one way or another.
Historic size and numbers: Hurricane Sandy’s greatest size was 820 miles in diameter. measured just before Sandy unleashed on Atlantic City. The last storm to affect New York City specifically, Hurricane Irene, was half the size and nowhere near the power of Sandy.
Sandy also had the lowest barometric reading ever recorded - 940 millibars - for an Atlantic storm to make landfall north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Record-breaking waves pounded our coast, the tallest measuring 32.5 feet - the tallest ever recorded in our area.
13 Foot Downtown Deluge: The East River overflowed its banks, flooding large swaths of Lower Manhattan, with a 13.88 foot surge in Battery Park. Seven of the MTA’s underwater subway tunnels were flooded, creating extensive damage that took over a month to fully repair.
Political Windfall: The storm hit the U.S on the eve of the 2012 Presidential Election. Barack Obama’s stance and the overall effectiveness of the recovery (boosted by a sizable federal presence in the area) all helped his campaign.
The President’s approval rating jumped 7 points, according to right-leaning Rasmussen. It also boosted the approval rating of New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, by 21 points (from 56 to 77%) and helped not only Obama’s reelection but also boosted the Democratic presence in the states. Sandy also added a blip to Mayor Bloomberg’s fading reputation, boosting his approval rating to 50%, the highest it had been since 2010.
Crime and Desperation: Reports of robberies have risen dramatically in areas affected by Sandy. In the Rockaways, complaints of burglaries in the 100th Precinct, have increased 500 percent this year alone, from the same period in 2012. Complaints have increased by 250 percent in the 101st Precinct, which encompasses Far Rockaway and Edgemere.
Recovery Time: Lower Manhattan has seen the quickest recovery time, with most power restored in a week, yet about 300 buildings in Staten Island remain without electricity or heat. Ten public housing buildings in Red Hook, Coney Island and the Rockaways still have mobile boilers, run by generators. Residents say hot water availability goes from nonexistent for up to 3 days, to scalding hot and unbearable.
Occupy Wall Street’s Role: OWS, as Occupy Sandy, went above and beyond to fill in the gap between the displaced residents and their recovery needs. This proved to be pivotal, especially in the outer boroughs, where the response was slow at best and simply absent at its worst. OWS was responsible for sending 10,000 turkeys to families affected by the storm and coordinating shelter and other relief. In the month following the storm, Occupy Sandy was responsible for cooking and distributing between 10 and 15 thousand meals each day; enlisting more than 7,000 volunteers; creating three major distribution hubs from which it dispatched both workers and supplies; and establishing dozens of recovery sites in New York and New Jersey. Occupy also raised more than $600,000 in cash for its efforts and received more than $700,000 worth of donated supplies.
“Bipartisanship,” Again: On part of Congress, it took nearly 70 days for them to pass the flood insurance section of the Hurricane Sandy Relief. Some people had to wait 70 days in uncertainty and (some cases) homelessness or displacement to get aid in rebuilding. That’s more than six times longer than it took Congress to pass the Katrina. After three months of delays Congress finally approved a $51 billion aid package for victims of Super Storm Sandy . More than three-quarters of GOP senators voted against the full package. A Republican amendment to the bill that would require spending cuts to offset the disaster relief funding passed the House but was rejected by the Senate.
Mold and the Rockaway Cough: In a report put out by Queens Congregations United for Action, as of December 5 only 174 homes (out of 38,000 homes and businesses on the Rockaway Peninsula) had received help through Rapid Repairs. Over 8,000 more were still waiting to be inspected. The Met Council, a social service agency, found that only one in five families is hiring professional mold cleaning services. Community leaders are urging the city to include mold removal in their Rapid Repairs program.
Changes to flood zones: 35,000 buildings and homes have been added to flood zones in parts of Queens and Staten Island, according to preliminary maps released by the FEMA on January 28, 2013. Preliminary flood zone maps are expected to be released for other parts of the city in February. Official maps won’t be released until this summer. Those who live in Zone A and have federally-backed mortgages will be required to get flood insurance once the formal maps are released. Other forms of insurance, such as homeowners, will likely go up as well.
The sidewalk in front of the Wendy’s on Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall was choked with people at noon on November 29th. The signs they held were mostly handmade, in English and Spanish, calling for higher wages, more respect on the job. A small group of them held a bright red banner, that read “STRIKE for higher pay for a stronger New York.”
A young woman led the rally, her bright red hair pulled back, her voice already ragged from chanting, from shouting her story. I was later told by an organizer she’d been out since 5 AM, showing up to support the first of the fast-food workers to walk out on that day’s strikes, and she’d be onstage at the end of the day, too, whipping up the crowd underneath the glittering lights of McDonald’s in Times Square.
Her name is Pamela Flood, and she works at the Burger King at 971 Flatbush Avenue. She was one of 200 or so workers at New York City’s fast-food restaurants that struck for a raise to $15 an hour and union recognition on that November day, kicking the simmering movement among the city’s lowest-wage workers up another level. She also works at a CVS and attends classes at night, holding down a 4.0 GPA as she studies to be a medical assistant, to better support her three children. Burger King pays her just $7.25 an hour.
Flood drew cheers that day on the picket line when she demanded $15 an hour so that she could take her kids on vacation like the high-paid executives can. “I work hard for my money, I work hard for my kids, and I think we all deserve better,” she told me. “I’ll take two and three jobs to take care of my kids, but while I’m doing that I’m also going to stand up for what I believe in, and what I believe in is that we should be making way more than $7.25, because if a doorman, a security guard, and a janitor can make $12 to $15 an hour, why can’t we?”
With her that day were workers from other fast food restaurants in Brooklyn, community members, other low-wage workers from around the city, supportive clergy, and organizers who’d helped pull together the seemingly-impossible feat of getting hundreds of workers at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Taco Bell, and Domino’s Pizza stores across multiple boroughs.
“This is a moral issue,” Kirsten John Foy, a minister and former aide to Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, told me as the picket line danced behind us. “We can’t live in the wealthiest economy in the world, and treat our workers like they’re from the third world.” (continue reading...)