Disaster Cooperativism

| 4/2/2013 3:23:09 PM


Months after Hurricane Sandy, many low-income New York neighborhoods are still struggling for an economic foothold. But with the help of Occupy Sandy, many residents are organizing worker cooperatives to take back control of their communities.   

This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence. 

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 Now, nearly five months after the hurricane struck, the maps have been replaced by posters extolling the virtues of collective struggle and art made by neighborhood children enrolled in Occupy Sandy’s twice-weekly after-school program.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.

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