[VIDEO] Workers’ Coops Seek Sustainability after Occupy

Home Brooklyn Life [VIDEO] Workers’ Coops Seek Sustainability after Occupy

OWS Screenprinters from The Brooklyn Ink on Vimeo.

During Occupy Wall Street, protesters spent thousands of dollars printing pamphlets and posters to spread their message. Watching money flow into the corporate companies whose principles they protested, a small group of participants planned to start their own printing cooperative founded on the principles of equal responsibility, ownership and pay.

Two and a half years later, two workers’ cooperatives that developed out of the movement are finding new ways to keep their businesses –and principles—going now that they’re no longer taking to the streets to occupy public spaces such as Zuccotti Park. They’re occupying their time with their businesses, while still helping to promote the movement and its message. And both cooperatives are surviving the tough economic climate with an age-old practice: printing.

“We forget to be creative,” said José Martín, a worker at Occucopy, a copy shop located in Boreum Hill, Brooklyn. “Occupy Wall Street was a place—an uprising—and then a sense of momentum. It is diffuse, and that’s one of the great things about it. That’s where people can create their own projects.”

There are two basic aspects that make a workers’ cooperative. First, the workers that invest their time and/or resources own the coop collectively, reaping the same benefits and taking the same financial hits. Second, the decisions are democratically made with each laborer having just one vote, regardless of their differing investment in or amount of time spent working for the cooperative.

“Nobody is stuck being the dishwasher all the time,” Martín said. “On the one hand, we want to be an example of a democratic style workplace in a successful way. We’re a part of a big radical movement that is much larger than us.”

Studies suggest that workers cooperatives actually fare better in tough economic climates than more traditional business models, according to the 2012 economic study, The Resilience of the Cooperative Model, by the European Confederation of Cooperatives and Worker-Owned Enterprises. The study found that not a single workers’ coop in the EU’s banking sector failed and in fact, those banks fund about 29 percent of the European Union’s small and medium enterprises.

“The modern idea of what a workers cooperative is, and what the working structure is,” said Chris Michael, the director of the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives, “is being recognized as a possible way of organizing our working lives in the U.S.”

In New York City, most existing workers cooperatives have been established within the last five to seven years, Michael said. Nine of the 15 workers’ coops in the city are based in Brooklyn.

“There’s a growing interest. This is not an overnight process,” said Michael. “One of the things that was seriously considered among certain constituencies [of the Occupy Movement] was the idea of worker cooperatives…. There’s a very firm basis from comparing the values and the deep concerns and fears that are real fears of the Occupy Wall Street protestors.”

For Occucopy, keeping their ideals alive has been easier than keeping the business afloat. Occucopy has not yet been able to fully support its six workers, Martín said.

“The fact that we made it through the first year is pretty good. We aspire to be paying ourselves living wages,” he said, “We’re struggling to be honest.”

Martín said that Occucopy now has a digital press, which he hopes will drive down some of the printing costs. In the meantime, they’ve taken on some larger commercial projects, including pamphlets for an event held at Barclay’s center just to sustain themselves. By charging higher prices for these printing jobs, while charging less for projects aimed to further Occupy Wall Street’s message, Martín said the practice is just a necessity; at least for now. The commercial projects allow them some flexibility to do less expensive or pro bono work for other interests.

“We do big press kits for commercial interests, and that’s a reality—that we have to have a diverse client base—but some of that [profit] is used to publicize labor organizing [and] environmentalist work,” he said.

The other workers’ cooperative that developed out of the movement, the Occupy Wall Street Screenprinters, just celebrated its first birthday. Now it is hoping to cast its printing net even wider.

“First and foremost we’re street artists,” said Julie Goldsmith, a worker of Occupy Wall Street Screenprinters. “We create art with a message.”

Printing some of the famous Occupy logos on both new and old shirts, totes, bags, and all sorts of fabric, the OWS Screenprinters were occupying as they printed. “Cops don’t like it when you hang shirts on barricades to dry,” she joked.

“We had this great idea given to us by a friend of ours in the Sustainability Working Group,” said David Yap. “[It’s] called Upcycling. It’s surprisingly successful.” The concept is a play on the idea of recycling, but by printing on an already used product, the newly printed article of clothing actually becomes better than it was before. “You can take a humdrum, plain shirt, and then put a new fresh print on it, and it looks new,” Yap said. “Upcycling is adding value to something that you already have.”

For new products that they are beginning to produce, they are still very wary of what type of materials they use.

“We try to use sustainably sourced materials,” Goldsmith said. Any new fabric and paint they buy, they try to use the most sustainable, good quality products they can find. “We’ve found that it’s shockingly hard to find American-made, union-made, good quality materials. It’s very expensive,” he said.

The OWS Screenprinters still participate in Occupy-related printing projects. For example, they have printed for Occupy Sandy, and most recently, the printed materials whose message protests the Keystone Pipeline, a project aimed to transport crude oil from Canada to Nebraska.

But in order to gain the freedom of completely sustaining themselves on their funds, Yap and Goldsmith say they are developing their own line of products.

“I don’t think you get to a better world by evolution,” said Occucopy’s Martín. “But you do get to it by experimentation. I’d like to see a whole bunch more coops, and I’d like to see Occucopy be one of them.”

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