“Toni Bambara defines freedom as being “totally unavailable for servitude” — underscoring the importance of self-possession, self -determination, and importantly– ownership over one’s material conditions to realize freedom.”
– Sam Jung, NYC Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives
The Community and Worker Ownership Project started off its first meeting of the New Year with a focus on Employee Ownership NYC, an initiative aimed at providing ownership transition consultation and technical assistance to businesses in the city. We were joined by representatives from Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson’s office as well as organizations working to support businesses with the transition to worker ownership that include the Democracy at Work Institute, The Working World, ICA Group and the Business Outreach Center Network. This discussion offered insight for the working group on the objectives, strategies, and tools that they can take back to their union, industries, businesses, or workers they represent to the campaign for worker ownership as a means to strengthen our economic recovery for communities and the city. The working group participated in small breakout room sessions to discuss views on the opportunities and challenges for supporting employee ownership in NYC and to exchange ideas on how to support this initiative through their day to day work. A summary of the discussions can be found below. The full recording of the working group meeting can be found here along with specific time stamped sections embedded when referenced below.
Employee Ownership NYC
This municipal initiative stands as one of the nation’s largest in providing support for employee ownership and conversions through educational resources and technical assistance for businesses. At the core of this initiative is to help businesses in the development of sustainable business models and to provide an opportunity for workers to keep their jobs and build community wealth. Sam Jung from the NYC Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives explained the value of employee ownership in addressing the racial disparities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the onset of COVID-19 and a deepening economic recession, we have witnessed a disproportionate number of black and minority-owned business shutdowns. This has spurred initiatives like the Employee Ownership NYC to help sustain businesses, foster community self-determination, retain jobs in communities, promote business sustainability, build democratic workplace environments, aid in asset generation for communities of color, and addressing the racial wealth gap in the city for the future.
Owner to Owners
Key to the Employee Ownership NYC initiative is the development of Owners to Owners, a rapid response hotline that helps business owners envision employee ownership as an option. The goal of Owner to Owners is to position employee ownership as an equitable economic recovery strategy and helps to bring employee ownership into the mainstream economic development and business development landscape. Owner to Owners builds on the work already being done to advance support for retiring businesses in the city.
Quincy Ely-Cate and Nancy Carin from the Business Outreach Center Network spoke of the interest of business owners in selling to workers. Having conversations with businesses has allowed the BOC Network to understand the interest of business owners in learning about employee ownership and to witness how compelling it is for business owners to consider the options available for their business well into the future. Business owners face many challenges when selling their businesses in the market and employee ownership offers them the opportunity to preserve the legacy of their business while also providing a viable path post owner retirement.
Anh-Thu Nguyen, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Democracy at Work Institute spoke of the plan to expand employee ownership in NYC and of the role the Owner to Owners hotline plays in helping businesses determine if employee ownership is the right fit. With approximately 80% of business owners in NYC not having a clear succession plan, many business owners resort to selling their business or face closure. To preserve the legacy of a business and to prevent unnecessary closures in communities, Owner to Owners represents an opportunity to raise awareness about employee ownership while also helping to equip trusted community, union, and business leaders with the tools to refer businesses.
Break Out Room Discussions
Where do you see opportunities to support this work?
Employee ownership can improve workplace environments in the restaurant industry, healthcare industry, fashion industry, rideshare work, and in the supermarket and food production sectors. Seon Mi Kim, Associate Professor of Social Work at Ramapo College, stated that employee ownership presents us with the opportunity to bridge social work, activism, and economic empowerment, something which has become an imperative under the COVID-19 pandemic. The service industry is among the hardest hit as a result of COVID-19, and with many restaurant businesses facing financial instability there is a need for policy to support ownership conversions through planned recovery efforts. Likewise, the garment industry is undergoing a steady decline in terms of skilled talent and local sourcing. Conversion opportunities for owners close to retirement are promising for business continuity in the fashion industry. There is also an opportunity for Owner to Owners in connecting with union movements to increase the impact of employee ownership in the city. Finally, there is opportunity to build support within the immigrant community in the city, who are often left out of the conversations around worker protections in the workplace.
Where do you see challenges in supporting this work?
One of the challenges discussed involves expanding employee ownership into industries with little to no cooperative business structures. Leah Rambo, Training Director for Sheet Metal Local 28, explained that this model does not exist yet within industrial construction and union industrial work. Michael Partis, Executive Director of the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, added there is a need to incorporate approaches for businesses that are family based or multigenerational. Aside from the reach of employee ownership, participants raised the concern over the lack of cooperative business education in K-12 school curriculums. As an economics major at the City College of New York, Lesly Calle believes in the value of incorporating solidarity economics, cooperative business models, and workplace democracy for social science curriculums. In doing so, more people would understand the role of cooperatives in their community. Marketing for cooperative businesses was another important talking point in this discussion. While companies such as Uber and Lyft have the capital flexibility to invest in marketing, worker cooperatives need support in making their businesses known.
Who in your industry can help move this forward?
To help employee ownership take off, it will take the collaboration of organizations already paving the way for this kind of business model and the support of communities. Key to this movement are also universities, such as the City University of New York, union representatives, and guidance from the legal sector. Tessa Maffucci from the Pratt Institute discussed the role of sector based organizations such as the New York Fashion Workforce Coalition helping employee ownership take off.
What do you need to support this work that you do not have?
To support employee ownership, Rob Newell, President of UFCW Local 1500 suggested the development of incentives to encourage business conversions to employee ownership rather than closing upon owner retirement. Policy and legislative support would amplify the efforts of organizations, workers, and community leaders supporting worker ownership. The consensus was also on the need for an open minded approach to cooperative business models to get more business owners and workers on board with transitioning to employee ownership.
What more do you need to know to support this work?
Case studies on the benefits and impacts of employee ownership can help to push this initiative forward, especially now given the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic on local businesses and workers. This is especially important for gaining the support of local policy leaders for employee ownership as a mechanism for creating lasting positive impacts for the communities they serve. The working group also agreed on the power of coming together to discuss initiatives such as Employee Ownership NYC. Building connection opportunities to exchange knowledge and build relationships holds significant value for the working group, which has been a priority for and facilitated by Rebecca Lurie from the Community and Worker Ownership Project. Members of the working group expressed appreciation for the opportunity created by CWOP and the initiation of the Mayor’s Advisory Council to engage in these meaningful conversations on cooperative solutions that matter for our city’s economy, communities, businesses and workers.
Always stay tuned for updates on our meetings and discussion. Through June 2021 our Cooperative Solutions Working Group will be the fourth Wednesday of the month from 5:00-7:00. Please contact us at CWOP@slu.cuny.edu for details.