Legislation unveiled to streamline creation of worker cooperatives

By Steve Ahlquist

“Worker cooperatives allow businesses to be more than money-making enterprises,” said local co-op worker/owner Liz McDonnell of Fortnight Wine Bar, “When workers are owners and owners are workers, everyone is invested in the day-to-day and the long-term goals of the business. This permits the business to be more responsive to its community, making it a great place to live, work, and visit. I’m excited to give the worker cooperative model the legitimacy and clarity of its own enabling law.”

“Cooperatives are part of the solution to the problem of working in a capitalist economy,” said McDonnell, “in a traditional business workers sell their labor and the product of that labor belongs to the owner, not to the worker. So there’s a disconnect between your work and what you produce. Control over the terms of labor are also in the hands of the owner, with the worker negotiating at best from a position of weakness. In contrast, cooperatives allow workers to be reconnected to the product of their labor, to be invested to their work and recognized for the work that they do.”

Senator Donna Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket, North Providence) and Representative Robert Craven (Democrat, District 32, North Kingstown) have introduced bills that will allow worker owned cooperatives to be started in Rhode Island. House Bill 6001, and Senate Bill 676 will allow organizations of working people to start cooperatively owned business. Current law makes it very difficult to form worker cooperatives, as it involves a lot of legal work, but the new law seeks to streamline that process.

RI Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea worked with the Center for JusticeFuerza Laboral and RI Jobs with Justice to come up with the legal structure for worker cooperatives. “I remember thinking, who’s going to oppose this,” said Gorbea. “You have people ready and willing to start business, albeit with a slightly different structure than what’s out there right now. So I’m very proud to support this initiative.”

Miguel Henao of Healthy Planet is originally from Colombia and formerly a medical student and environmental activist. Miguel’s commitment and creativity has most recently been applied to the cooperative ownership movement. “Shared ownership and shared effort are the foundation of my community, co-operatives make sense, culturally, socially, and economically,” said Henao, “I am so happy to see this global movement gain a foothold in my adopted home.”

Fuerza Laboral has been working on a co-operative incubator for the past four years. Fuerza Laboral has been training, refining and developing a scale-able and easily implemented cooperative business model. Fuerza director Heiny Maldonado sees the immediate need in the immigrant community as well as the need for new community wealth creation. “It is high time we recognize the creative business potential of Rhode Island’s diverse and beautiful immigrant community,” said Maldonado.

Organizations supporting the legislation include the Sierra Club, the Environmental Justice League3rd Sector New EnglandFarm Fresh RIAccess Consulting, Fortnight Wine Bar, Healthy Planet, Worcester Roots and the Economic Progress Institute.