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Detroit church hopes to boost worker-owned businesses in Latino community

Maria Perez and Carolina Torres-Merlo
Maria Perez and Carolina Torres-Merlo operate their green cleaning company as a worker-owned co-op, a form of business ownership that Grace in Action church hopes to increase in its southwest Detroit community. (By Featherstone for Bridge)

As she was leaving a supermarket in southwest Detroit in 2015, Maria Perez spotted a note on a bulletin board near the exit, saying a church not far from where she lived was training people for jobs. Perez had been looking for work and had a feeling this might lead to something.

When she arrived at Grace in Action, an old funeral home-turned-church in the heart of Detroit’s Mexican community, she realized that this wasn’t job training, but a meeting about worker-owned cooperatives. She had no idea what a cooperative was, but decided to stay anyway.

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She learned that worker co-ops are businesses owned by workers that operate democratically. Each member gets a voice in how things are managed and what services or goods to provide. Opposite of a corporate business model, members of worker-owned cooperatives share the responsibility of generating new business, and all share equally in profits.

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And then Perez met Carolina Torres-Merlo, a recent immigrant from Venezuela, at the meeting. The two hit it off and decided they would work together. They attended weekly training sessions in 2017, and after more than a year of brainstorming ideas and regular meetings on how to build a co-op, they launched Cleaning in Action, a green cleaning company.

Five years after joining forces, Perez and Torres-Merlo have more work than they can handle. They work 25 to 35 hours a week, have four office cleaning contracts, and get regular calls to clean houses, organize basements, and clean out garages.

“Shifting domestic labor to a cooperative model is potentially great, especially for workers from immigrant backgrounds who have historically been taken advantage of by the cleaning industry,” said Suzanne Bergeron, professor of economics and gender studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. 

coop mural
Six co-ops are organized at Grace in Action so far. The goal is 200 by 2030. (Cybelle Codish for Bridge)

“Domestic labor is typically low-paid and insecure, despite the fact that it is the essential work that keeps the economy going.”

As a co-op owner, Torres-Merlo makes her own schedule, allowing her time to take her son to and from school and drive him to his many activities, something she could not do when she worked at a manufacturing plant.

The two are proud of their success and wish others would join the worker-owned movement, but recognize that it’s no small task to teach the concept of a co-op to a community of many immigrants already leery of being exploited.

“People in the neighborhood don’t know what worker cooperatives are,” said Idalis Longoria, director of cooperative development for Grace in Action. “Sometimes they think it’s a pyramid scheme.”

 Idalis Longoria
Idalis Longoria manages six co-ops at Grace in Action, and hopes to help launch dozens more. (Cybelle Codish for Bridge)

Longoria manages six existing co-ops and is regularly recruiting to train more. 

She starts by reaching out to people within the Grace in Action network to gauge their interest. Then she sets up one-on-one meetings to further explain how a co-op works, describing the benefits such as skill training, voting power, and good wages.

Longoria’s job is to help create 200 worker-owned co-ops by 2030. 

According to the Democracy at Work Institute, a national federation of worker co-operatives, there are 465 verified worker co-ops in the United States. They employ roughly 7,000 people and generate more than $550 million in annual revenue.

Worker-owned co-ops can be traced back to the early labor movement, when workers, especially artisans and craftsmen, formed cooperatives after a strike.

“Cooperatives have an important place in creating a future of work characterized by higher wages, increased equity, better working conditions, economic security, and community development,” said Bergeron, the U-M Dearborn professor.

Bergeron thinks, teaches, and writes about women and solidarity economy initiatives, including cooperatives. “There are a lot more formations of co-ops after a financial crisis, which usually grows out of the community,” she adds. 

At Grace in Action, the co-op movement started roughly 20 years ago when Mexican Industries, a Southwest Detroit-based auto parts maker, abruptly closed after workers voted to form a union. Nine hundred mostly Latino workers were laid off, and the economic impact on the community was immediate.

Many people who worked at Mexican Industries quickly filled temp jobs to make money. Soon after, stories began to circulate at Grace in Action Church about temp agencies exploiting Latino immigrants.

coop exterior
Grace in Action church devotes resources to developing economic resources in the community. (Cybelle Codish for Bridge)

That led Meghan Sobocienski, executive director of Grace in Action, to actively create new business models for immigrant workers in the community. She’s been thinking about employment and the future of work since then, and to her, it comes down to one simple idea.

“I want workers in southwest Detroit to have ownership over their own labor,” Sobocienski said.

When Grace in Action first started its worker-owned business initiative, there was little information on co-op models.

“We tried to learn as much as we could from anybody who was already doing the work,” Sobocienski said.

Meghan Sobocienski
Meghan Sobocienski, executive director of Grace in Action, turned to co-ops for new business models for immigrant workers in southwest Detroit. (Cybelle Codish for Bridge)

Locally, she said they reached out to the University of Michigan legal clinic for support, like incorporating as a nonprofit and establishing a structure for the collectives.

Since Mexican Industries closed, six co-ops have emerged from Grace in Action. There is Dulce Detroit, a babysitting and child care service, Radical Productions, which develops websites and software, and the Equitable Internet Initiative, which provides quality Wi-Fi installation services to people in the community.

The very first co-op was Stitching Up Detroit, a screen-printing business that started at Grace in Action in 2012.

coop stitching up
Stitching Up Detroit is the first of six co-ops established by Grace in Action in southwest Detroit. (Cybelle Codish for Bridge)

Karizma Valdez began working at Stitching Up Detroit when she was 19. Before becoming a worker-owner, she worked at a restaurant where she said she experienced racism and sexism.

“It was a really bad environment for me,” Valdez said. “It was toxic. I didn’t feel comfortable there anymore.”

She was working part-time at Grace in Action and decided to leave the restaurant business for good and became a worker-member of Stitching Up Detroit.

“Their [Stitching Up Detroit] vision and their goals are something I believe in,” Valdez said. “What they stand for and what they are trying to do—to give affordable screen-printing pricing to the community and create an outlet for kids to express their art and to be safe.”

Valdez loves her work and says she feels optimistic about the future. Stitching Up Detroit has four owner-members. They all work part-time. In 2021, their co-op revenue topped $70,000.

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Bridging Languages is the most recently formed cooperative, the eight members specializing in Spanish translation and interpretation.

The most profitable has been the green housekeeping cooperative, but Perez and Torres-Merlo are quick to point out that owning a co-op doesn’t come without problems.

“People don’t want to invest up-front then wait to make money. It’s work without profit at the beginning. It’s hard for people to see the long-term benefits,” Perez said. “We have to buy cleaning supplies, pay to build a website, and print the flyers and the cards. This is a business.”

But after five years of trying to recruit worker-owners to the co-op, they recently enlisted two new members.

“They will see that joining a co-op was worth it,” Torres-Merlo said. “My quality of life is better, and my mental health has improved.”

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