Imagine a cooperative organized with the goal of empowering its women workers. What service or product might it offer? Value-added crafts? Legal aid? The possibilities are exciting, but cleaning houses, that stereotypically low-status “woman’s” job, probably wouldn’t come to mind.
And indeed, when Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES) Cooperatives began in 1997, five women opened a retail party supply store, Fantastic Fiesta Supplies & More. The store did well, but retail requires training and a lot of initial capital, and the women found they weren’t breaking even fast enough. After 17 months, the store was consumed by its overhead.
Housecleaning, on the other hand, was something a number of the collective members knew well. At around $30,000, the start-up costs were comparatively low, and the training much more accessible. Besides, the cleaning industry is in a growth spurt; more and more people are working outside the home longer hours and purchasing bigger houses—houses too large for them to clean. In fact, an estimated ten percent of Americans hire outside cleaning help.
Now, in its eleventh year, WAGES members stick to their core business. With cleaning’s good profit margins, the women earn a decent income and benefits. Cleaning houses also proved a new front to promote environmental commonsense. Hilary Abell, WAGES’ executive director, says that nearly all of the women have stories of acute and long-term health effects from previous cleaning jobs. Abell says that environmentally friendly, nontoxic, or minimally toxic alternatives have changed that grim picture for both workers and clients.
Abell grew up in the suburbs of Chicago; she had some exposure to urban poverty but no involvement in social change efforts. In 1989, during her senior year at Princeton, she traveled to Nicaragua with a group of students and professionals to explore women’s health and women’s civil rights issues through the Sister City project. Abell says the trip formed the foundation to “really everything I’ve done.”
For her senior thesis, she returned three times to research how the Pentecostal movement in Nicaragua interacted with ongoing revolutionary movements. She was fascinated by how people organized in churches, cooperatives, and women’s groups. The Sandinistas supported the growth of cooperative organizations that gave the poor greater control over their livelihoods. “That another way of living was possible was very eye-opening,” Abell says.
Soon after college, Abell became a worker-owner at Equal Exchange, the largest for-profit Fair Trade cooperative in the US. Her participation in the El Salvadoran fair trade coffee initiatives of the early ’90s led her to become an activist. “Fair trade,” Abell says, “is a way to help small farmers in Latin America and around the world stay on the land by trading with them directly and cutting out the middle man.” It was through this work that Abell realized the power of improving economic futures: these models were “doing something positive and not just opposing what’s wrong in the world.”
While visiting small farmers in Peru and El Salvador to buy organic free trade coffee, Abell also gained new perspective on the relationship between the environment and workers’ rights. Abell explains that many believe that the goals for protecting the environment and for job security conflict. “But,” Abell says, “the goals of protecting the environment and creating stable jobs for people can be mutually supportive.” For instance, organic farmers in Colombia and Peru had more food security because they were farming a greater diversity of products. One farmer she visited was “growing over 40 kinds of fruits and vegetables. Over the half day I was there I saw his kids eating eight different things. Eighty percent of the food that family ate was grown on their farm.”
When Abell took on her position with WAGES in 2003, she was excited to work with the cooperative model in a different context. Since its founding, WAGES has helped start five cooperatives. One restructured as a conventional business with three members as coowners, and three cooperatives remain successful today: Emma’s on the Peninsula, Eco-Care in the South Bay, and Natural Home Cleaning in the East Bay.
WAGES now is primarily a consulting service for its coops: it provides a business manager to guide fledgling coops into the cooperative culture, and it helps the new groups acquire loans through Lenders for Community Development. Its services are made possible through grants and donations. In the near future, WAGES hopes to graduate another group, Natural Home Cleaning Oakland Cooperative, from its incubation program. “We consider them independent,” Abell says, referring to all the cooperatives. “But the goal is that we have an ongoing relationship of support to keep the coops learning from each other.”
Abell believes the market for environmentally friendly housecleaning is growing. “I would say we have been the leaders in helping create that demand.” The future looks bright—and possibly a bit overwhelming.
“We’d really like to saturate the Bay Area—there are so many workers here who could use better jobs.” All of the WAGES coops are getting more calls than they can answer. And with the growth spurt in housecleaning, says Abell, “There are a lot of obvious markets for us around the country.” But an experimental project in L.A. is proving difficult to manage from afar. In the immediate future, the collectives will expand to San Francisco and Marin while starting up an association of eco-friendly training programs throughout the Bay Area to benefit from joint purchasing and marketing.
The cooperative benefits from pooling everybody’s skills together. With a little emotional support and training, women, Abel says, are a great investment: “When women have even a little access to resources, they tend to invest what they earn back into their families and communities. It’s true what they say: ‘When you educate a woman, you educate her family.’”
Eco-Care South Bay
Natural Home Cleaning East Bay