Point Austin: A Green and Democratic Place

Local activists kick off co-op project with a visit from Omar Freilla

Point Austin
If the term and concept "worker-owned cooperatives" sounds unfamiliar to you, that should be about to change.

On Tuesday, Oct. 6, Omar Freilla, team coordinator of the New York-based Green Worker Cooperatives, will be speaking in Austin, and thereby helping to launch a similar local effort: Third Coast Workers for Cooperation. Like the South Bronx GWC, the Third Coast group is "committed to the development of ecologically sustainable worker cooperatives," with a particular focus on low-income minority communities. It's also part of a fledgling collective of groups – the Workers Defense Project, Third Coast Activist Resource Center, and perhaps others – about to establish a community organizing center on Manor Road. The hope is that the center can become, in the words of one of the organizers, Robert Jensen, "a space to nurture a progressive community."

Freilla is becoming widely known for his work in the South Bronx, where he grew up and became an activist, before earning a degree in environmental science. He's a board member of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and was awarded the 2007 Jane Jacobs Medal for New Ideas and Activism. Six years ago he founded the GWC as a "business incubator" of worker-owned co-ops in environmentally sustainable industries. GWC's first effort, ReBuilders Source, calls itself "the first worker-owned building materials and reuse center, a self-sustained cooperative and alternative source of building materials," along the lines of Habitat for Humanity's ReStores – with the addition that it is owned by the workers who operate the business. GWC strives to combine environmentally sustainable industries with principles of shared profits, workplace democracy, and equality.

I spoke to Freilla by phone this week about his work. He said there are three or four new co-ops "in the pipeline" – a solar products firm, a green diner, a furniture renovator, a vegetarian food processor – and "what ties them all together is that they're located in the South Bronx, they're 'green' – environmentally friendly – and that they're worker-owned." He described the co-op movement as still in a fledgling state nationally, although more familiar to communities in the Northeast and on the West Coast, and said he is increasingly being contacted by people in other parts of the country who want to learn what GWC is doing and how they might do the same. "Wherever there are communities where people have been left out of the picture, where people have been dealing with environmental burdens or are suffering from poverty and there aren't enough jobs, people are still bubbling with ideas and want to see something different – people are calling us up."

Locally Based, Worker-Owned

That's roughly what happened with Third Coast Workers for Cooperation, says organizer Carlos Perez de Alejo.* He and his colleagues have had experience here or elsewhere in cooperative-type businesses – Ecology Action, MonkeyWrench Books – and came together to try to make the concept work on a broader scale, and one that isn't solely reliant on volunteers. They want to create sustainable, economically viable businesses that "not only provide a good living for folks, but control over the decisions in their lives."

Perez believes that Austin, already with a political culture that supports small, local businesses, is "uniquely set up to be receptive to this sort of project." Using in part the model provided by GWC, Perez says, Third Coast Workers for Cooperation especially wants to work with "low-income people of color ... people who really need jobs and a living wage."

Spreading Democracy

That's also the mission of the Workers Defense Project, best known for its efforts fighting for fair pay and treatment for Austin's immigrant construction workers, who make up the majority of the organization's membership. The Manor Road community center will be owned by the WDP, a purchase made possible by a couple of major donations and a loan from the PeopleFund (closing is anticipated in mid-October). The WDP's current 51st Street offices are too small to hold membership meetings; the new center will not only provide office space potentially for several groups but meeting and training rooms and even two acres of land for gardening or other outdoor activities.

WDP Director Cristina Tzintzún said she's "terribly excited" about the new building. "It means a lot for the immigrant community to have their own space – and not just a space where services are provided, but also a space where they can actually organize, and it's theirs, and they own." Later this year, the WDP plans to renovate and reconfigure the building – it's helpful to have members who are also experienced construction workers – and the hope is that it will become a place that various grassroots activist groups can use in common. "It will bring together communities that normally don't get to work together, or haven't worked together," Tzin­tzún said. "It will be largely Latino immigrant base, and then progressive groups, the anti-war crowd from Third Coast [Activist], will be using the space collectively together, and there will be joint events that we'll be doing to bring those two communities together."

In addition to the ongoing work of the various organizations, down the road are plans to launch a workers co-op remodeling business some time next year. Freilla describes the Austin project as part of a broader national movement. "The co-op movement is still under the radar for most of the country, although I'll predict that that is going to change as the years go by. So it's still something where the initial reaction of people is skepticism ... and for others it sounds like a great and wonderful thing. 'It sounds great. I'd like to see what you can actually do.'"

Speaking more generally about the larger goals of his work, Freilla says: "It also is in keeping with our values, which are really about democracy. We want democracy in every piece of our lives; this is a way of doing it."

Worker Ownership in the Green Economy, a talk by Omar Freilla, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 7pm, Hyde Park Christ­ian Church, 610 E. 45th. More of the interview with Freilla is posted below.

*[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect a correction. In the original, print version, Carlos Perez de Alejo's full name was not included; instead it appeared as just Carlos Perez.]

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Green Workers Cooperatives, Omar Freilla, Robert Jensen, Workers Defense Project, Third Coast Workers for Cooperation, Carlos Perez de Alejo, Cristina Tzintzún

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