At a time where anti-immigrant bills are being passed, such as SB1718 in Florida by Governor Ron DeSantis, it’s important to acknowledge that immigrants do vital work. Work that involves skilled labor, but is often low-paying and undervalued by US-born people. They also bring perspective, skills, and life experience born out of a need for economic innovation and self-determination in their countries of origin. In many Latin American countries, formal and informal worker-owned cooperatives are a significant force of economic activity.
Fuerza Laboral, which translates to “Power of Workers,” is a workers’ rights center based in Central Falls, Rhode Island that cleared the way for worker-owned cooperatives in Rhode Island. Central Falls has historically been, and continues to be despite gentrification, an entryway neighborhood for newly arriving immigrants in Rhode Island. In 2017, a group of workers who were members of Fuerza Laboral successfully advocated for the passage of legislation that recognizes worker-owned cooperative businesses as a new form of corporation in the state of Rhode Island.
Fuerza’s aim is to return power to workers through education, training, organizing, direct action, advocacy, and cooperative business incubation. They develop workers into community leaders and are in the process of building their network of worker-owned cooperative businesses that will provide living-wage jobs to workers who are usually in low-wage, exploitative positions — largely immigrants and people of color.
In this edition of the WIRE, Jax Gil, Ujima community member and anti-oppressive facilitator, interviewed Raul Figueroa, the current Cooperative Program Director at Fuerza Laboral about the history of Fuerza, how the legislation came to pass, how the pandemic increased the demand for worker-owned co-ops in the state, and their plans for their newly acquired building on 6 Chases Lane in Central Falls, RI.
Jax Gil: Can you tell me about the history of Fuerza Laboral and your work there?
Raul Figueroa: Fuerza was established in 2006 by Heiny Maldonado and Greg Pherson. Before it was Fuerza, the group was a program of another organization. That program was called Comité de Trabajadores Unidos. It was so successful the members of that program decided to start their own organization, so that’s how it was founded. It was officially established as Fuerza Laboral in 2006. The organization has always been about immigrants and workers rights, with a focus on recovering lost wages for immigrant workers.
Before, there were a couple of ways to do this work: private action and direct action. Direct action has always been a pretty powerful tool in the organizing world. Direct action was very successful, but it wasn’t really having the impact that the organizationintended to have because a lot of members were workers that were victims of labor exploitation and had no choice but to really go back to the same industries that brought them to us in the first place. So then, Fuerza started thinking about what would be a good opportunity, movement, or campaign to have a more meaningful and permanent impact.That’s when they started to think about forming workers’ cooperatives.
Fuerza got a grant through Third Sector New England to explore that possibility in, I think 2014. I joined Fuerza in 2016. So, in 2014 and 2015 they did feasibility studies and other pre-work to see if [cooperatives] were a good opportunity.
When I joined in 2016, I was an organizer. We had a couple of campaigns and direct actions but then we started to make that shift. We realized 2016 was a very difficult time, politically and socially, for immigrant communities. So direct action was a little too risky for people who were directly affected. People didn’t want to put themselves out there because we’re kind of putting a target on your back. So, that’s when we really began exploring how to form cooperatives through feasibility studies and a business plan.
Those were all great, and reinforced that we were going in the right direction. But, one of the first challenges we faced was: do people even know what cooperatives are? How do we form them? What is the legal structure?
Jax: Where did the cooperative idea come from? Was that something you had experience in? Was that something that workers asked for? How did that idea come about?
Raul: It was the Executive Director who had that idea, Heiny Maldonado. She is from Colombia, and her whole family was part of a cooperative in Colombia. I am from El Salvador so I have seen how cooperatives are created and why they are created. So there was a group of workers who wanted to really explore this idea. So that’s when the first Co-op Academy was established, which started as a series of workshops about how cooperatives work, what cooperatives do, and it was very vague, in some ways, it was very general and not actionable. That’s when we realized that in RI there wasn’t any language in labor law about cooperative businesses. That’s when we decided to introduce legislation that laid the foundation for those entities to exist and be recognized for what they are.
There was nothing stopping us from creating cooperatives and incorporating them as an LLC, but if cooperatives wanted to have their own identity, we wanted to create that opportunity. It was very challenging to introduce this legislation; it required us to educate lawmakers and other people in policy on what cooperatives were. Once that legislation was introduced, a lot of people came out of nowhere to support — organizations, groups, individuals, and lawyers.
At our first legislative hearing a lot of people showed up, including people from two different cooperatives that we didn’t even know existed but were incorporated as an LLC,. One was Fortnite Wine Bar and the other was Solar Power, which was a solar panel installation cooperative.They all came to give testimony [at the State House] and to a press conference that we hosted. That’s when the legislature started to hear from different groups. At that point, the legislation wasn’t just for a whole bunch of immigrants and workers of color, because at first [legislators] associated cooperatives with socialism. They’d say “oh, so you’re promoting socialism.” We wanted to make it clear that this is a new and more responsible way to create businesses, and makes sense economically for the state, for communities, and for workers. When they started to hear from a whole range of people in different industries, that’s when we really got traction and we were able to pass that law in the first year, which is almost unheard of, for any type of law. But it happened in just one year — we were consistent, we pushed, and we had great sponsors for the bill who really made this a priority.
Once it passed people were really happy and we held a big ceremony at our office, the Rhode Island Governor came and signed the bill, the Secretary of State spoke. So now we have a bill, and it’s time to use it. That was another challenge. Because the Secretary of State was like “this is great, but what are we doing?” The incorporation papers were unclear about what people needed to do to incorporate as a cooperative. So then we started having conversations with people from different states with similar policy in place, learning how they did it. Six months later, after the legislation became law, our first cooperative was formed, which was a cleaning cooperative, it was called Healthy Planet Cleaning Co-Op. It was composed of workers who had been working in the cleaning industry but were several times victims of wage theft, crazy schedules, unfair expectations — people are abused in that industry. This cleaning cooperative was part of the first Co-op Academy we hosted.
Jax: How many workers formed that first cooperative? Are they still around today?
Raul: Five workers, who are still around. However, last year they decided to incorporate as a sole proprietor because a lot of them were already at retirement age. They still have the same name, they have the same clients, we’re still in communication with them. I even worked with them a couple of times when they were still forming because there were so many new clients, and so I was like “I’ll go with you.”
That was the first one. After we went through that same process the first time, it became a lot easier. But then, it got to the point where we were doing the Co-op Academy in a more general way. But, we didn’t have a system set up to work with each individual cooperative that could potentially be formed.
Because it was just the Executive Director and myself, and we work with each individual cooperative, it required a tremendous amount of time.
Jax: What are some of the things that make a successful cooperative?
Raul: First, you form a team. People would often come to us with a group of people and say “we’re ready to form a cooperative,” but just because people made that decision doesn’t really mean that they’re really a team. So then we facilitate that conversation with them, by asking: is this the direction that everybody wants to go? How are we going to make those decisions? How are we going to write bylaws? That’s when things get shaky sometimes. Not everybody was really on the same page. After meeting with a group, we sent each person home with a task to complete. Even though it was expected of them to hold each other accountable, it was my responsibility to ensure the tasks completed by the team were meaningful.
The tasks were things like business planning, the execution of the bylaws, decision-making processes. Some people have really good ideas but just because it’s a good idea doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a good business. So there was a lot of variation. When you put teams through a market analysis, to see if their product or service was actually viable, it made them think about: who is their customer base? What was their value proposition? What problem were they solving? What area were they covering that wasn’t already covered by someone else?
Jax: Can you talk about the work that the organization is doing to support cooperatives now?
Raul: Obviously 2020 was a tough year because so many people lost their jobs. But, when the vaccine came in 2021, people started to see the light at the end of the tunnel and joined the workforce again. That’s when we started to do more education around cooperatives, mostly through Zoom workshops. A lot of people started to show up, a lot more than we were thinking were going to because they saw how much they suffered, how much their jobs were not valued by their employer, and they wanted an opportunity to create their own businesses.
We didn’t have enough capacity to meet the demand for our co-op services. First of all, we didn’t have a network that we could connect them with; COVID disconnected us all. State and local resources, like business development support, financial assistance, and legal aid just were not there anymore. Suddenly, it felt like we were selling a dream that was not attainable anymore. It felt like we were back at square one. We were successful at pointing out the problem but now we had no solution.
At the same time, we were contending with other issues. Our office was small, but part of our job requires us to educate large groups of people, and have classroom-style educational campaigns and workshops. On top of that, there was a large group of mostly women, single mothers, who had discovered a need for prepared food in the community. They were making ends meet by cooking in their homes and selling food to neighbors, families, friends and churchgoers. Suddenly, they have a potential business opportunity. But there are no commercial kitchen spaces available in the area for them to use, and they couldn’t scale their business at home.
Through surveys, we realized there are a lot of people who want to start food businesses, and some are interested in forming cooperatives and running those businesses collectively. As we looked for commercial kitchen space, we learned that restaurants charge a ridiculous amount to use their kitchens, and church kitchens have very limited availability. Once we realized that owning our own building could be a solution to multiple needs for us and our community, that’s when we decided to put all of our energy into buying a building. We started applying for grants, talking to potential partners, investors, community groups and others. After a long and hard search, we were able to find the a building in December 2022, close in late March of 2023, and are moving in May of 2023. What we want to do there, besides what we already do, is have more general education about cooperatives and lots of different kinds of support for them long-term. Our plan is to have a community room, two classrooms, office space for the staff, and co-working spaces.
Our focus is on incubating and supporting locally owned businesses for people who have been working and living in Central Falls and who hope to stay in Central Falls. There have been so many changes — with the new MBTA train station and luxury apartments popping up left and right. A lot of people are getting displaced. So we’re trying to move as quickly as possible to help people find the economic opportunity that helps them stay in the neighborhood and own the businesses in the neighborhood.
Jax: What do you hope for 2024, and what do you envision for the new office space?
Raul: In terms of our work moving forward, we’re gathering feedback from different groups — community groups, individual businesses, foundations, and different local organizations. That feedback will help us generate more ideas for potential services to meet community needs that we haven’t thought about yet, and new partnerships. We know that now we have a loan for the building and a commitment to pay it off. So we’re hoping that foundations can support us to find ways to pay off that loan — not only within time, but before, so we don’t have to pay interest. We want to bring our state’s federal delegation to the space. We want the building to be for the community, where people feel welcomed to gather and meet. We want to have small farmers markets in our patio area. We want to invite artists to come with design ideas for a beautiful, welcoming space. We want to have a community library. We want the community to know that we’re there, that we are a resource for them, and that now it will be much easier for everyone to get more support. Next year, we want to have the majority of the funding secured for the commercial kitchen, which there is space for in the building, but we’ve yet to build it out.
Jax: Do you have any final thoughts before we wrap up?
Raul: We want this work to be a legacy, and really owned by the community. At some point, the Executive Director and myself will no longer be there. We want to make sure that we build something with a really strong foundation for someone else, some other group in the community to continue building on this. This has been a great accomplishment and we are committed to making it successful, but at some point other members of the community will have to take it on.
To learn more about Fuerza Laboral, you can visit their website at https://www.fuerza-laboral.org/.
Jax Gil is an anti-oppressive facilitator, consultant, and Ujima community member based in Rhode Island. You can follow her on Instagram at @jaxlunagil.