After 18 years of working low-wage jobs at factories and bakeries in Brooklyn, Alicia Chávez finally found an employer that pays her a living wage: herself.
Chávez, 34, is the president of the We Can Do It! Women’s Cooperative, a worker-owned and-run housecleaning business. Founded in 2006, it currently has 24 members and is one of only a handful of cooperatives in New York City.
“The members of the co-op are not employees, we are owners of our own business and we conduct it as we please,” Chávez said.
Before joining the We Can Do It! cooperative, Chávez worked more than 40 hours a week, earning $350. She can now earn the same amount of money in half that time, allowing her more time to take care of her three children — Victor, 16; Santiago, 10; and José, 2 — and read contemporary Mexican novels in her spare time.
In addition to receiving equal pay and being able to set their own schedules, cooperative members vote on all organizational decisions. The cooperative is supported by the Center for Family Life, a social service organization based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which provides administrative support and meeting space.
“Because of the nature of the industry, workers work in isolation,” said Priscilla Gonzalez, the organizing coordinator for Domestic Workers United. “It’s important to have some sort of collective body that unifies all of the workers, so that they can exercise their rights together, and the co-op model gives them that collective power.”
On the first Sunday of each month, Chávez spends her afternoon cleaning the staircase of a six-story residential building located at South Oxford Street and Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene.
Dressed in blue jeans, old sneakers and a red bandana to hold back her thick black hair, she sweeps the tiled steps with a broom and then cleans them again with a mop, leaving the smell of citrus in her wake.
While cooperative members only use environmentally friendly cleaning products, Chávez always wears a pair of latex gloves and a face mask to avoid coming into contact with dust and fumes.
We Can Do It! currently has around 200 clients, a number that cooperative members hope to expand through increased publicity efforts and promotion via word-of-mouth.
Gwen Kash turned to the cooperative to clean her house after she had ankle surgery a couple months ago.
“Monica, the person who helped us, is wonderful, she cleaned the house perfectly,” Kash said. “There is a contract in the beginning so there are no misunderstandings with the payment methods; it is a very fair system.”
In early July, We Can Do It! formed a cooperative corporation, which will provide legal protections for the workers.
“It [the cooperative] gives them tacit legitimacy; they feel more secure about their working status,” said Gowri Krishna, a staff attorney at the Urban Justice Center who oversaw the incorporation process.
Domestic workers are not covered by most labor laws, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates minimum wages and overtime pay, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which protects workers from hazardous working conditions. Forming cooperatives allows them to bargain collectively for better wages and workplace safety.
According to a 2006 survey by Domestic Workers United, domestic workers are predominantly immigrants and women of color.
Chávez, who joined We Can Do It! in 2008, has 10 regular customers and hopes to continue working with the cooperative in the future. “I’m very happy with this job,” Chávez said. “It lets me sustain my family and still have time for myself.”