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Meet a Worker Co-op

Meet a Worker Co-op: A Cleaning Platform Changing the Gig Economy

The 32-year-old mother of three had dreams of starting her own business when moving to the U.S. from Mexico 15 years ago. With the co-op, now she has.

1:37 PM EDT on May 24, 2022

Aguilar stands in a kitchen facing the camera with cleaning gloves on.

Natividad Aguilar, 32, is a worker-owner at a cleaning company in Washington Heights. (Provided by Center for Family Life in Sunset Park)

Worker cooperatives are a business structure that allow for democratic decision making among the workers, who then also own the company. Co-ops exist in virtually every field of work. In New York City, there are co-ops for cleaning services and cab driving, dog walking and the food industry. The workers who make up these co-ops—frequently in industries where workers have little power—actually own the business and make crucial decisions, collectively with their coworkers. But to consumers, it may not look that different from any other business.

As the city's newest worker-owned news outlet, Hell Gate is launching a series about worker cooperatives around the five boroughs and the people who work at them, called Meet a Worker Co-op. Because we're still figuring out this whole ownership thing, we want to learn from the people who have made it work. Our first installment was about a home care agency in the Bronx. Our second piece is about a cleaning services booking platform.

Name: Up & Go

Number of Worker-Owners: 44

Origin Story

Up & Go is a booking platform for cleaning services that was founded in 2017, and is itself owned by a network of six worker cooperatives that use the platform to find clients.

Among the member cooperatives is Brightly, a franchised cleaning company in which each neighborhood branch uses the Brightly branding but is its own entity, with the goals of the company focused on social benefits rather than profits. It was founded in 2017 with its first location in Port Richmond, Staten Island. It expanded to neighborhoods across New York City, including Washington Heights, in 2020 during the pandemic.

The Center for Family Life in Sunset Park helped get the co-op and the Up & Go platform off the ground through its cooperative development program.

Natividad Aguilar is a worker-owner at Brightly's Washington Heights co-op. She's been at the co-op since its founding in 2020, and initially applied through an organization where she was attending support groups for domestic violence survivors.

"I was praying they would select me and that I would be eligible when I applied, and thank God, they called me a week later and said I could join," Aguilar told Hell Gate in Spanish through an interpreter.

The 32-year-old mother of three had dreams of starting her own business when moving to the U.S. from Mexico 15 years ago. With the co-op, now she has.

How it Works

The cleaning cooperative uses a franchise development approach, in which there are different, smaller locations that are connected to the Brightly brand. This has helped with building consistent systems for training, branding, and sharing resources in a way that was more efficient for workers—starting from scratch for each entity is a time-suck that doesn't meet the demand that Center for Family Life was seeing among workers who wanted to join and start co-ops. Brightly now also wants to take the cooperative franchise to other cities.

Each individual co-op has documents that lay out how decision making works—like whether a decision requires consensus, 75 percent of workers in agreement, or a simple majority. A co-op developer with the Sunset Park organization, Amalia de la Iglesia, noted, "decisions that generally require a supermajority include expelling or adding a new member, changing the coops name, and dissolving the co-op." Each member has one vote.

Up & Go is a platform that helps connect the cooperative owners to customers—a tech-focused approach to bring co-ops into the gig economy. Just 5 percent of revenue from the cooperatives go back into the maintenance of the Up & Go booking platform with the other 95 percent going to worker-owners. Up & Go says that other comparable apps take up to half the wages for outside investors and stakeholders.

Why a Co-op

Aguilar said that she used to work over 40 hours a week, didn't earn over-time wages, and made under minimum wage as a cleaner.

Now she usually makes about $25 an hour, sometimes up to $40 an hour (cleaning gigs are service-based, not hourly). She also sets her availability and schedule so she doesn't have to work more than eight hours a day, and she has the opportunity to take on both commercial and residential cleanings.

"I never thought I would earn that much for the cleanings," Aguilar said, who lives in Upper Manhattan with her three daughters. "It has changed my life because since you set your own availability, you also spend more time with your family, your kids, and you have more free time."

Profits are split equally among the cooperatives at the end of the year, though profit margins are slim as a result of higher wages for worker-owners. Last year, total profits were about $5,000, distributed among the six co-ops with Up & Go.

The Challenges

Decision-making is tough sometimes, Aguilar said. The eight of them who co-own the Brightly Washington Heights co-op don't always agree.

Aguilar said that the Up & Go platform offers training on conflict resolution and decision-making to navigate tough decisions.

When the COVID-19 vaccine became available, all of Up & Go's member cooperatives had to decide whether they would require vaccinations among themselves when customers started asking whether cleaners who would enter their homes were vaccinated, according to de la Iglesia.

"There was a lot of discussion and back-and-forth on this topic, both in the Up & Go membership committee and in individual co-ops," de la Iglesia said.

In the end, all of the co-ops voted in favor of a vaccine mandate by a majority vote. A few members who declined to get vaccinated were no longer able to take cleaning jobs as a result.

Language barriers also impact the worker-owners, many of whom are immigrant women from Latin America. "Sometimes it's hard to communicate with the client, but now with technology, it's easier and the clients are understanding," Aguilar said. "They understand us in our position as immigrants, but we have to keep training and learning on our part."

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