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These pedicabbers are part of a growing network that seeks alternatives to mainstream capitalism. In the context of historic levels of inequality, they reject the divide between haves and have-nots. The new sharing economy comprises commercial and social relationships — from credit unions, community gardens and tool-lending libraries to car shares, time banks, local currencies, barter networks and worker cooperatives. Some are expressly political, led by activists and iconoclasts. Others are pragmatic and draw disenchanted employees or artists and parents who want flexible schedules.
The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives estimates that some 300 worker-owned co-ops employ over 3,500 people and generate more than $400 million annually. In Europe, where there’s an older, more mainstream co-op tradition, businesses owned and controlled by workers have fared better than other types during and after the recession. According to a study by the European Commission, cooperatives in the E.U. have been more likely to stay in business and rebound from job losses than traditional enterprises have. Worker co-ops generally maintain significant financial reserves and low debt ratios, and in times of crisis, members can make collective decisions to reduce costs.
“The living standards that we (once) expected are not going to be there for future generations,” said Sushil Jacob, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, Calif., who assists low-income entrepreneurs in setting up home-based food production businesses and cooperatives. “To that extent, I think the worker co-op movement allows for everyday people to get more of the pie.”
Increasingly, entrepreneurs from marginalized populations have been helped along by co-op incubators — organizations that support, train and connect nascent co-ops with legal and financial resources. Incubators have helped launch cooperatives for Latina nannies and housecleaners, construction day laborers and workers trained in soil remediation (a Worcester Roots coop), with varying degrees of success.
The Center for Family Life, a branch of SCO Family of Services in Brooklyn, N.Y., has incubated a range of co-ops for low-income Latino immigrants, mostly women in the care sector. “There’s an aspect that’s inspiring (and) women-led to moms who haven’t been in the workforce before,” said director of cooperative development Vanessa Bransburg. “And (co-ops are) a nice way to get in there and still have time with their families.”
Work-life balance has been a key benefit for Sol Chariots’ Mateo, who gave birth to her second daughter three months ago. Her husband also pedals a rickshaw, and they do their best to stagger schedules. Meanwhile, her Sol Chariots peers have brainstormed child-care options that would allow Mateo to take on more shifts. “My co-workers — it doesn’t feel like co-workers. It feels like really close friends, people you can actually trust,” she said.
One of those co-workers, Bitondo, appreciates the camaraderie built into the cooperative structure. “I wasn’t sure (about Sol Chariots) going in,” he said while pedicabbing me through downtown Providence, “but I wanted a nonhierarchical workplace. We’ve all had really lousy bosses and dealt with interpersonal politics, and it seemed like the co-op was really trying to establish a workplace free of that.”
As he pedaled under a darkening sky, past Italian restaurants and curious pedestrians, Bitondo described his abiding love for dogs and the memoir he was writing about his father. Pedicabbing, he said, has meant “fresh air and constant activity,” the sheer pleasure of being outdoors. “It’s my first job in 16 years where I’m not dreading showing up.”