A burgeoning worker cooperative movement in Santa Ana gained momentum in the form of a resolution passed by city council last night. For the past year, co-ops have gathered for monthly marketplaces in Santa Ana where they sell locally grown produce, art and jewelry. Unlike big corporations, co-ops are owned by the workers who have equal say in the enterprise where profits are mutually shared. The city views the alternative model as a way to become a leader in building a cooperative economy in Orange County by bringing down barriers to development.
"I would like for you to help us progress as a cooperative so that we can make this a better city," Esther Hernandez said in Spanish at last night's council meeting. She belongs to the Manos Unidas Creando Arte (United Hands Creating Art) co-op in Santa Ana. Hernandez's husband works three jobs and MUCA is her way to contribute to the household income. "I saw this as an opportunity as a homemaker because I have no other way to help."
A staff report noted Santa Ana's median income is $54,640, much lower than the county average of $84,194. It further stated co-ops can be a means for low-wage workers to collectively start small businesses that they otherwise wouldn't be able to do so on their own. "We have to address problems at the root and income inequality is one of the deadliest," said Ana Urzua, campaign coordinator for Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities. "Worker cooperatives support community wealth building by creating long-term stable jobs."
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Urzua gave a presentation on co-ops to the city's economic development department prior to last night's vote. She called them "potential game changers" for Santa Ana where immigrant Latino residents power OC's labor force but suffer a poverty rate twice the county average; a trend not soon to change with sectors of OC's economy expected to create many low-wage jobs in the future. Since 2015, Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities has helped develop five co-ops in the city. Urzua pointed to examples of how other cities across the nation, like Oakland and Austin, provide financing, staff support and technical assistance to co-ops.
Santa Ana is headed in that direction. "As we all know, worker cooperatives is not a new concept," Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez said. "How many of you have had Chobani yogurt? That's a worker cooperative owned by its employees, not stockholders or shareholders who are not there everyday doing the work." More locally, the Weekly reported three years ago on the grassroots movement to establish a grocery co-op in Long Beach. After much hard work and dedication, the Long Beach Grocery Co-op started selling shares last year, counting 250 owning members so far. The group is currently looking for a site with local government just barely beginning to show an interest in their work.
Hoping to be more proactive, Martinez stressed the need to put a system in place to support Santa Ana cooperatives through microgrants and other means. The rest of the council agreed and voted unanimously in support of the resolution (with councilmen Sal Tinajero and David Benavides absent). City staff has 90 days to look into ways to support Santa Ana's cooperatives before reporting back to council.
"I see some cooperatives that work well," councilman Jose Solorio said. "I've seen some that don't." But before sounding like the lone critic at the dais, Solorio voiced support for the idea and cast his vote accordingly. "Anything we can do to legitimize work and get folks in the system to benefit themselves and the community is a good thing."