COVID and Cooperation in NYC: 2020 in Review

by Cheyenna Layne Weber and Ali Issa

[This piece was submitted in November, 2020 and originally published early January, 2021 in the Japanese-language magazine Social Movements, in collaboration with The Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Co-operative Union (Seikatsu.) Founded in 1965, Seikatsu is a consumer co-op federation of 32 autonomous cooperatives spanning 21 prefectures (similar to U.S. states) across Japan. While Seikatsu initially formed with 200 Japanese housewives initiating a buying club for safe and affordable milk, their membership presently exceeds 370,000 families. They have been innovators in sustainability, holding Japanese producers accountable to strict and progressive ecological standards; developed a robust education and training program; created worker cooperatives in care industries; and are entirely women-led and volunteer-run. A delegation of Seikatsu members visited New York in 2018 and participated in a learning exchange with NYC coops documented here.]

Covid-19 has significantly impacted all New Yorkers, but the worst impacts have been among communities that regularly face racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and classism. Low-income people are “essential workers” who must face exposure to the virus to keep society functioning, according to the NY State and NYC governments, who designate what is “essential” and what can be closed down during Covid spikes.

Those who lack immigration documents have also been hit hard, left out of federal and state relief programs such as unemployment insurance benefits, which they have paid into via their taxes but cannot access without documentation. Still others have lost their jobs entirely, and NYC is experiencing escalating homelessness, poverty, and food insecurity as a result. These are the conditions that have propelled cooperatives and solidarity economy groups to action.

Gardens, food, and work, in cooperation

Covid-19 has impacted our regional and national food supply as well, which has consequences for food cooperatives, Community Supported Agriculture, community gardens, and food industry worker cooperatives. Food co-ops, such as Park Slope Food Coop, implemented safety measures that are superior to the standards in corporate grocery stores, and to date just 3 of the staff at NYC’s largest food co-op have contracted the virus. Others, such as Windsor Terrace Food Coop, grew their bottom line while better serving their community by partnering with mutual aid groups to bring more fresh food to no and low-income residents of color, and by offering curbside pick up for their members. (These mutual aid groups are volunteer efforts that provide emergency relief but do not intend to become staffed long-term organizations.)

Community Supported Agriculture received a huge boost from households wishing to avoid grocery stores entirely by purchasing directly from a farmer, and a new generation of volunteers joined those groups as a result. Community gardens have always played a key role in food security in low-income neighborhoods, especially communities of color wishing to maintain agrarian traditions specific to their cultures, and this role continued during the pandemic. Some, such as Phoenix Community Garden in central Brooklyn, have also been able to expand their food box program to provide more fresh foods to elderly Black residents in the neighborhood. Worker co-ops, such as Brooklyn Packers, a grocery packing business, have also seen incredible growth as volunteer mutual aid groups across the borough have begun choosing them as their preferred vendor for sourcing and packing fresh foods to disperse to no income and low income residents. For the mutual aid groups, Packers can replace the volunteer efforts to locate and aggregate food, allowing the volunteers to focus on fundraising to buy the food and drivers to help deliver it. NYC’s mutual aid groups often have socialist or anarchist roots, so they are also eager to support local Black businesses, especially co-ops.

The above are the bright spots, but for co-ops and solidarity economy groups in the food sector, the difficulties have been far more numerous. Most of them rely on place-based operations with a mix of volunteers and paid staff, and with social distancing restrictions, it remains a challenge in the famously small spaces that make up NYC’s commercial real estate. Park Slope Food Coop, for example, limits the number of members in the store at any given time, and there are frequent long outdoor waits, even as the co-op has seen significant drops in sales. Park Slope has also had to halt its member labor program, and instead hire staff, costing the co-op an additional $25,000 a week at a time when it’s losing money. A government loan made possible for a federal stimulus package helped the co-op remain afloat, but the situation remains precarious.

Still, at least the Park Slope Food Coop was deemed an essential business and allowed to operate during the shut-down. For worker co-ops that provide cleaning and childcare services, such as Up and Go, this has not been the case. Many worker owners have gone without work during the pandemic, although as Covid cases declined some are back to work, now observing social distancing restrictions and mask or handwashing protocols as they perform their services in clients’ homes. Some worker co-ops even pivoted their business to begin making personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, which was the case with Brooklyn Stone and Tile. Homecare worker co-ops, such as Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) in the Bronx, were unable to purchase PPE at the start of the pandemic, when there was a gap in supply chains that made PPE difficult even for hospitals to locate. During that time, CHCA contracted with a worker cooperative sewing factory in North Carolina to produce the much-needed masks for their members.

Community Development Credit Unions

As for community development credit unions — nonprofit, community-based financial cooperatives which are relatively plentiful in NYC — they have been extra busy from the outset of the pandemic. This increased workload included processing federal loans for their members as part of the COVID-19 stimulus package. It also meant taking on new members, as groups like Resource Generation — NYC pushed progressive New Yorkers to begin moving money into credit unions to shore up the institution’s holdings and allow for the increase in borrowing that small businesses required to survive the pandemic shut-down. As the CEO of the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union (BCFCU), Samira Rajan told Next City in April of 2020, “Under normal conditions we do about $1 million a year in SBA (Small Business Association) loans. Based on demand from the new loans in our neighborhoods, I anticipate doing another $1 million on top of that.” BCFCU — as well as other credit unions — have made the most of their new membership, inviting members onto online Zoom gatherings to learn more about the credit union and to hopefully bolster participation in the organization’s committees and board of directors.

Limited-Equity Housing Cooperatives

HDFCs — housing co-operatives that are democratically-controlled and legally designated to provide housing to low-income NYers — have been confronting new COVID-related realities as well. According to a recent report by the Urban Homesteaders Alliance Board (UHAB), 40 percent of HDFC’s have experienced a loss of income since the pandemic changed life in NYC so dramatically starting in March, 2020. This is partly due to the fact that many shareholder residents are losing their livelihoods and so are unable to keep up with payments. Since HDFCs operate without making a profit (to keep the housing as affordable as possible) it has been difficult for their buildings to cover maintenance and other costs. There also happens to be a high concentration of elder residents in HDFC’s who are especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. The tight knit communities that often make up these housing cooperatives have responded to these challenges with generosity and imagination. This has included establishing a system of volunteer “floor captains” to check-in on homebound residents as well as coordinating food and supplies deliveries to sick neighbors. To address some of the missing income mentioned above, some HDFC’s applied for micro-grants from Cooperative Economics Alliance of NYC (CEANYC) and other sources which have emerged to face these crises collectively.

Cooperation between cooperative sectors: CEANYC

As an extension of CEANYC’s ongoing Solidarity Economy Giving Project, CEANYC has dispersed nearly $41,000 in rapid microgrants to worker, housing and financial cooperatives since the pandemic arrived. We have also intensified check-ins with our membership to clarify how their needs are changing in this unprecedented moment. A highlight of our recent 2020 Annual Meeting was when members shared ways they were collaborating across sectors, such as when HDFC buildings list worker co-ops as “preferred vendors”, mutually reinforcing each sector. The pandemic has also impacted CEANYC’s funding — hard hit members cannot pay dues, and philanthropy has offered mixed messages about their willingness to extend existing funding or support new groups while their endowments and donations are experiencing instability. All this in the context of our city and state governments imposing austerity cuts despite the billionaires continuing to grow richer off the backs of working people.

Looking ahead

As the pandemic wears on, we feel a renewed urgency and energy to fight for the transformative changes our communities need. This is work that CEANYC members are uniquely positioned to expand because they have been building these community-controlled institutions for decades. CEANYC hopes to eventually staff an Advocacy Council of our membership to advocate for the policies each solidarity economy sector needs to thrive. In the meantime, we continue to build our educational programming, laying a foundation for common cause and action. While the national spotlight has been on the presidential and congressional races, advocates will continue to find working at the state and municipal level the most effective course of action. This is especially true in NYC and NY State, where progressives have grown their numbers considerably thanks to the popularity of Bernie Sanders and the pressing emergency of climate change, which awakened a new generation to electoral politics. Defeating Trump was important, but in the words of Southern organizer Suzanne Pharr, “It’s not a win, it’s a STOP.” Stopping Trump was necessary for all the oppressed groups he targeted, but with his defeat we’re again focused on the levels where CEANYC’s relatively small budget can make the most impact. Onward together.

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Cheyenna Layne Weber is a writer and organizer who elevates the needs of people and the planet over profit. For 20 years she has worked with social justice, environmental, and community organizations in every capacity from volunteer to executive director. In addition to her role as co-founder and advisor to CEANYC, she is a co-founder and member of SolidarityNYC, where she led the creation of the first online interactive map of New York City’s solidarity economy, and an Associate Member of the editorial collective Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). Previously she spearheaded the creation of the New Economy Coalition while executive director of the New Economy Network, served on the Board of Directors at Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union, and helped start five worker cooperatives from Occupy Wall Street’s tenure in downtown Manhattan.

Ali Issa is the General Coordinator of the Cooperative Economics Alliance of NYC (CEANYC.) For over a decade he has taken part in a variety of fights for social justice and has worked to connect the dots across issues. He previously worked with War Resisters League, organizing against police militarization and helping build cross-community coalitions in cities around the country, in addition to building solidarity with movements in Iraq and across the Middle East. He has also worked with the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, organizing alongside vendors fighting for their rights in all five boroughs. Most recently, Ali worked with New Economy Project as lead organizer with the Public Bank NYC coalition, pushing to make public money work for the public good. Originally from Iowa, Ali holds a Master’s degree in Arabic Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of the book Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq. Ali is a committed fan of improvised music and lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

The Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City (CEANYC) strengthens and expands community-led, democratically-controlled initiatives in NYC.