Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

Brightly® – Scaling up worker cooperatives through the franchise model

“Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators” is a series of interviews with co-operators from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths during the course of their work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). On this occasion, the ILO interviewed Ms. Maru Bautista, Director of the Cooperative Development Programme at the Center for Family Life, on Brightly®, the first worker cooperative franchise in the United States.

Article | 19 décembre 2019

Can you tell us about yourself?

Maru Bautista
I am the Director of the Cooperative Development Program (CDP) at the Center for Family Life (CFL), a 40 year-old social service organization providing a range of services to the community in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. For the past 13 years, the CDP has supported the incubation of worker cooperatives, the training of community-based organizations, and developed innovative scaling initiatives in order to bring worker ownership to more communities that face systemic barriers to accessing the market. I have been involved in the development of Brightly® Cleaning, the first cooperative franchise in the United States, since the beginning. I am also actively supporting Up & Go, the first gig platform owned by domestic workers in the country.

I have an MA in International Development, from The New School in the US and a BA in International Relations, from the Universidad de las Americas, Puebla in Mexico. Being born and raised in Puebla, I have been interested and involved in local economic development initiatives, particularly in communities facing emigration patterns, as a way to support the self-determination of communities facing systemic barriers.

I learned about worker cooperatives when I provided interpretation services for a group of graduate students presenting the findings from a research project with some worker cooperatives in Sunset Park. I was immediately in awe of the incredible women leading these worker owned businesses. I started working in the field of worker cooperatives in 2012 through a consultancy with the CDP. Since 2015, I have served on the board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, and for the past 3 years, I have also served on the Board of the Democracy at Work Institute.

What is Brightly® Cleaning Cooperative?

The Brightly® franchise, approved in November 2018 by the New York State Attorney General’s office, is the first worker cooperative franchise in the US. The franchise has a non-profit mission dedicated to expanding business ownership for low-income domestic workers. Each individual Brightly® business is structured as a for-profit cleaning enterprise, owned by its worker-members.

Currently, three Brightly® worker cooperatives operate in New York City: Brightly® Port Richmond (Staten Island), Brightly® Carrol Gardens (Brooklyn), and Brightly® East Harlem. A fourth cooperative, in Washington Heights, will join the franchise in March 2020. Plans are also underway to incubate a fifth cooperative in New York City next year, and to lay the groundwork for the first Brightly® to be launched beyond New York’s borders.

How did you come up with the franchise model?

Through our work developing worker cooperatives in predominantly low-income communities and communities of colour, we realized that start-up cooperatives were facing many challenges in entering the market. In addition, for individual worker cooperatives, it was difficult to manage both business growth and financial sustainability, particularly in industries such as cleaning where margins are low.

We adjusted our incubation model to make it more dynamic, incorporating elements of agile enterprise development, and helped workers take on more leadership from the start. We also did research to figure out how best to incorporate elements of resource sharing to the worker cooperatives we were developing. That’s when, after years of research, we came across the franchise model.

What are the benefits of the franchise model and how does it work?

While individual Brightly® cooperatives maintain their autonomy and self-governance, they share a brand, resources, and back-office systems; and benefit from economies-of-scale and joint marketing campaigns. Royalty payments from their monthly income support on-going training and technical assistance for the members, and the funds are used to help build brand awareness. As business owners, and with the power of numbers behind them, Brightly® cleaners are able to set wages and create working conditions in their favour. Within the cleaning industry, which is historically one of the most exploitative sector in the country, this gain is of enormous significance.

Unlike other cooperatives, the “Brightlys” do not have to “do it alone.” Each new Brightly® joins a growing family, whose members have skills and experience in cleaning, pricing, contracting, marketing, and client satisfaction. As the Brightly® brand grows, the efforts of each individual cooperative benefit all other Brightly® businesses. In addition, members have opportunities to gain additional skills in media training, public speaking, and advocacy. They can also earn additional income and gain leadership experience by becoming “Brand trainers” of the newer members.

Currently, each Brightly® cooperative is incubated, developed, and supported by CFL’s highly skilled team of cooperative developers in close partnership with a community-based organization that has strong ties to the particular group of women being trained. this way, the participants are able to receive support for both business and personal development. Additionally, members benefit from a strong ecosystem of allied organizations with knowledge of and experience in cooperative development, financial and legal issues, and economic justice and worker empowerment.

Due to the non-profit nature of this franchise system, the goal of Brightly® is not to maximize profits, but rather to empower workers, create ownership, and build a brand with and for its franchise members. Worker-owners are able to influence and co-develop the franchise in a number of ways. For example, representatives of each Brightly® serve on an Industry Committee to discuss common issues: cleaning and quality standards, products, and marketing strategies. A five-person Board of Directors, comprised of allies in the cooperative development field and worker-owners, ensures the financial and legal viability of the brand and ensures adherence to its overall vision and mission.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities for worker cooperatives?

The challenges worker cooperatives face in the service sector, is in helping consumers understand the value of domestic work. Most online platforms, agencies and companies providing residential and commercial cleaning tend to lower the costs of their services and pay workers less, in order to become competitive and access capital to run their operations. Brightly® worker cooperatives are trying to raise industry standards. Each Brightly® worker owner provides the best possible service, while participating in decision-making about pricing structures, in order to emphasize the value of their labour.
Members from Brightly Port Richmond and Brightly East Harlem