Date of Award

May 2020

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

Geography

First Advisor

Anne Bonds

Committee Members

Kristin Sziarto, Hyejin Yoon, Marc Levine, Anna Mansson McGinty

Keywords

Gender, Neoliberalization, Race, Urban economic development, Worker cooperatives

Abstract

Worker cooperatives are gaining increased traction as an urban economic development strategy aimed to better support low-income women, immigrants and communities of color. Worker cooperatives are businesses that are owned and managed by its workers, and their supporters see them as a more equitable form of development that facilitates enhanced economic agency and access to ownership and wealth building. Reflecting and reinforcing growing cooperative momentum, New York City developed the nation’s first municipal-sponsored cooperative development initiative in 2014. The Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative (WCBDI) brings together policy makers, city administrators and nonprofit community-based organizations to provide educational programming, cooperative business incubation and technical assistance to oversee the organizing of worker-owners and the development of worker cooperatives.

Drawing from two years of fieldwork in New York City between 2015 and 2017 with city officials, cooperative developers and nonprofits, and worker-owners affiliated with the WCBDI, this dissertation examines worker cooperative development as urban economic development in New York City. I question how worker cooperative development ‘takes place’ in a neoliberal urban context and ask how and in what ways the WCBDI supports marginalized and precariously situated workers.

My research examines the contradictory outcomes of the WCBDI. On one hand, worker cooperatives are the ideal neoliberal urban economic development strategy and worker-owners are the ideal neoliberal subjects. With their emphasis on self-reliance, self-governance and self-determination, worker cooperatives and their owners – rather than the state – are responsible for their own economic well-being and success. Reflecting neoliberal devolution, the WCBDI relies upon an extensive, decentralized network of nonprofits to administer and distribute funds. This contradictory framework simultaneously empowers workers through cooperative organizing yet makes them reliant on nonprofit organizations that complete for city funds to support cooperative development. Rather than supporting and benefiting worker-owners and their cooperatives, I argue the funding and administrative structure of the WCBDI instead supports the development of the nonprofit sector.

Yet, even as worker cooperatives are highly aligned with neoliberal sensibilities, my research demonstrates that worker cooperatives represent new spatialities of labor that are potentially transformative and empowering for worker-owners. I center the voices of worker-owners whose stories challenge the notion that worker cooperatives are just another iteration of neoliberal economic development. My research with worker-owners finds that participation in a worker cooperative is more than a job and provides access to self-determination and autonomy in both economic and social relations. Ultimately, this dissertation explores the implications of worker cooperative development for differently positioned actors in New York City – implications that may be relevant for other cities seeking to do the same.

Available for download on Sunday, May 22, 2022

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