The below is an article which appeared in the May 2018 edition of Earthworker Cooperative’s Newsletter:
Earthworker is proud to report that the Redgum Cleaning Co-operative is off to a great start after launching in February this year!
A fully worker-owned green cleaning enterprise, Redgum sprung like a mushroom from Earthworker’s network of cooperatively minded members after two years of development. Its five members are now running its operations, providing safe and environmentally friendly cleaning services to 30 (and counting) homes and offices around Narrm/ Melbourne.
We had a chat to three of Redgum’s founding members, to find out what life and work is like in the co-op so far.
How did Redgum get started, and how did you first get involved?
(Alex) It formed when Eleanor became interested in co-ops and had been working casually as a cleaner, she saw the potential for a co-op to thrive. Gradually, we hoovered up people who had also worked as cleaners and were excited by the idea of worker owned co-ops and the equity and empowerment that is non-existent in the current hierarchical and insecure work environments that are becoming the only choices for young or unskilled workers.
(Eleanor) I was volunteering for Earthworker while working in a cleaning company a few years ago. Another organiser encouraged me to think about starting a cleaning co-op. I was really interested to have a first-hand experience of working in a cooperative, so when Earthworker hosted a forum about starting worker-coops I connected with a few like minded people and we took it from there.
(Ella) I knew Eleanor and Alex and had heard that they were thinking about starting a cooperative cleaning business. I had also been working for a small cleaning business whilst studying my masters and found myself quite enjoying the work. I answered a call out on Facebook to attend a meeting, and I guess the rest is history.
What made you interested in being part of a worker-cooperative?
(Ella) While I’d been involved in left politics for most of my 20s, I didn’t know a great deal about cooperatives until I joined Redgum. I really liked the values associated with cooperatives, such as economic democracy and worker control. To me, it just makes heaps of sense. I also liked the idea of working and building something together with others who share similar politics and values to me (with a healthy amount of debate and disagreement thrown in there for good measure!)
(Alex) Broadscale capitalism is the root cause of the planet being consumed piece by piece. Worker co-ops are an alternative which does not put profit ahead of everything else.
(Eleanor): I just believe that people should have input in the decisions that affect them, whether it’s in the workplace, economy, or wherever. Taking back control over how we use our labour and building a more democratic economy gives us so much more potential to do good in the world. I also love the fact that worker-cooperatives help us develop as human beings, because they depend on people working together to meet their needs, rather than competing.
What’s been the most challenging thing about starting a worker-cooperative?
(Alex) Forms. So many forms.
(Ella) Although unpaid labour is an unavoidable part of starting any small business, putting in heaps and heaps of unpaid work has been hard for all of us. We’ve all had to juggle other casual or part-time work while working hard to establish our business from scratch. We’ve all made personal sacrifices because we strongly believe in what we’re doing. I’ve had to take a break from teaching to focus on the cooperative, but it’s all been entirely worth it as we are now seeing small wins!
(Eleanor) I think there are a lot of policy changes that need to happen to support worker-cooperatives. As Ella mentioned, there is a lot of unpaid labour involved in start up. The government offers Centrelink benefits and mentoring to people setting up small businesses through the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (or NEIS), but this program is only accessible to businesses with a maximum of two partners. Worker-coops require a minimum of 5 member-owners so none of us were able to use the scheme. We could have really benefited from business skills training and also the ability to focus on the co-op rather than having to job seek and/or work other jobs on the side. It’d be awesome to see a scheme like this specifically for worker-cooperatives.
What’s the best thing about being part of Redgum?
(Alex) It’s been great hanging out with people of similar values, and getting to know my cool comrades. Under current workplace paradigms there are always power imbalances and mostly a general heir of competitiveness and exploitation, which are always an underlying irritant. It’s been very refreshing for everyone to be on the same level and working together.
(Ella) As I said before, I really enjoy working together with such rad comrades. Even though it’s been a massive amount of work in setting up the cooperative, I genuinely look forward to this work every week. Establishing a cleaning business is also more creative than I thought it would be – from designing the website, to working out ways to communicate our messages effectively, it all takes a fair bit of thinking outside of the box. Who would’ve thought scrubbing dunnies could activate the right side of my brain?
(Eleanor) I just feel so proud of everyone and of what we’ve achieved together so far. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a really different feeling to anything I’ve experienced at work before. It’s like being on a footy team, except we are cleaning! And we’re really fortunate to have all these awesome people from Earthworker and other groups supporting and cheering us on. It’s a great community to be part of.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start a worker-coop?
(Ella) Do it! If you have an idea for a small business and at least one other person who might be keen to be a partner, you should definitely think about the cooperative structure. Once you put the word out about your idea, you’ll find that lots of people are thinking along the same lines and might want to join you in your adventure. Don’t be put off by the large number of bureaucratic hurdles required to become a cooperative. We had no idea what we were doing in the initial stages, and none of us had any prior experiences with cooperatives. Having 5 of us working together helped us navigate the red tape and through the aid of Earthworker, we found lots of wonderful help from the Melbourne Cooperative community.
(Eleanor) I think one thing I learned from Redgum’s start-up process was that even though some of the grunt work was a bit punishing and took a lot of time, it was all those hundreds of hours of meetings and working bees that helped us really get to know and trust each other. It also meant that everyone became really invested in the project because we’d all put so much work in! So my advice would be this: be patient, be realistic, and remember that the journey is just as important as the end result.
(Alex) Do it. Capitalism sucks!
Where do you hope to see Redgum in the future?
(Ella) I’d love to see Redgum be able to provide permanent and meaningful employment for all our members (including myself), and then to take on new worker members. Through outreach and education, I’d love to see Redgum help other people in Melbourne to set up worker cooperatives.
(Eleanor) I hope we can be an example to people that setting up a worker-cooperative is possible – if we can do it, you can too! And I’m excited about being part of the Earthworker network as it grows. The fact that we are building our collective economic power for the benefit of our community and environment is starting to become more tangible. By becoming one healthy co-op, I hope we have the capacity to seed many more.
What should people do if they want to support Redgum?
(Ella) Tell your mates! Help spread the word about our green cleaning services, and our cooperative structure. If you know of organisations that would support us, or partner with us, then please get in touch.