Between 1992 and 2012, the number of workers employed in making clothing and other fabric products in North Carolina (USA) fell by about 88 percent. Molly Hemstreet wanted to find a way to create a new kind of clothing factory and in 2008 she founded Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned cut-and-sew plant built on a threefold ethical platform: social, environmental, and economic benefits for the local community.
The company today is owned and operated by the 23 men and women who work there, the majority of whom are first or second-generation immigrants from Guatemala.
Up the supply chain and through its clients, Hemstreet hopes that the company will continue to reflect the diversity of Morganton, whose population includes Mayan and Hmong people—many of them refugees who escaped armed conflicts in Guatemala and Laos—as well as African American and intergenerational Appalachian communities. While Opportunity Threads does not source its own materials, its staff work with partners who specialize in organic, upcycled, and local fibers.
In an interview with YES magazine, Walter Vicente says his experience as a worker-owner contrasts sharply with his first three years in Morganton.
Up until landing a position at Opportunity Threads, he worked from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. at a chicken processing plant in the area, as well as the 6 p.m. to midnight shift at a chain restaurant. Now, he regularly contributes to business management and still has time to spend with his son and three daughters. This has given him a place in the company’s future. “I have dreams, and the hope is that we can grow the plant from 23 employees to 60 or more,” Vicente said.
The Center for Family Life, a nonprofit community-based organization providing social services in Brooklyn since 1978, is a model in the US for supporting immigrant cooperatives. It has incubated four similar immigrant worker cooperatives in New York.
At the beginning of the cooperatives’ life, the Center provides the cooperatives with legal premises and administrative support. It is now incubating another four cooperatives within the framework of the ongoing municipal policy in New York, which is actively promoting worker cooperatives, including cooperatives created by the country’s immigrant population. “The added value clients have when using a cooperative business with the immigrant-run cooperatives I’ve worked with is that they know there is a whole group behind the brand. They know the worker-owner is held accountable by them and the cooperative members.
The members are often supported to receive professional development through their cooperative membership which ultimately improves the clients’ quality of service or product”, says Vanessa Bransburg, former Cooperative Coordinator at the Center for Family Life, and the current Local Initiatives Developer at the Democracy at Work Institute.
International Organisation of Industrial, Artisanal and
Service Producers' Cooperatives
Secretariat: C/O European Cooperative House - avenue Milcamps 105
1030 Brussels, Belgium
Tel: +32 2 543 1033, fax: +32 2 543 1037