This Worker-Owned Cooperative Is ‘Bigger Than A Business’
Above Photo: Some of TightShift’s members: Delonte Wilkins, Noreil Gorham, Nicholas Gorham, Juan Reid, Joseph Morgan, Adriel Fogle, Donnell Sims. (Photo by Samira Rashid/SR Photography)
On the morning of his 34th birthday, Juan Reid woke up in a van parked outside a homeless shelter. He couldn’t stop sobbing.
Reid had just finished 14 years in prison, and acclimating to life on the outside was taking its toll. He could feel himself being pulled back into his old habits, tempted by the routine that got him put away. Not wanting to burden his parents any longer, and filled with shame, he elected to sleep in a van on the street instead of ask them for help.
Then his phone rang. It was his mom, calling to wish him a happy birthday and say she was proud of him.
“Right then and there, I knew,” Reid says. “The power of words. The power of someone supporting you; somebody saying ‘I got your back,’ regardless of what you’ve done.”
That sentiment, the desire to pull up those who have fallen, propelled Reid, along with partner Allison Basile, to start TightShift Laboring Cooperative last year. It is the only worker-owned cooperative business in D.C. comprised primarily of formerly incarcerated individuals and those at risk of entering the criminal justice system.
At TightShift, which provides moving, landscaping, and cleaning services, every member has equal say in the company’s direction. No CEO collecting bonus checks while workers eke out minimum wage. No orders dictated from boss to employee. Decisions are made collectively as a group. One person, one vote.
As a cooperative, the company’s mission is far more holistic than simply profit margins and gross revenue.
“My understanding of a co-op is it’s bigger than a business,” Reid says. “We’re doing a service to support ourselves, but it’s not about money.”
Reid met Basile a year ago in the Bloomingdale neighborhood where he grew up. At that time, Basile was working for Cooperation DC, a grassroots organization focused on worker cooperatives for low-income communities of color. She talked to him and his friends about getting involved in events or protests and eventually invited Reid up to New York to visit a co-op. The concept was revolutionary to him.
“I was like, a worker-owned business? They got that?” Reid remembers with a laugh.
Basile kept up the contact, sending Reid YouTube videos and links to more information about co-ops. Reid bought in.
“This is the way to change things,” he said.
There are still relatively few worker cooperatives in the United States, although the number is growing. The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives estimates there are roughly 300 nationwide and only three in D.C., according to Basile.
That makes TightShift a continuing experiment in cooperative building.
“It’s hard to even know what it looks like or feels like in D.C. cause we don’t have [co-ops] yet,” Basile said. “So that’s a big part of it, making the road while walking.”
The cooperative completed 30 jobs in its first year, collecting initial funds from grants. They are raising money for a new moving truck and other equipment necessary to expand the business through a fundraiser held earlier this week and a crowdfunding campaign.
TightShift currently has 11 members, six of whom spent time in prison. Many of them come from Bloomingdale as well, struggling with the same issues that Reid did: rejection from jobs because of incarceration records, reliance on inconsistent low-wage gigs from Craigslist, and no health benefits.
Keith Gaffney didn’t know anything about cooperatives, but was drawn to TightShift because of Reid.
“It was just something about him, that I seen in him, that made me want to join and be a part of it,” Gaffney said. “Cause I don’t really like wasting my time with too much stuff, but there was something in Juan that I knew he got what it takes.”
Reid, and TightShift in general, is still a work in progress. Hours of training need to be completed for new members. Money needs to be raised for new equipment. All the intricacies of decision-making and voting within the cooperative still need hashing out.
But for a man who spent seven years in solitary confinement, the future has never looked better.
“I went through a lot of trauma at a very young age,” Reid said. “I knew in my heart the world wasn’t right. And I wanted to do something about it.”