By Hannah Dreier
Norma Sanchez's hand still flutters to her chest when she remembers the incident that was the beginning of the end of her career as a $5-an-hour janitor.
She was mixing heavy-duty cleaners in a supplies closet when the mixture exploded, filling the space with caustic smoke. Unable to read the English labels, she had accidentally combined ammonia and bleach.
The Oakland resident's lungs ached for a month but taking a night off seemed impossible.
"Now I look back at all of that and I say, 'Wow, I was really suffering,'" she said.
Today, Sanchez, 35, cleans with baking soda and natural Castile soap and takes sick days when she needs them.
She is one of dozens of low-income, low-education, sometimes undocumented workers who have gone into business for themselves thanks to a boom in worker-owned cooperatives.
Organizers at the Bay Area's two co-op associations say their membership rolls have swollen in the past several years even as the broader economy has faltered.
That's partly thanks to expansion among hip mainstays such as Arizmendi Bakery, Berkeley's Cheese Board Collective, bike shops and artisanal collectives.
But a different kind of co-op is also gaining in popularity.
Responding to what they say is a remarkable interest in entrepreneurship, nonprofit organizations are launching programs that provide leadership training, management support and other tools that help workers become their own bosses.
"That's the reason I'm interested in co-op development," said Melissa Hoover, director of the San Francisco-based U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. "I'm super glad the world has a lot of bike stores, but I'm more interested in how co-ops are used as a tool for economic development."
A bill that would establish formal structures for democratic workplaces is winding its way through the state legislature and the U.N. has named 2012 "the year of the cooperative."
The Bay Area, long home to the greatest concentration of co-ops in the nation, has become a testing ground for those hoping use an economic model once dismissed as utopian and separatist to build a path out of poverty.
A growing sector
Last Friday evening, six jobless Richmond residents met in a drafty church kitchen to test out the recipes they hope will soon become office favorites.
Carlos Rullier, 68, tossed a skillet of tempeh with great flourishes while two young women scooped out avocados and kept an eye on their sons.
The group has been working toward opening a food truck for months, collaborating with a co-op incubator and carpooling to business classes and cooking workshops.
Rullier has long dreamed of opening a restaurant and sees the co-op as a chance to do what he loves without having to find startup capital or take orders.
"I'm not very obedient," he said with a grin. "Here, we can all be on the same level."
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin is promoting cooperatives as a tool to help plug the city's 17 percent unemployment rate.
She has been holding packed co-op study sessions, and this summer hired Arizmendi co-founder Terry Baird to help launch new enterprises.
"My charge is to try to get people employed," Baird said. "Especially people who have not been employed for a while."
Baird and other organizers draw inspiration from the success of the green housecleaning network Women's Action to Gain Economic Security, or WAGES.
This 16-year-old incubator has helped launch five worker-owned housecleaning businesses from Concord to Morgan Hill, which today employ 100 women.
As with most co-ops, after a six-month initial "probationary" period, employees begin to buy into the company through payroll deductions of $1 per hour (for a total of $400).
At the Oakland co-op, where Norma Sanchez works, members make about $14 an hour and receive an annual profit-sharing bonus.
A recent afternoon ¿found the co-op's finance committee members leaning around a table at their small Fruitvale Avenue office, talking in rising voices about what they might do when they become too old to clean.
Should they become accountants? Run similar collectives as administrators?
These meetings are a highlight for Anahi Rojas, who used to work 15-hour shifts at a panadería.
"I studied law in Mexico and I was so depressed when I got here," said Rojas, 24. "Now I use what I studied on the finance committee. I'm not just an immigrant anymore -- I'm doing something for this country, for this environment."
Chris Scheldt pays $150 each month to have Sanchez and Rojas scrub her seven-room Berkeley home. That's a little higher than the going rate, but Scheldt considers the service a bargain because it allows her a clean conscience.
"I don't have to worry about the workers having long-term health effects just from cleaning my house," she said, "and that means a lot to me."
Slow to develop
With economic development co-ops, the real barriers may lie not in finding customers but in building the organizing capacity.
"Starting a co-op is really hard and it's even harder to do with people who have limited education," said TeamWorks founder David Moore, who helped a group of San Jose gardeners launch an organic landscaping service this summer.
What's more, he said, these co-ops are generally limited to low-wage industries.
For some, fully democratic workplaces are simply too much work.
Kevin Rath founded Manos Home Care in 1989 as a not-for-profit business, but has opted not to invite his 200 employees to take over management.
"It has to do with what I call participation limits," Rath said. "We have a hard enough time making sure that people get to their CPR classes."
He shares profits and encourages worker feedback but acknowledges that his employees may be losing out on the intangibles that stem from co-owning a company.
For Sanchez, it's this sense of purpose that's made all the difference.
As a teen in Mexico City, she worked full time to help support her siblings. Now, with three children of her own, she says she feels confident in a way she never could before.
"I didn't have an education, but it's important to able to say I have something and it's mine," she said during a break from the finance committee meeting. "It's something to be proud of."
Contact Hannah Dreier at 510-262-2787. Follow her at Twitter.com/hannahdreier.
Find an economic development CO-OP
CONTRA COSTA Natural Home Cleaning Professionals (Concord), 510-532-6645, www.naturalhomecleaning.com SPOKESHOP Bike Lounge (Richmond), 510-545-2243, http://bit.ly/qjXTqk
OAKLAND Manos Home Care, 510-336-2900, www.manoshomecare.com Mandela Foods Cooperative, 510-452-1133, mandelafoods.com Natural Home Cleaning Professionals, 510-532-6645, www.naturalhomecleaning.com
SOUTH BAY TeamWorks Sustainable Landscape Maintenance (San Jose), 408-250-8619, www.teamworks.coop Emma's Eco-Clean (Redwood City), 650-261-1788, www.emmasecoclean.com Eco-Care Professional House Cleaning (Morgan Hill), 408-778-8445, www.eco-care.org TeamWorks House Cleaning (San Jose), 650-940-9773, www.teamworks.coop