Image from the Brightly website.

July 1, 2019; Fast Company

In February, Emma Yorra wrote in NPQ about plans to form a “nonprofit cooperative franchisor” that could “scale nationally through collaborations with local partner nonprofits.” Now, that idea has become reality. On June 28th, Brightly launched as the country’s first franchise dedicated to creating worker-owned businesses nationwide.

The new operation builds upon a proven model. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the nonprofit Prospera (formerly WAGES, or Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security) has successfully supported housecleaning worker co-ops since 1995. It’s also worked in New York City, where Brightly is based.

Brightly was established as a cleaning cooperative by the Center for Family Life (CFL), a nonprofit social services organization in Brooklyn that incubates worker cooperatives. As Yorra noted in NPQ, this is one of 21 worker co-ops that CFL has organized. She adds, “Eighty-seven percent of its co-op member-owners are immigrants; 85 percent are women. On average, members of these cooperatives earn over $18 an hour. They also share in annual profits, benefit from labor protections, and develop leadership skills.”

Now, as Eillie Anzilotti details in Fast Company, Brightly is “relaunching the cooperative as a franchise network in an effort to establish more worker cooperatives and expand the reach of the organization outside the New York City area.”

In the years that Brightly has existed, it’s proven successful, if small-scale. There are now two Brightly worker cooperatives operating in the New York City area: one in Brooklyn and one on Staten Island. Its several dozen worker-owners generally make around $21 per hour.

Phyllis Robinson is leading the franchise effort. Anzilotti notes that Robinson “wants to see the cooperative model scale across the home-cleaning industry to help workers attain better pay and more control over their schedules.”

Through the franchise model, CFL staff and current Brightly member-owners will partner to assist home cleaners outside New York to organize as a Brightly franchise. Worker-owners in the new co-ops will “gain access to the Brightly branding and business infrastructure (like a website and booking platform, both of which are laborious to set up independently) and technical support from the backing organizations,” Anzilotti explains.

“Just like any startup businesses, worker cooperatives face challenges entering the market and staying competitive,” Robinson tells Anzilotti. Robinson notes that one in 10 mainstream businesses in the US is currently part of a franchise. Robinson says that CFL and its partners observed this feature of the US business world and decided it made sense to use the franchise model “for all the reasons of scalability, shared resources, and shared branding.”

Of course, franchises have traditionally been exploitative—hardly a mechanism for achieving racial equity or economic justice. Can you adopt the growth aspects of the model while discarding those that don’t serve workers? Brightly leaders think they can: Robinson tells Anzilotti that what they aim to do is take the franchise model “and overlay it with what’s successful about the worker co-op model.”

What does this mean in practice? The Brightly model looks like it differs considerably from a traditional franchise arrangement. For instance, member-owners of the new cooperative, unlike typical franchise owners, face no up-front fees. Also, unlike traditional franchise agreements, which often bar workers from staying in the industry after they leave, workers who want to leave an established Brightly franchise to set up their own business can do so, provided the new business is also a cooperative.

“We want to take what works from the franchise model but make it work for the workers,” Robinson says. While it’s not certain where the first non-New York City location will be, Robinson suggests that Philadelphia, which lies just a little under 100 miles southwest of the city, may be a good place to start.—Steve Dubb

Correction: This article has been altered from its initial form. References to the involvement of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives were removed as incorrect. NPQ regrets the error.