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Worker-Owned Companies and Industry Collaboration Creates Meaningful Jobs

Walter Vincente working at Opportunity Threads

Walter Vincente was nine years old when he took his first job in the western highlands of Guatemala, sewing on shirt buttons by hand. Some 50 miles north, his future wife Maricela Lopez began working at age five, picking vegetables in a field.

Separately, they both left home in search of a better life, landing in the scenic, rural foothills of Burke County, North Carolina, which felt comfortingly similar to the landscape they had left behind.

Walter and Maricela met and fell in love while working in a Burke County poultry processing plant. But if this sounds like an American dream, it wasn’t. Their salaries were too low to allow any opportunity to save or advance, and the conditions were often inhumane, they both recalled recently.

“Sometimes they wouldn’t even let us use the bathroom,” Walter said. “No breaks. They wanted us to keep working.”

Quitting, however, was not an option for Walter, especially after he and Maricela married and began to have the first of their four children. In fact, even working fulltime was not enough to support his family. So Walter took a second job as a convenience store cashier and then, still coming up short, a third job at Burger King.

If the couple’s challenges sound familiar, they are. Some 42 percent of working Americans can’t support their families. More than 44 million working households—representing more than 90 million people across the United States—struggle each month to pay their bills for basic expenses. Nearly four in 10 households can’t withstand an unexpected monthly expense greater than $400.

Maricela warned Walter that he was putting his health at risk while simultaneously missing milestones in their children’s lives, but he felt he had no choice. “Sometimes it still makes us cry when we remember this time,” Walter says.

The Birth of The Industrial Commons

Enter two determined Burke County women who saw the potential to remake the region’s textile and furniture businesses through employee-owned companies and industry cooperatives.

In the early 1990s, Molly Hemstreet was on the frontlines of an effort to help unionize a poultry processing plant, a fight that was captured in Leon Fink’s book The Maya of Morganton. Though it eventually succeeded, the pro-union movement lost its first tally by a handful of votes. “I began to wonder if there was some other way,” Hemstreet said. So in 2008, she started an employee-owned company, Opportunity Threads, with one sewing machine and two employees. Now it has 62 employees and recently purchased a 30,000-square-foot building.

Sara Chester (left) and Molly Hemstreet

But Hemstreet knew broader changes were needed to bring hope and promise to the region’s textile and furniture-making industries.

Sara Chester grew up on Lake James with its more than 150 miles of shoreline, “and that was my childhood, swimming with my brother, going out at night on the boat, hiking, camping, being out in the woods.” From a family of small business owners, she studied economic development, and wanted to bring her work home. “People know we have to do economic development differently right now, but they don’t know what exactly that change should look like,” Chester says. “When I learned about worker-owned businesses, something clicked.”

In 2015, Hemstreet and Chester joined to create the The Industrial Commons, which supports the Carolina Textile District, a regional network of small to mid-sized furniture and textile businesses based in the county seat of Morganton, population 16,775. The goal is to create dignified work and fair wages along with locally rooted wealth by collaborating along the value chain.

And in 2018, they were among the 10 winners who each received $1 million each as part of the Communities Thrive Challenge, sponsored by The Rockefeller Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to identify scalable, locally sourced practices to bring meaningful work and financial security to underserved communities, and to rewrite the relationship between worker and employer.

  • This is a replicable model for other regions. This is how you can bring manufacturing back to the U.S.
    Molly Hemstreet
    Co-Executive Director, The Industrial Commons

A Rosie the Riveter Moment

The Industrial Commons is currently incubating five businesses, and has impacted up to 7,000 regional workers through the Carolina Textile District. Walter and Maricela are among them.

“What we see with The Industrial Commons is a model of economic development that directly challenges the traditional notion of who gets to set the path forward for the community,” said Otis Rolley, Senior Vice President of the U.S. Equity and Economic Opportunity Initiative at the Foundation. “By promoting employee ownership of businesses, and working to secure their seats at the table through unique governance structures, the Industrial Commons is helping to ensure that the wealth created in their communities is, in earnest, deeply rooted and constantly attuned to the interests of the individuals producing true value: the workers themselves.”

A drawing of Maricela Lopez used to make a Rosie the Riveter-style poster

To understand how well The Industrial Commons method works, one need look no further than Covid-19, and April 2020. “It was a Rosie the Riveter moment,” Chester recalls. “The PPE shortages were all over the news, so we organized 60 manufacturers. We got contracts and were able to pay out over $2 million so businesses could keep their doors open, and at the same time we made over half a million masks and gowns over about six months. It was inspiring to see all these folks come together.”


Maricela Lopez working at Opportunity Threads

Bobby Carswell, 34, a Burke County native, is also part of The Industrial Commons as well as CEO for Material Return, a small company begun in the spring of 2019 that supports the development of a circular economy by collecting industrial waste from the region’s textile plants and recycling it into both non-woven fabric and high-quality yarn.

Some 200 furniture manufacturers operate within a 75-mile radius, Carswell says, and each on average produces 60,000 pounds of waste a month, with most going into landfills. Material Return offers a more sustainable model with the goal of improving both the environment and the economy.

Carswell started working in furniture manufacturing as soon as he graduated from high school. “I began at the bottom, sweeping floors,” he recalls, “and worked my way up to pattern design and production while learning some electrical engineering along the way. But after 15 years, I saw that I was stuck in my job, with no potential to ever move forward and not even any talk of moving forward.”

Material Return has four employees at present, but expects to grow by 50 percent, adding two more employees, next year. Investing in workers is a key value for Carswell, and as part of that effort, each employee is cross-trained, both to increase the company’s agility and to allow workers to grow, and has an opportunity to become a worker-owner of the plant. For instance, Carswell brought on Patrick McClure, 24, who he met at his previous job, doubled his salary, and began offering him opportunities to learn. His latest work had him writing grants.

  • The Industrial Commons prioritizes employees more than any place I’ve been. Every week, they discuss our concerns and make us feel comfortable with being transparent about how we feel. That’s a big change from what I experienced in the past.
    Patrick McClure
    Pickups Manager Material Return, The Industrial Commons

“We Want Our Kids to Stay”

Hemstreet hired Walter Vincente in 2010, the very day he came for an interview, and employed Maricela a few months later. She soon began to talk to Walter about becoming a part-owner. “To be honest, I didn’t want to do it,” Walter recalls, smiling. “I thought it was too much responsibility. I was like ‘I just want to work and then go home.’”

But Hemstreet kept bringing it up, and in 2013, Walter said yes. Now both Walter and Maricela are part-owners in Opportunity Threads, bought their own home three years ago, and through Opportunity Thread’s foundation, Maya the Next Generation, the cooperative funds full-ride scholarships to five students in Guatemala, at a cost of about $1,500 per student per year.

“It changed our lives completely,” Walter says. “We feel so blessed.”

Walter Vincente at work

Like Walter and Maricela, Hemstreet and Chester think of future generations. They have two children each. “We want to prove that you can have the joys of rural life and still have innovation,” Hemstreet says. “We want to create not just jobs, but a place where people can develop themselves while supporting their families and contributing to the life of the community. We want a future economy that is inclusive, that works for all of us, and that’s rooted in a deep commitment to place.”

“Our secret hope?” Hemstreet says. “It’s that our kids want to live here, even after they grow up.”

The Industrial Commons

Rebuilding a diverse working class based on locally rooted wealth.

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