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Hanging by a Thread

Filling a textile gap with a worker-owned cooperative

Nov/Dec 2022

When Cooperative Home Care Associates, a New York-based, in-home caregiver cooperative, ran into a shortage of personal protective equipment during the pandemic, another co-op ramped up to help out. Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned, sewing cooperative in Valdese, N.C., retooled its production to provide washable masks for CHCA and Carolina healthcare workers.

But the story of Opportunity Threads is about more than the sixth Cooperative Principle of Cooperation Among Cooperatives. It’s about pitching in with marginalized workers to rebuild a textile industry that has largely moved overseas. In 2008, founder Molly Hemstreet started Opportunity Threads as a cut-and-sew textile firm, in large part with Mayan immigrants who came to the U.S. after the civil war in the native communities in Guatemala. In three years, the number of employees jumped from 19 to 32, a sharp contrast to textile job losses in the Carolinas. Their work with scraps keeps thousands of T-shirts out of landfills each year.

The business, with about 30 industrial machines, is now considered among the strongest worker-owned, immigrant-led manufacturers in the country, and worker control is an important reason why.

According to Opportunity Threads, all hires start as employees. After nine or 10 months on the job, their peers can vote them as pre-members. After meeting a buy-in requirement, they are full members with voting rights on financial and management issues. Retention and wages are both higher than the industry average at Opportunity Threads.

“We help develop workers’ participation in the business. Having a voice and decision-making authority gives people dignity and respects human life and livelihood,” Hemstreet says.

For more information, visit opportunitythreads.com.