Laundering inequity: How Berkeley can model community enterprise

Illustration of students working together at a UC Berkeley laundry co-op.
Yoonseo Lee/Staff

Related Posts

A specter is haunting Berkeley. It is a specter of true inequality, but perhaps we dismiss this inequality as an inconvenient disadvantage. Even as a disadvantage, though, it can feel or look like oppression.

Maybe the disadvantage is on the head of the household, who must perform this dreaded task to ensure peace in a family or to satisfy the requirement for a job. Perhaps the disadvantage is felt more by a freshman who is newly on her own: Now obligated to regularly perform this chore, she finds herself having to do it in a place where she doesn’t feel safe. For some, it may be a disadvantage to be endured before securing professional success. For the rest, the disadvantage is relentless and drains time and energy.

The disadvantage I refer to is doing laundry — specifically, doing laundry at laundromats.

In all neighborhoods of Berkeley, but especially in the south and west, laundromats and fluff-and-fold services abound. As a nearly 10-year resident of the area, I understand that this is because Berkeley’s multiunit housing stock is older and intended for students; looked at another way, it is intended for the young and otherwise economically disadvantaged. Over many generations, a great number of apartments were built in Berkeley without access to laundry. This means that our community, filled as it is with enthusiastic and talented people, wastes countless hours hauling bags, collecting and dropping quarters and waiting for the times on washing machines to run out.

Going to the laundromat is often a time-consuming and expensive disadvantage. Waste and expense is the unending reality for folks with no access to machines in their buildings. The privileged hope to someday leave the laundromat lifestyle — for a better job, for a first job out of college or even for a collapse in the renters’ market. But for those without upward mobility on the horizon, there is no miracle or ordinance that will alleviate the burden.

Our times call for turning disadvantage into mutual aid. What if some of the vast efforts spent in the laundromat were diverted into building a cooperative enterprise? What if the essential nature of laundry services were to provide the blueprint for cooperatively owned and managed community business?

Make no mistake: Access to laundry is a political issue that cuts across many constituencies, from the UC Berkeley community to residents and businesses. If seen as a real labor issue, doing laundry might effectively catalyze a powerful coalition of UC Berkeley students alongside the city’s working poor and unhoused populations, as well as a potentially large number of middle-class sympathizers.

Were such a co-op to come into being, residents and other stakeholders could purchase and own subscription shares of a local laundromat, entitling them to democratic participation on prices, maintenance, operation and management. A community-owned enterprise in Berkeley would be an experiment in neighborhood job creation. It would enforce community standards of conduct and expand neighborhood services. In this historic moment, such a community-built asset or institution might be a unique vehicle for restorative solidarity, where the first right of participation and ownership could be guaranteed to Black, Brown, Indigenous and other people of color who are residents.

Worker co-ops may effectively save us from the wreckage of neoliberal capitalism. Now is the time to build this type of power wherever we can. Clean laundry is a basic necessity of human dignity, besides its conspicuous role in general public health. We ought to imagine a future world that relies on mutual aid, where ownership in a local laundromat is as important a right as access to electricity, running water or internet broadband is.

The times are also calling for new and younger personalities to be designing, building and sustaining collaborative systems. A co-op laundromat is just one activity that might serve as a model for reinvigorating business along the lines of community ownership, although the same case can be made for any community-focused business that might be cooperatively run for the community’s benefit.

The time is now for students with affluent parents, together with all those networked into affluent communities, to make this and other ideas happen. With appropriate community engagement and some lucky capital fundraising, we could begin to endow our communities with sustainable and profitable cooperative economies, and perhaps offer the model elsewhere.

It is the responsibility of everyone with privilege to leverage it by building power for the historically marginalized, knowing that doing so will make a more just reality for all of us. The city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley, which both occupy the Indigenous Ohlone’s sacred land and shellmound sites, bear grave responsibilities to their marginalized populations. As residents and stakeholders, let us dedicate ourselves to bold projects of solidarity and sustainable prosperity — even from as unexpected a place as the laundromat.

Scott Bishop Falcone is a resident of University Avenue and welcomes comments, questions and collaboration at [email protected] or on Twitter at @SGramsciAlfieri.