The Lavender Revolution
Clean Bee worker cooperative removes the stain of exploitation from Maine’s housekeeping industry
by Chris Busby
“So ours is a world of pain. … Do the owners have any idea of the misery that goes into rendering their homes motel-perfect? Would they be bothered if they did know, or would they take a sadistic pride in what they have purchased — boasting to dinner guests, for example, that their floors are cleaned only with the purest of fresh human tears?”
— Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed
In 1998, journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover to investigate the working conditions and economics of low-wage employment in the United States. Two years prior, President Bill Clinton had signed the so-called “welfare reform act,” which requires adults with dependent children to get a job within two years of receiving cash benefits, and set a lifetime benefit limit of five years.
Ehrenreich wanted to find out if it was possible to live on the wages typically being paid to former welfare recipients and other “unskilled” laborers entering the workforce in those days: about $6 or $7 an hour. Over the course of two years, she moved to three different cities, lived in the cheapest secure housing she could find, and worked a variety of jobs, including stints as a waitress, a hotel maid, and a sales associate at Wal-Mart.
The book that resulted, Nickel and Dimed, was published in early 2001 and soon hailed as a modern classic. It spent well over 100 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list and is assigned to high school and college classes alongside other landmark books about labor in America, like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Studs Terkel’s Working.
At the heart of Ehrenreich’s book is her account of toiling as a housecleaner in Portland, Maine. Accordingly, we can now fairly characterize that situation here as a textbook case of worker exploitation.
Ehrenreich landed a job with The Maids, a national franchise, for $6.65 an hour, and got screwed over from the start. For example, the workday officially began at 8 a.m., but she was required to be there by 7:30; and though she’d been told the workday ended at 3:30 p.m., her cleaning crews often didn’t get back to the office until 4:30 or 5, and “there’s no pay for the half hour or so we spend in the office at the end of the day, sorting out the dirty rags before they’re washed and refilling our cleaning fluid bottles,” she wrote.
The half-hour lunch break she’d been promised during the job interview turned out to be “a five-minute pit stop at a convenience store, if that.” Ehrenreich, who was in her late fifties, was shocked by how little her younger coworkers, all of whom were women, ate for lunch (e.g., one slice of pizza or a small bag of chips), especially given how physically demanding the work was. “Well, I get dizzy sometimes,” a housecleaner conceded when Ehrenreich asked her how she could work an eight- or nine-hour day on so few calories.
She was also shocked by how utterly destitute her fellow full-timers were. They fretted over how soon a reimbursement would be provided for a 50 cent toll; on another occasion, her four-person crew could not collectively come up with $2 to buy a Scotch-Brite cleaning pad while on the road. At the office, Ehrenreich overheard the manager tell potential customers that The Maids charged $25 “per person-hour,” and was dismayed to realize that the people who actually did the cleaning received only about a quarter of the revenue.
The working conditions were downright degrading and, at times, inhumane. Like Merry Maids (another franchise with an office in the Portland area), The Maids boasts that its workers always clean floors by hand — that is, on their hands and knees — even though mopping is a more ergonomically correct and efficient method. During one late summer day in 1999, when the temperature climbed into the mid-90s, Ehrenreich cleaned inside an un-air-conditioned manse. “Outside, I can see the construction guys knocking back Gatorade,” she wrote, “but the rule is that no fluid or food item can touch a maid’s lips when she’s inside a house.” The matron who’s hired The Maids lacks the class to offer so much as a glass of tap water to Ehrenreich, who’s scrubbing the kitchen floor at the woman’s feet, her garish yellow-and-green uniform soaked with sweat. Instead, when Ehrenreich’s finished with that task, the lady of the house inquires, “Could you just scrub the floor in the entryway while you’re at it?”
Ehrenreich eventually concluded that it was not possible to survive in Portland under these circumstances, at least without the financial assistance of another wage-earner in the household, or charity (which, at one point, she needed in order to eat). This was the case despite the fact she also worked weekends at a nursing home during her time here, and used the credit card she had from her other life, as a successful magazine writer, to rent the car she needed to get to work. If she’d had to make payments on a car (or pay for car insurance every month, or even the annual vehicle excise tax, or the cost of repairs to get an inspection sticker every year), she’d have been sunk or forced to go into debt — most likely at the hopelessly high interest rates that credit-card companies and payday lenders levy. If she had a child or an elderly relative to care for, the misery would only multiply. If she got sick, or had to buy heating oil come winter, or … well, you get the picture.
Two decades later, that bleak picture hasn’t brightened a bit; if anything, it’s gotten gloomier. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 the average annual wage of Maine’s 4,040 maids and housekeepers was $21,050, and the average hourly wage was $10.12. After taxes and other paycheck deductions, that sum drops to less than $16,300 a year, or about $313 per week in take-home pay.
As Ehrenreich discovered two decades ago, there is no housing in Portland affordable for someone earning a maid’s wage (she ended up in a cramped cottage at the Blue Haven Motor Court, in Saco, sharing space with the toolshed, and would have had to vacate those lowly digs had she stuck around until the summer rates kicked in). And as Portlanders are well aware, rents have skyrocketed since then, far outpacing inflation or the food-based costs the government uses to calculate the official poverty lines.
The “solutions” politicians propose to help low-wage laborers are grossly inadequate to the task. For example, Portland’s minimum wage ordinance now requires employers to pay their workers at least $10.68 an hour, a few nickels and dimes more than the unlivable wage most maids and housekeepers currently earn. The construction of new taxpayer-backed affordable housing projects barely makes a dent in the demand. Even free college tuition would be useless to students who need a full-time job to secure food and shelter. And mandatory health insurance is of no help to those who can’t afford even modest deductibles.
Clinton’s “welfare-to-work” initiative did practically nothing to lift poor Americans out of poverty. In 2001, when the five-year benefit limit kicked in, the poverty rate was 11.7 percent; in 2015, it was 13.5 percent, which amounts to nearly 50 million people. Welfare reform did succeed in separating impoverished mothers from their children and other dependents, and it provided corporations with a huge pool of desperate workers, which in turn kept wages low — a huge boon to big business.
Government doesn’t have the answers, and the capitalist free market, left to its devices, only makes a bad economic situation worse for most folks. That leaves it up to the people themselves, in their dual roles as workers and consumers, to make the changes and choices necessary to fix the system. So let’s get started…
“[I]f low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a [work]place that is neither free nor in any way democratic.”
— Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed
There is a very real, workable solution to both the poverty wages and the degrading labor conditions in the housekeeping industry. The clue is in a figure reported above: $25 per person-hour.
Even at the rates charged 20 years ago, there’s more than enough money to be made these days cleaning houses and offices and hotel rooms in the Portland area to provide every cleaner a more-than-decent livelihood. Furthermore, those cleaners can work on their own terms, at their own pace, to meet their own needs.
The solution is the business model known as the worker cooperative, in which the workers collectively own and cooperatively manage the enterprise, sharing the profits, and the responsibilities, among themselves.
Residential and commercial cleaning is an industry in which this model works particularly well. “There’s a lot of cooperatives amongst home cleaning and commercial cleaning all over the country, working a lot with women, with Latino populations, with new Americans all over,” said Jonah Fertig of the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), an organization that fosters the formation of worker co-ops in New England.
“Women in those businesses have increased their wages,” Fertig said. “They’re treated with respect. They’re not exposed to toxic chemicals, and they have a voice. They control their company and they are able to really guide the direction of that company and advance in their own careers, as well — advance in leadership.”
Some of the largest and most successful worker co-ops in America are cleaning businesses, like the Si Se Puede! (We Can Do It!) Women’s Cooperative in Brooklyn, New York. Founded in the summer of 2006, Si Se Puede! had 65 worker-owners as of March 2015, according to its website, all of whom are immigrants. Prospera, a co-op incubator based in Oakland, has helped launch five successful home-cleaning businesses owned and run by workers, including Natural Home Cleaning Professionals, whose 30-plus worker-owners earn twice the average starting wage for residential cleaners in their county.
Prospera also had a hand in helping a promising new business form in Portland in 2014. It was called C.L.E.A.N., which stood for Cooperative Labor and Economic Access Naturally. Last summer, the company adopted a simpler and catchier moniker: Clean Bee.
Co-founder Crystal Gamet grew up in deep poverty in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. Her mother was too sick to work (and eventually died, orphaning Gamet), but her mother’s twin sister was a housekeeper. “As a little kid I would often, after school, go down to my aunt’s place of work and hang out for hours and help stacks chairs and help clean,” Gamet said. “She would often work from 5:30 in the morning — I’m actually not exaggerating — until 8 o’clock at night. She would make minimum wage and she wouldn’t get paid for the overtime. She was just very badly exploited.”
When she was 19, Gamet briefly worked for Jane Street Housekeeping, a worker cooperative in Pittsburg. Years later, circumstances brought her to Maine, where she found herself with two young children and no job prospects. “I’d been home with kids, and without a college degree I had, like, no resume. It was really hard to get a job,” she said during an interview last month at her home in East Deering, which doubles as Clean Bee’s headquarters.
Then she recalled her experience at Jane Street — in particular, the co-op members’ ability to work according to their own schedules, which was especially helpful for moms with young kids. Gamet called all her friends to pitch the idea of starting a cleaning cooperative in Portland, and together with two women and a Latino man, the foursome launched C.L.E.A.N. three years ago. They got advice early on from CDI (which continues to consult with them), and bought a guide to starting a cleaning co-op from Prospera. The business performed its first cleaning on May Day, 2014, and has maintained a relatively stable base of clients and worker-owners ever since.
Clean Bee has half a dozen regular commercial-cleaning clients, and gets a lot of one-time residential jobs, cleaning houses and apartments before or after people move. Most of the gigs are in Portland, but they also service homes and businesses in Falmouth, South Portland, and Westbrook. One of their commercial clients is One Longfellow Square, the Portland music and events venue that’s hired Clean Bee for weekly cleanings since the summer of 2015. The staff at One Longfellow told me they’re very pleased with the job the co-op does.
Gamet’s three co-founders have since left the company, but the three newer worker-owners have all been with Clean Bee for a year or more, and the former members all departed on good terms. (When Clean Bee recently had company t-shirts made, they paid for extras to send to the former Bees, “because they still feel like part of the team,” Gamet said.)
The financial arrangement is fairly simple. The worker-owners who perform a cleaning keep 80 percent of the money from that job, and 20 percent goes into the company account they collectively control. Business expenses like insurance, taxes and state licensing fees are covered with funds from that collective account, and the revenue that remains is returned to the four worker-owners. So whereas The Maids were getting just over 25 percent of the take, the Clean Bees take home over 80 percent of the money they earn through their work.
The company’s cooperative structure means no member is the boss of any other. The foursome meets weekly at Gamet’s place, for several hours on Tuesday mornings, to collectively make management decisions. This arrangement provides a remarkable amount of flexibility. For example, one of Gamet’s children has a chronic health condition, and the demands this recently placed on Gamet’s time were such that she was not able to leave home to do cleanings.
“In most situations, if you can’t do what you were hired to do … that just means that you lose the job,” said Clean Bee worker-owner Jesse Newcomb. “We were able, as a cooperative, to try to figure out how we can make it possible for Crystal to still make some money and be a part of the cooperative even though she’s not able to clean,” Newcomb said. (Gamet took on more administrative and scheduling responsibilities to compensate for lost cleaning time.)
“A part of our cooperative is also supporting each other emotionally,” said Nyaruot Nguany, Clean Bee’s newest member. “In the beginning of our meetings we do personal check-ins, work check-ins, to see where everyone’s at, and work from there. If somebody’s not having a good day, we keep that in mind. That’s not just pushed aside, like, ‘Oh, you’re having a bad day, toughen up.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, I care about you, you’re my friend, you’re also part of this business and we’re gonna take care of each other.’ I think that is so important. Sometimes we come here, we cry, we don’t talk, and we laugh a lot, and that’s important. That’s a part of who we are.”
“Often … these [workers] experienced management as an obstacle to getting the job done as it should be done. … Left to themselves, they devised systems of cooperation and work sharing; when there was a crisis, they rose to it. In fact, it was often hard to see what the function of management was, other than to exact obeisance.”
— Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed
Clean Bee is a “green” cleaning company — they make their own non-toxic cleaning supplies and offer alternatives for clients who have chemical or scent sensitivities. There are other “green” cleaners in the area, but Clean Bee’s motto is “We go beyond green,” providing a service that’s both eco-friendly and ethical in matters of employment.
Clean Bee is an equal-opportunity employer, of course, but it also makes an extra effort to bring on people whose situation in life makes them vulnerable to exploitation or harassment, including recent immigrants and refugees, and gay and transgender people.
“I didn’t work anywhere in the formal economy for years,” said Clean Bee cooperative member Sylvia Stormwalker. “Partly because of my political work, but partly just because after I came out [as transgender], the level of anxiety” in the workforce was daunting. “I just think about how grateful I am right now, especially in this [political] climate, to work somewhere where I don’t have to do the other daily emotional labor of worry and anxiety. It’s brought me in from working in the informal, or gray, or other economies, and I’m grateful for that.”
Julio, the Latino man who helped found Clean Bee, translated the company’s employment materials into Spanish in an effort to make Clean Bee more welcoming and accessible to Hispanic workers. The hospitality and housekeeping industries have a long history of employing, and exploiting, impoverished African-American and Hispanic women. The stereotype of the humble, helpless and ignorant Latina maid, who does double-duty as a sex object, is deeply entrenched in American popular culture. (See Consuela, the character on Family Guy, whose aspirations are limited to another can of Lemon Pledge; or the 2002 movie Maid in Manhattan, in which Jennifer Lopez plays a maid who becomes the love interest of a wealthy white politician despite her piteous and shameful occupation.)
The dirty secret of Maine’s booming tourism industry — which generated a record $5.65 billion in spending in 2015, according to the Maine Office of Tourism — is that it runs on the blood, sweat and tears of maids who can only dream of one day being able to afford to stay in a hotel room. Lodging accounted for $1.645 billion of that 2015 tourist spending, so again, it’s not as though there isn’t enough revenue to support good-paying jobs, especially for the employees whose manual labor most directly contributes to the quality of the service being offered.
“My mom has worked in the hotels [in Maine], in the laundry sector of the hotels and the housekeeping, for like fifteen years, and it’s been extremely oppressive,” said Nguany. “She’d work ten-hour shifts and have to do overtime [to pick] up slack, and was still getting paid minimum wage. And the labor — I mean, it is not easy. Cleaning maybe twenty hotel rooms in a day — one person. You’re stripping the bed, and then making the bed, and then cleaning the toilets, and cleaning and picking up. It’s absurd.”
Nguany experienced the bitter taste of this exploitation herself when she landed a part-time housekeeping job at The Danforth, which boasts of being “Portland’s only luxury boutique inn.” “It was extremely oppressive,” Nguany said. “I was getting paid minimum wage. I signed up to work seven hours and I was working thirteen hours. It got to the point where I was sleeping at the inn because I had work the next morning” at one of several other jobs she had at the time.
The (often literally) shitty working conditions in housekeeping and hospitality, coupled with the crap pay, cause these businesses to churn through employees like disposable wipes. At The Danforth, “it got to a point where even the chefs that were there on contracts left,” said Nguany. “Nobody that worked there when I was there works there anymore. … It’s complete turnover. And they’re very trendy and expensive, and people go there. So it’s sad, it really is, because you have great people doing hard work and not being treated fairly.”
Clean Bee is in the process of trying to bring another worker-owner into the company, but it’s a lengthy process (about three months) and it’s not as easy as just hiring an able body. “We could find plenty of cleaners who’d be, like, ‘Great, I’ll go clean this place,’” said Newcomb, but those same workers may not be interested in the “collective decision-making part, or the willingness to do the work outside of just the cleaning.”
“It’s hard,” Newcomb continued, “because it’s a different level of responsibility, and also, being owners of a small, growing business, there’s a lot of work that’s not paid, so you’re asking people to really come in and be committed to the mission. Being committed to relationships is really important within our cooperative, too, to be able to make that work.”
Gamet also noted the paradox they face: it’s necessary to do a lot of unpaid work to build a business capable of rescuing people from low-paid work. The four worker-owners of Clean Bee still have to supplement their cleaning income with wages from other jobs — Stormwalker does shopping and cooking for an older couple, and Nguany is also a server at Nosh.
In addition to second or third jobs, Clean Bee’s worker-owners are shouldering an infinitely larger burden: the task of furthering the cause of economic justice for workers throughout Maine. “We have a really deep commitment to economic access to worker-owners, and it’s fucking challenging because we all struggle in different ways,” said Stormwalker. “Everyone in this group identifies as an organizer in some capacity. How do we take care of ourselves now while still holding the vision of the future we want to move into?”
The Lavender Revolution
The most powerful tool the members of Clean Bee have in their work for social justice is the company itself.
“My commitment my whole adult life has been to doing anti-racist and, specifically, anti–white supremacist and anti-classist organizing,” said Gamet. “So when I think about how do I want to be working, forming a business that explicitly is going to hire people of color, and people with barriers to employment, and people who are exploited by capitalism, feels like [the best way].
“A lot of people talk about, ‘Oh, I love fighting what I don’t like. I actually find it really healing, like I need to yell sometimes and get that out,’” Gamet continued. “But a lot of people say you need more than that, you need to create what you want, you need to create something else, and I feel like Clean Bee allows me to feel like I’m doing that, to feel like — in my very limited time, where I have to be making some money to take care of my family and to take care of myself — I can also be doing it in a way that feels like it’s creating change, and creating what I want to see, and creating something other than this capitalist, white-supremacist model where people of color are the most exploited, and people who are poor are just told to deal with it.”
“Cooperatives definitely have had a role, and I think could have more of a role, in increasing the wages and improving the working conditions of not only the workers in the cooperatives, but in the industry as a whole,” said Fertig. The existence of companies that provide higher wages and better working conditions puts pressure on competitors in the market to up their own game.
In its third year, and just six months after a name change, Clean Bee isn’t exerting that kind of influence yet, but it’s growing. More significantly, the example it sets has the potential to change the expectations of workers and customers. Clean Bee proves that people don’t have to put up with all the bullshit the housekeeping industry has gotten away with since long before Ehrenreich came to town and exposed it for the world to see.
The workers who form co-ops are half of that solution. The other half is … well, maybe it’s you. How dusty is your study? Who’s vacuuming your office at night?
When consumers recognize the higher social and economic values of worker cooperatives in the way they’ve come to recognize the ecological value of “green” products and services over the years, worker co-ops will grow and thrive just like eco-friendly businesses have. Housekeeping co-ops like Clean Bee and Si Se Puede! also remove the stain of class-based guilt many people grapple with when they consider hiring a less fortunate person to pick up their socks and fluff up the throw pillows.
“Often we’re getting messages from people who are like, ‘I would love to hire you because you’re a worker-owned cooperative,’” said Stormwalker. “I’d love to see it where just the awareness that that’s a possibility is such that people demand that from businesses. It would start putting pressure on the larger cleaning companies here to change their practices, or at least somehow shift things.”
Clean Bee also offers clients a level of accountability, and a pride of workmanship, that their competitors cannot, by the very nature of their business model, provide. “When people are exploited, they don’t care as much about the business, which makes sense,” said Gamet. “But we’re all owners, so we really care about our reputation, we care about our work, and when you’re hiring us you’re getting a worker who has their whole business on the line. We want you to be happy, you know?
“So hiring a worker-owned cooperative, it’s empowering for us,” she continued. “It breaks that invisibility thing, where the boss gets to be seen, the face of the business, but the workers are meant to be invisible. It breaks that dynamic and challenges it and changes expectations for clients and people we interact with in the community.”
If there’s a metaphor for what Clean Bee embodies, it’s lavender, the flowering plant whose English name is widely believed to be derived from the Latin word lavare, “to wash.” The garden at Gamet’s place has a large plot of lavender that they harvest to make their cleaning solutions. “I freakin’ love lavender, it makes me so happy,” Stormwalker said. “Lavender smells good, and it helps. It actually rebuilds the myelin sheaths in your neurons when you get frazzled nerves, when you’re stressed out, so as we’re cleaning it’s helping our own well-being.”
Working cooperatively and having ownership of the business elevates the profession of housekeeping from drudgery to work that can ennoble the human spirit. Gamet felt like her identity had been tarnished by her association with the profession before she helped found this company. “Part of starting Clean Bee for me has been about loving that identity and that history in myself, and not feeling shame anymore about being poor,” she said. “Being, like, it’s empowering to be a housekeeper, I like being a housekeeper.
“I love my aunt and respect my aunt,” she added, “and it feels cool to be able to do [this work] but not have to take on the ways that she had to be exploited. I love to call her up and be like, ‘Hey, my business is doing really well. I’m thinking of you.’”