One step up


    Oscar Mondragon is one of those Malibu residents who is seemingly everywhere … from promoting Malibu Labor Exchange workers, working with local schools and civic organizations to judging the annual pie festival at the Malibu Country Mart.

    Even with all that, Mondragon is now busy with a new project. Every Friday evening, he meets in a small office in St. Clement’s Catholic Church in Santa Monica with 14 immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America. His goal is to help them fulfill their dreams of building a business.

    Mondragon, 53, is helping to organize and operate the Always Ready Co-operative, Inc. (ARC), a small business that supplies home services that include housecleaning, gardening and general maintenance. Co-op workers provide services to private homes and small businesses in the West Los Angeles and coast cities areas. The workers actually own the business with a policy of one person/one vote. “It’s a small company,” says Mondragon. “All the workers have a say in how it’s run and a responsibility for how it’s run.”

    Twelve St. Clement’s parishioners came up with the basic idea of the co-op in 1998, with the help of St. Clement’s priest, the Rev. Juan Romero. Romero has known Mondragon since 1973, when Mondragon served as a board member of the United Farm Workers with Caesar Chavez. “I’ve known him for a long time,” says Romero. “With his expertise, his background in labor and his altruistic spirit, I thought he would be excellent. I was hoping he would get the members started but he did much more than that. He has continued with them.”

    Mondragon, who has been with the Labor Exchange since it was formed in 1993, takes no salary from ARC.

    Of the co-op, Mondragon says, “It would be difficult for many of the members to start a business on their own. But, after some discussions, it became clear that, by pooling financial resources, education and experience, creating their own home services enterprise was a reality.” Mondragon says the co-op can expand to accommodate any number of members.

    Mondragon describes ARC as a step beyond the Labor Exchange, which serves as a hiring site for skilled and unskilled workers. The Labor Exchange is a nonprofit organization while ARC is a limited liability corporation. It is small, but the goal is to earn a profit. “They [workers] cannot expect to be given [work],” Mondragon says. “They must produce or they cannot compete.”

    Unlike the Labor Exchange, once the co-op is up and running, the workers will have benefits that include health insurance, disability coverage and workman’s compensation.

    “Here, at the Labor Exchange, if people get sick, tough luck,” says Mondragon. “There, if there are profits, you can do something about it.”

    Mondragon says this will protect employers as well as workers since many employers don’t have workman’s compensation to cover the workers they hire.

    Each of the current members brings 5 to 10 years of experience to the table, which they apply to all aspects of the business. They take part in long-term planning; they determine operational policy and carry out job requests.

    ARC office coordinator Beverley Zamarripa says, as far as gender goes, membership is evenly divided.

    “We have some very strong female leaders here,” says Zamarripa. “People assume that, coming from a Latino background, these women may be quiet and deferential to men. But these women are not afraid to speak their minds and voice their opinions. No one is overshadowed.”

    Without a large budget, word of mouth and printed flyers do much of the advertising. “There is not much ad money,” says Sinesio Flores, vice president of the ARC board. “I talk to friends and I’m making flyers.”

    Flores says the first batch of flyers will target Malibu homeowners during the current brush-clearing season.

    Mondragon and Flores say friends and other clients have referred most of the clients they have served so far. “More jobs are coming in but we have to do a lot of training and goal setting, and learning how to work together as a group,” says Mondragon.

    “This co-op will help families socially, economically and culturally.”