Employment and Jobs

Workers’ Coop Stitches Strong Social Fabric: Opportunity Threads Innovates in Changing Their Region and Industry

November 17, 2020  • Mark G. Popovich

Boosting job quality changes workers’ lives. It can also enhance businesses’ performance and bottom lines. Improving job quality is core to the Economic Opportunities Program’s mission to advance strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. As race, gender, and place intersect with and intensify the challenge of accessing a quality job, promoting job quality is among the key steps toward a more just and equitable society.

EOP’s work over two decades explores strategies to help working people and job seekers qualify for and connect to work that can sustain families. For seven years, my focus – at the Hitachi Foundation and now at EOP’s Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative – attends to businesses’ roles through work design to “do well and do good.” Since incubating this mission, we’ve extended the employer focus and deepened attention to job quality. We also created and deployed Working Metrics, a cloud-based analytics system for assessing and benchmarking job quality for frontline workers against their industry and sector peers.

The work is yielding key insights. We’ve learned a lot from interviewing founders and workers and touring companies to witness them in action. We also ensure there’s time to talk with people from the front offices to the front lines. From this experience, we’re refining insights on how employers’ policies and practices that push up business value, boost job quality for workers, and advance broader social impacts.

This is a first in a series of blogs about the companies who generously extended time in jam-packed working days to share their stories.

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Opportunity Threads: A Worker Cooperative Aids an Industry Recovery

Photo of Molly Hemstreet

Molly Hemstreet, Founder and General Manager, Opportunity Threads

Opportunity Threads is nestled near the Appalachian Mountains in Valdese, North Carolina, a 90-minute drive to the northwest from Charlotte. The state and this area prospered for many decades fueled by jobs crafting furniture and manufacturing textiles. The rise was driven by an earlier deindustrialization wave that drove textiles from New England to the American South. Three decades ago, the waves rolled on again, devastating textile businesses in North Carolina and throughout the South. In 1990, global trade forces shifted. The impacts were severe and swift. About 2.5 million people worked in textile manufacturing in the early 1970s and a full three-quarters of clothes we purchased were produced in the US. By 2013, that figure fell to just two percent. Between 1997 and 2003 alone, one quarter of textile plants and one half of the jobs in the sector were lost in North Carolina.

Once vibrant textile manufacturers suffered a precipitous drop. After watching a key economic base unravel, Molly Hemstreet committed herself to help her home region tackle the challenge.

Despite the double blows of the industry’s slump and the unfolding of the Great Recession, in 2008 Hemstreet launched a new cut-and-sew textile firm, Opportunity Threads. While there were challenges, the business prospered and is now among the strongest worker-owned, immigrant-led manufacturers in the country.

“The building Opportunity Threads is in now was a textile factory when I was growing up. But it was empty for many years. The workers in our area have that textile skill.” –Molly Hemstreet

Worker Cooperative Factory Brings GOOD Jobs and Textile Manufacturing Back

Walter Vicente, Plant Manager and Worker-Owner, Opportunity Threads

Walter Vicente, Plant Manager and Worker-Owner, Opportunity Threads

From the founding to today, Opportunity Threads has operated both as a productive factory and an innovation lab. In late 2019, Opportunity Threads reported their late 2018 data into our Working Metrics analytics and benchmarking software system. The company achieved one of the first five-star ratings warranted by the rigorous analysis of our system. The firm has been picking up momentum after the modest launch and is in a growth phase. In three years, jobs grew 94% as the employee count jumped from 19 to 32. This occurred in a sector where declining employee numbers is all too typical and the industry-wide average growth for three years is in the low single digits.

As the people are the heart and hands of Opportunity Threads, they deserve quality jobs. For example,

  • Good Pay and Benefits: Everyone in the company earns a living wage. That compares very favorably to the industry’s median worker wage of $12.50/hour In the US and in North Carolina. At the worker coop, employees are hired at the industry median hourly rate. Average earnings for frontline workers (24 employees as of late 2018) skyrocketed by 50% to an average of $17-18/hour. As they become cooperative members, pay rises to well above the industry benchmark and they have benefits voted upon by the membership as well. Average earnings for frontline workers at the firm (24 employees in late 2018) skyrocketed by 50% far outperforming the industry. Two thirds of the employees earn annual pay in the $20,000-$60,000 range.
  • Productivity Bonuses: The initiative of a worker member led to adoption of bonus pay to workers with higher productivity.
  • High Retention: The apparel and textile sector suffers high turnover, but Opportunity Threads retained 100% of all original workers over three years. That’s an outstanding record indeed as a typical firm in this sector may only retain 25-40% of workers through a three-year span.
  • Worker Cooperative and Control: All hires start as employees. After about nine or ten months, they’re usually voted in by their peers as cooperative pre-members. After pre-membership, they’re voted in as full cooperative members. After meeting the current buy-in requirement, a typical practice in the cooperative movement, all members have equal voting rights on the full gamut of financial and business management issues.
  • Spreading the Bounty: Opportunity Threads is also helping to lead the industry toward brighter times. As demand for their work began to strain their capacity, the company intentionally engaged other regional producers as collaborators. These connections eventually gave rise to the Carolina Textile District. Manufacturers in the network are involved to secure orders – the lifeblood of any business – but they are also strongly connected by shared values, services, and tools.
  • Serving a Cause: Shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) presented a grave health risk as the pandemic spread, particularly for health system and other essential workers. In tandem with the eight other companies in the Carolina Textile District, the team began sewing, cutting, and distributing ready-to-sew kits for face masks and other PPE. And these were in high demand. As of August, over 400,000 PPE and masks were made and distributed by Opportunity Threads and the Carolina Textile District partners.

Molly Hemstreet’s vision, in tandem with a dedicated management and production team, successfully launched and navigated the initial dozen years of operations. Now Opportunity Threads is both a thriving operation and a real change maker. They are helping to transform the industry in their region with prosperity shared by workers. For workers, the industry, and their community, they demonstrate how a company can “do good and do well.”


Share

Boosting #jobquality changes workers’ lives. It can also enhance businesses’ bottom lines. See how Opportunity Threads, a worker coop and textile manufacturer in North Carolina, helps employees share in the company’s success.

How can employers’ policies and practices push up business value, boost #jobquality for workers, and advance broader social impacts? @mpopov1229 of @AspenWorkforce shares his insights from talking to worker coop/textile manufacturer Opportunity Threads

When North Carolina’s textile industry declined, Molly Hemstreet committed herself to helping her home region. Her company, Opportunity Threads, is among the strongest worker-owned, immigrant-led manufacturers in the country.

By committing itself to exceptional #jobquality, Opportunity Threads achieved one of the first five-star ratings from @workingmetrics. Employees enjoy good pay, benefits, bonuses, #employeeownership, and more.

When #COVID hit, Opportunity Threads rushed to help. With its partners in the Carolina Textile District, they began sewing, cutting, and distributing ready-to-sew kits for face masks and other PPE—over 400,000 by August 2020.


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Good Companies/Good Jobs encourages and equips business leaders to enact strategies that simultaneously produce outstanding outcomes for their businesses and their frontline workers. Good Companies/Good Jobs is an initiative of the Economic Opportunities Program.

The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.