August 2 2002

AriSEWna Advances: An Employee-Owned Sewing Company Goes it Alone

[The following story is a follow up on an article from December 28, 2001 entitled “Sewing is for China? Worker-Owned Sewing Companies in Sonora and Arizona.” That article can also be located at http://www.laprensa-sandiego.org/archieve/december28/SEWING.HTM]

By Greg Bloom
Fronter NorteSur

AriSEWna is an employee-owned sewing company located in Douglas, Arizona. Begun in 1999 with eleven owner-workers, AriSEWna was initiated as a project that would both allow people to give up government assistance and create jobs in a city with high unemployment, a high poverty rate and a number of garment-factory closures.

Since its first year, with eleven employees and $1,500 in sales, AriSEWna has grown quickly, according to general manager Connie Gastelum. By 2000, AriSEWna’s sales had risen to $78,000, and by 2000 they were $254,000. While the beginning of this year has been slow, Gastelum predicts that the company should finish 2002 with $300,000-$400,000 in sales.

With its growth in sales, AriSEWna has been able to bring in more owner-workers. There are currently 30 people working at the company and 21 of them are equity investors. Eight people are in training at this time and will join the workforce shortly.

A New Facility

Perhaps the biggest challenge AriSEWna has faced since its inception was its break from its main funding agency. The separation occurred quickly as AriSEWna left the old Safeway grocery store where it was established and moved into an industrial space with twice the square footage.

At the same time as the move, Gastelum and project coordinator Ginnie Jordan left their positions with the Arizona Council for Economic Conversion (ACEC). For Jordan this meant a 30% pay cut and knowing that she would be casting her lot fully with AriSEWna. However, Jordan loves the change and her job. “When I go to work, it’s like payday everyday,” she said.

A self-described ultra liberal with a background in social work, Jordan said she was suspicious of capitalism until she began working at AriSEWna. Speaking on Thursday, July 26, 2002, at a HUD conference held at New Mexico State University, Jordan told an audience of approximately 200 people that she sees AriSEWna as a place where “socialism and capitalism meet.”

According to Jordan, AriSEWna has turned around the lives of many of its owner-workers and much of this is possible only because workers are owners. Jordan sees the pride that owners have in their work and the fact that they are owners. She also stated that the first two groups of AriSEWna hires are entirely off of government aid and have begun to by cars and even houses.

Since it employs people that have lived or live in poverty, people on parole and people that have been in prison, AriSEWna has a number of programs and resources that address its owner-workers’ life problems. Through attention to and discussion of drug and alcohol-abuse issues, AriSEWna has seen some of its people enter treatment programs. Jordan also described stress and money management programs that AriSEWna has implemented for all people entering the company.

Because one of AriSEWna’s main focuses is welfare to work, it deals with problems like tardiness differently than many companies. While some organizations would fire people who are chronically late to the job, AriSEWna works with its people to get to the root of their problems.

Jordan said she was shocked to learn the reason why one woman had been frequently arriving late to her job. After years of marriage, the woman’s husband had been arrested and accused of murder. As if the emotional and financial shock associated with that event was not enough, the woman was also being asked to testify for the prosecution in her husband’s case. Because AriSEWna could get to the root of the problem, the company was able to work with the woman to the mutual benefit of all involved.

Currently, AriSEWna is working on a number of different jobs. It is making shirts for schools in Mexico, silk products for a store in Tucson, equipment for firefighters and bags for a yoga school that has places around the country. The company is also sewing the giant jumping balloons that kids bounce in at parties and carnivals.

New Directions

Wanting to expand into new markets and to be able to offer its customers more capabilities, AriSEWna is also adding silk-screening machinery and a new digital embroiderer.

Finally, partly out of necessity and partly out of a desire to diversify, AriSEWna is considering opening a worker-owned daycare. The need for a daycare facility became apparent when AriSEWna realized that the number one disruption for workers was checking on their kids, taking them to daycare, finding daycare and worrying about older children after school.

An MBA student is developing the business plan for the venture, according to Jordan. Besides traditional daycare, the new business would also offer tutoring for students after school. If everything works out, AriSEWna will be branching out and bettering its work place by opening the daycare center in January 2003.

Frontera NorteSur is an on-line news magazine covering the US-Mexico border (http://frontera.nmsu.edu.) FNS is an outreach program of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University.

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