Cleaning workers cooperative owned by immigrant women launches on Southeast Side

Mujeres Brillantes, owned by three women, will allow the workers to run their own business and negate the abuse they have suffered over the years.

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Estela Nava, one of the co-founders of the Mujeres Brillantes Co-op, speaks at City Hall. The Southeast Side cooperative was announced on Monday.

Estela Nava, a co-founder of the Mujeres Brillantes Co-op, speaks at City Hall on Monday.

Mariah Rush/Sun-Times

Estela Nava has been a cleaning worker for 40 years. In that time, she’s gone from working in the Congress Hotel to cleaning schools to working in people’s homes. Nava says during her career she has been underpaid, yelled at and disrespected.

Fed up with the abuse she’s endured, Nava is launching a cleaning workers cooperative on the Southeast Side called Mujeres Brillantes Cleaning Co-op. 

Owned by Nava and two other immigrant women, Esmeralda Gutierrez and Mairim Fernandez, the cooperative was announced on Monday at City Hall with the support of Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya and Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th). 

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The cooperative, the first of its kind on the Southeast Side, has been in the works for three years with help from the city of Chicago and the United Workers’ Center.

Forming a cooperative is different from a typical business because the workers are also in charge of making all decisions relating to pay, working conditions and negotiations with the places that hire them for their services. 

Sadlowski Garza said the announcement was “long overdue” because cleaning workers are typically exploited by bigger businesses that employ them.

“This is really important because these are workers who’ve always been in the background, workers that have been exploited, workers that have been part of wage theft, and now we’re bringing those workers to the forefront,” she said. “And they’re taking on and forming their own business with help from the city of Chicago.”

The three co-owners were trained over the last few years to own their own business.

“We’re not going to suffer any more abuse,” Nava said, tearing up. “We’ll be free to do our best.”

Sadlowski Garza said the Southeast Side is a “worker-oriented” area.

“People-powered movements have always come out of the 10th Ward,” she said. “We’re empowering our people to run their own business and make their own decisions.”

This is the second cooperative launched on the Southeast Side. The first was a group of women with a salsa business. 

“We’re going to make them respect the promises they make in terms of pay and the work,” Nava said. “I know I’m old, but you’re never too old to do what you want to do.”

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