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When These Workers Unionized, Their Cafe Was Put Up for Sale‚ÄĒSo They Bought It

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.?‚ÄĒ?Five former White Electric Coffee workers gather at the Dexter Training Grounds next to the Providence Armory, slightly stunned. Earlier that morning, April 14, they signed the purchase agreement to own the caf√©. In just 10 months, this small group of baristas went from forming a union to creating a workers cooperative to buying the business for around half a million dollars. 

‚ÄúIf somebody had told me, ?‚ÄėOne day, you‚Äôre going to run that business across the street,‚Äô I would‚Äôve said, ?‚ÄėYeah, sure. OK, buddy,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ says Danny Cordova, 27, a barista at White Electric since 2019 who used to eat at the caf√© a decade ago when he attended nearby Central High School. 

These White Electric workers started organizing soon after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. They sent a letter to owner Thomas Toupin with demands to ?‚Äúgo beyond slogans and window dressing‚ÄĚ in achieving racial justice at the caf√©. The letter, which was signed by 39 current and former staff, called for Toupin to hire more people of color, enroll in anti-oppression training, increase wages and make the caf√© wheelchair accessible, among other demands. 

‚ÄúThey weren‚Äôt actually things we thought would happen,‚ÄĚ says Chloe Chassaing, 44, who has worked at White Electric for 16 years?‚ÄĒ?even before Toupin bought it in 2006. ?‚ÄúThey were dreams, but they are fully all happening.‚ÄĚ

The coffee shop, which reopened May 1, is one of Rhode Island‚Äôs few worker co-ops.

Even before the pandemic eliminated many food-service jobs, opportunities for workers to organize for better conditions at small restaurants were rare. Union membership was only 1.2% industrywide in 2020. While co-ops are becoming more popular, there are only around 500 operating around the country, according to Shevanthi Daniel-Rabkin, senior program director at the Democracy at Work Institute, a nonprofit that tracks and supports co-ops. 

Many of the White Electric workers say summer 2020‚Äôs national uprising over police killings of Black Americans made clear the need to push for a stronger commitment to racial justice at the caf√©. ?‚ÄúThat‚Äôs what set everything off,‚ÄĚ says Amanda Soule, 36, who started working at the caf√© in 2013 and helped draft the letter. 

Toupin tells In These Times the letter is ?‚Äúuntruthful and misleading‚ÄĚ and disputes its characterization of him. ‚Äú[Its description] wasn‚Äôt the situation at all,‚ÄĚ he says. After receiving the letter, he says he closed White Electric for July 2020 to meet with the workers and a mediator. (The caf√© closed again in late 2020 because of the pandemic, then reopened in January until the sale in April.) 

The workers, however, claim the five active employees who signed the letter were laid off, while the two who didn‚Äôt sign were kept on to train replacements, as described in a public petition following the letter‚Äôs release. The petition adds that the fired employees were offered their jobs back, but they still were publicly appealing for community support to ?‚Äúprevent another episode of retaliation.‚ÄĚ

Following the advice of a labor lawyer, the group realized they could form an independent labor union, which they named the Collaborative Union of Providence Service-Workers (CUPS). Unlike many other unions and co-ops, CUPS is not affiliated with any larger union, has no support staff and requires no dues, but still gives workers the ability to collectively negotiate a contract. After creating union cards, the workers requested Toupin voluntarily recognize CUPS, which he did Sept. 8, 2020.

The very night they formed the union, the workers say, they received notice that Toupin was selling. (Toupin tells In These Times that he had been looking to sell for months, but records indicate it was first listed Sept. 9, 2020.)

Toupin offered the first opportunity to buy the caf√© to the workers, who realized they could turn it into a worker-owned co-op. They raised $25,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, held fundraisers at a farmers‚Äô market and raffled off merchandise to accumulate a $55,000 down payment.

‚ÄúIt‚Äôs been all community driven,‚ÄĚ Cordova says. ?‚ÄúPeople are excited to see a place where workplace democracy can thrive.‚ÄĚ

Now the worker-owners are focused on the challenge of running the caf√©. The shop has no managers, and profits are distributed based on hours worked, Chassaing says. Employees have to invest a $1,000 member buy-in, which can be paid with a $100 deposit and $10 installments from each paycheck, Chassaing says. She adds that, while workers are still in the process of meeting their goals around racial justice, ?‚Äúour intention is do all of those things that are our demands.‚ÄĚ

Their broader vision extends beyond the walls of a single coffee shop. That‚Äôs why, Chassaing says, their union name is so general; the door is wide open for other area service workers to reach out and form CUPS union locals.

‚ÄúThe union‚Äôs intention all along,‚ÄĚ Chassaing says,¬†?‚Äúhas been not only to fight for ourselves and our workplace, but to also serve as an advocate and resource for other workers and workplaces.”

This blog originally appeared on In These Times at May 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Harry August is an independent reporter in New York.


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New York City Drivers Cooperative Aims to Smash Uber’s Exploitative Model

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Ken Lewis grew up on the island of Grena¬≠da, and wit¬≠nessed the pro¬≠gres¬≠sive after¬≠math of its 1979 rev¬≠o¬≠lu¬≠tion. ?‚ÄúI remem¬≠ber the pow¬≠er of coop¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tives, peo¬≠ple get¬≠ting land, turn¬≠ing places that were bar¬≠ren into pro¬≠duc¬≠tive places,‚ÄĚ he says. That image stayed with him after he moved to New York City for grad school and start¬≠ed dri¬≠ving a taxi on the side. Now, sev¬≠er¬≠al decades lat¬≠er, Lewis is final¬≠ly get¬≠ting a chance to put the pow¬≠er of coop¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tives into prac¬≠tice, in ser¬≠vice of the dri¬≠vers he worked with for so long. 

He is one of three cofounders of The Dri¬≠vers Coop¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tive (TDC), which aims to real¬≠ize a long-held dream of social¬≠ly con¬≠scious New York¬≠ers in a hur¬≠ry: a rideshar¬≠ing app that you can feel good about. When it rolls out to the pub¬≠lic ear¬≠ly next year, TDC will become New York City‚Äôs first work¬≠er-owned rideshar¬≠ing plat¬≠form?‚ÄĒ?owned by the dri¬≠vers them¬≠selves, rather than by big investors and exec¬≠u¬≠tives. Its founders‚Äô brazen idea is that TDC can actu¬≠al¬≠ly gain a com¬≠pet¬≠i¬≠tive advan¬≠tage over Uber and Lyft?‚ÄĒ?sav¬≠ing mon¬≠ey and fun¬≠nel¬≠ing those sav¬≠ings back to dri¬≠vers?‚ÄĒ?by doing away with the most exploita¬≠tive prac¬≠tices of that dom¬≠i¬≠nant duop¬≠oly. ?‚ÄúThe way the [Uber] mod¬≠el is orga¬≠nized is extrac¬≠tive. It takes out the mon¬≠ey and doesn‚Äôt give back much. Imag¬≠ine a com¬≠pa¬≠ny that doesn‚Äôt have any prof¬≠its, but has cre¬≠at¬≠ed bil¬≠lion¬≠aires,‚ÄĚ Lewis says. ?‚ÄúThat mon¬≠ey comes from drivers.‚ÄĚ 

Erik For¬≠man, a vet¬≠er¬≠an labor activist and orga¬≠niz¬≠er, became inti¬≠mate¬≠ly acquaint¬≠ed with the dark side of that extrac¬≠tive mod¬≠el when he was work¬≠ing as a staff mem¬≠ber at the Inde¬≠pen¬≠dent Dri¬≠vers Guild, a union-affil¬≠i¬≠at¬≠ed group that orga¬≠nizes rideshare dri¬≠vers in New York. Com¬≠pa¬≠nies that oper¬≠ate in the indus¬≠try reg¬≠u¬≠lar¬≠ly push much of the risk of employ¬≠ment onto the dri¬≠vers by clas¬≠si¬≠fy¬≠ing them as ?‚Äúinde¬≠pen¬≠dent con¬≠trac¬≠tors‚ÄĚ rather than employ¬≠ees. But they also push the costs of the job onto the work¬≠ers, forc¬≠ing them to pay for their own car and main¬≠te¬≠nance (not to men¬≠tion things like health¬≠care ben¬≠e¬≠fits). Instead of being paid to work, in oth¬≠er words, rideshar¬≠ing apps?‚ÄĒ?like oth¬≠er ?‚Äúgig econ¬≠o¬≠my‚ÄĚ com¬≠pa¬≠nies?‚ÄĒ?make peo¬≠ple pay in order to work. When Uber launched in New York City in 2011, it was an attrac¬≠tive alter¬≠na¬≠tive for many who had pre¬≠vi¬≠ous¬≠ly been taxi dri¬≠vers, with decent pay and lit¬≠tle reg¬≠u¬≠la¬≠tion. But in sub¬≠se¬≠quent years, Uber cut pay rates while the num¬≠ber of dri¬≠vers rose, leav¬≠ing many who had tak¬≠en out loans to buy cars for their job strug¬≠gling to meet their debt oblig¬≠a¬≠tions and earn a living. 

For¬≠man, who has been through bit¬≠ter union bat¬≠tles with big com¬≠pa¬≠nies, real¬≠ized that for the same amount of effort, work¬≠ers could prob¬≠a¬≠bly start their own ven¬≠ture?‚ÄĒ?lead¬≠ing him to help cofound the rideshar¬≠ing coop. ?‚ÄúThe indus¬≠try seems unique¬≠ly in need of a sys¬≠tem change based on work¬≠er own¬≠er¬≠ship,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚Äú[TDC] is not anoth¬≠er com¬≠pa¬≠ny try¬≠ing to get mon¬≠ey out of dri¬≠vers. It‚Äôs the opposite.‚ÄĚ

In fact, the lack of exploita¬≠tion is also The Dri¬≠vers Cooperative‚Äôs finan¬≠cial advan¬≠tage. For one thing, the bil¬≠lions of dol¬≠lars that Uber has spent on mar¬≠ket¬≠ing the con¬≠cept of rideshar¬≠ing mean that TDC has lit¬≠tle need for big ad bud¬≠gets. Their plan is to grow by build¬≠ing a net¬≠work of dri¬≠vers, using press and word of mouth. And while Uber and Lyft take around a quar¬≠ter of the mon¬≠ey from each trip (some of it to pay for all that mar¬≠ket¬≠ing), the coop plans to take only 15%. By com¬≠bin¬≠ing the pur¬≠chas¬≠ing pow¬≠er of all the mem¬≠bers, they hope to low¬≠er expens¬≠es on costs like gas and insur¬≠ance?‚ÄĒ?expens¬≠es that Uber and Lyft dri¬≠vers must han¬≠dle on their own. They project that this should all add up to 8?‚Äď?10% high¬≠er earn¬≠ings for dri¬≠vers on every ride, even while being able to beat their com¬≠peti¬≠tors on fare prices. And if the coop has any prof¬≠its left at the end of the year, they will be paid out to dri¬≠vers as dividends. 

Nobody under¬≠stands the fun¬≠da¬≠men¬≠tal con¬≠trast with Uber‚Äôs busi¬≠ness mod¬≠el bet¬≠ter than the third cofounder, Alis¬≠sa Orlan¬≠do?‚ÄĒ?because she used to work for Uber. Her stint as the head of Uber‚Äôs oper¬≠a¬≠tions in East Africa left her dis¬≠il¬≠lu¬≠sioned with the company‚Äôs preda¬≠to¬≠ry con¬≠trol over its dri¬≠vers, embod¬≠ied in the way it uni¬≠lat¬≠er¬≠al¬≠ly cut earn¬≠ings, deac¬≠ti¬≠vat¬≠ed dri¬≠vers alto¬≠geth¬≠er, or sad¬≠dled them with unsus¬≠tain¬≠able car loans, all while claim¬≠ing they were work¬≠ing togeth¬≠er. ?‚ÄúWe called dri¬≠vers part¬≠ners to the extent that it helped us‚ÄĚ main¬≠tain favor¬≠able reg¬≠u¬≠la¬≠to¬≠ry sta¬≠tus, Orlan¬≠do says, ?‚Äúbut they were nev¬≠er partners.‚ÄĚ 

Now she is using her expe¬≠ri¬≠ence in ven¬≠ture cap¬≠i¬≠tal and plat¬≠form-based busi¬≠ness¬≠es on behalf of TDC, a scrap¬≠pi¬≠er job that allows her to sleep bet¬≠ter at night. Meet¬≠ing with New York City dri¬≠vers to recruit them into the coop, she‚Äôs heard count¬≠less sto¬≠ries of the impos¬≠si¬≠ble choic¬≠es that dri¬≠vers are forced to make?‚ÄĒ?like the woman who said that a half dozen pas¬≠sen¬≠gers get into her car with¬≠out a mask every week, but if she objects, they give her a low rat¬≠ing. ?‚ÄúShe has to make this choice between ensur¬≠ing that she‚Äôs safe, and the poten¬≠tial threat of deac¬≠ti¬≠va¬≠tion,‚ÄĚ Orlan¬≠do says. 

Moham¬≠mad Hossen, a rideshare dri¬≠ver who serves on the coop‚Äôs advi¬≠so¬≠ry board, says that the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic has act¬≠ed as an accel¬≠er¬≠ant for the urgency of the new project. His income from dri¬≠ving has fall¬≠en by two-thirds, to just $100 a day, and costs for dis¬≠in¬≠fec¬≠tant and oth¬≠er safe¬≠ty mea¬≠sures?‚ÄĒ?paid out of his own pock¬≠et?‚ÄĒ?have gone up. The shared predica¬≠ment has allowed him to suc¬≠cess¬≠ful¬≠ly recruit oth¬≠er dri¬≠vers, while they wait for hours at the air¬≠port to get a fare. ?‚ÄúAt the end of the day, you have no life, no secu¬≠ri¬≠ty, no future,‚ÄĚ Hossen says. ?‚ÄúWe real¬≠ize that, and we suffer.‚ÄĚ 

That could change when dri­vers are also the company’s own­ers. The Dri­vers Coop­er­a­tive is start­ing a pilot project this month giv­ing rides to work­ers for the Bronx-based Coop­er­a­tive Home Care Asso­ciates, an exam­ple of cross-coop coop­er­a­tion. Founders hope to even­tu­al­ly recruit sev­er­al thou­sand dri­vers in the city, and say recruit­ment is going well. They aim to roll out their own app and open for busi­ness in the first quar­ter of 2021. Their even­tu­al goal, they say, is 10% of the $5 bil­lion New York City rideshare mar­ket, and expan­sion into oth­er cities. For now, though, they will be sat­is­fied with mak­ing a good idea a reality.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. 


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