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When These Workers Unionized, Their Cafe Was Put Up for Sale—So They Bought It

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.?—?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 café. 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. 

“If somebody had told me, ?‘One day, you’re going to run that business across the street,’ I would’ve said, ?‘Yeah, sure. OK, buddy,’ ” says Danny Cordova, 27, a barista at White Electric since 2019 who used to eat at the café 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 ?“go beyond slogans and window dressing” in achieving racial justice at the café. 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 café wheelchair accessible, among other demands. 

“They weren’t actually things we thought would happen,” says Chloe Chassaing, 44, who has worked at White Electric for 16 years?—?even before Toupin bought it in 2006. ?“They were dreams, but they are fully all happening.”

The coffee shop, which reopened May 1, is one of Rhode Island’s 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’s national uprising over police killings of Black Americans made clear the need to push for a stronger commitment to racial justice at the café. ?“That’s what set everything off,” says Amanda Soule, 36, who started working at the café in 2013 and helped draft the letter. 

Toupin tells In These Times the letter is ?“untruthful and misleading” and disputes its characterization of him. “[Its description] wasn’t the situation at all,” he says. After receiving the letter, he says he closed White Electric for July 2020 to meet with the workers and a mediator. (The café 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’t sign were kept on to train replacements, as described in a public petition following the letter’s release. The petition adds that the fired employees were offered their jobs back, but they still were publicly appealing for community support to ?“prevent another episode of retaliation.”

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 café 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’ market and raffled off merchandise to accumulate a $55,000 down payment.

“It’s been all community driven,” Cordova says. ?“People are excited to see a place where workplace democracy can thrive.”

Now the worker-owners are focused on the challenge of running the café. 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, ?“our intention is do all of those things that are our demands.”

Their broader vision extends beyond the walls of a single coffee shop. That’s 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.

“The union’s intention all along,” Chassaing says, ?“has 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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Migrant Women Are Holding Society Together During This Pandemic

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The past year has seen several lockdowns as a result of the pandemic, which have had a deep impact on education, employment and the way we work globally. These factors have had an especially stark effect on women.

For more than 168 million children worldwide, schools have been closed for almost a year, forcing them to resort to online learning from home, according to UNICEF. In most households, it is women who have borne the majority of the burden of home schooling during the lockdowns.

Meanwhile, even as working from home has become the “new normal,” the pandemic has resulted in the loss of 24.7 million jobs, according to an estimate by the International Labor Organization. Economic inequality is likely to worsen, the ILO warns, as the jobs crisis disproportionately affects women and migrants.

In Latin America, the frequent lockdowns have come to define life during the pandemic, the social impact of which has unequally been borne by women. This has led to many women having to leave the workforce due to the mounting pressure of looking after their families, especially since the gender pay gap means they might not be the primary earning members of the household.

In cases where women try to retain their jobs while taking on the major burden of the housework as compared to men, sometimes, the only option available—if they can afford it—is to hire a domestic worker to do the various forms of care work like cooking, cleaning, child-rearing and eldercare that cannot be done easily by a working woman. According to data provided by UN Women in 2016, one in six domestic workers is an international migrant; of these workers, 73.4 percent are women. So, the domestic worker is typically a migrant woman.

Due to the precarious nature of domestic work and the insufficient political power among women domestic workers, their working conditions are appalling. According to data provided by Alliance for Solidarity, 57 percent of domestic workers have no fixed working hours. That means that these domestic workers do not control how long they work for in a day and when they can leave their workspaces, nor do they control their breaks and their meals.

Women Workers and the Pandemic

During the pandemic, the situation for domestic workers has worsened. They are presented with tough choices: either they stay in their employer’s house for the duration of the lockdown and therefore neglect their own families, or they choose to commute and risk losing their jobs because their employers fear that they could bring the virus into their households. Domestic workers’ unions have protested against this terrible choice. But their voices are not presented in the media, largely because these women are marginalized and treated as invisible parts of society.

Women domestic workers are part of a large community of informal workers, many of whom have held society together during this pandemic. It is these informal workers who have been attending to food distribution, cleaning public spaces, and working in small grocery stores and other shops. They bear the high risk of being infected not only due to the nature of their work but also because of their long commutes using public transport. In South America, such jobs are held largely by migrant women, many of whom have insecure residency status.

‘We Don’t Have Labor Rights in a Pandemic—Only Working Conditions’

Angélica Venega left Peru for Chile to earn more money so she could support her daughter’s education. A relative put her in contact with Sinducap, a trade union for workers in private households and those who work in related activities. Sinducap is part of the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Domestic Workers, founded in 1988. Sinducap, Venega told me, allowed her to bargain for clearly defined working conditions in the home where she is employed. These terms of employment include working hours, provision of meals and money for transportation, payment of social security, a uniform requirement or lack thereof, and limits to what is expected during working hours.

Emilia Solís Vivano, president of Sinducap, told me that there are more than 300 people in the union. The union members are not only domestic workers but also include cleaners, caterers, gardeners and window cleaners. These workers help to sustain a better way of life for their employers. Unfortunately, the same is not possible for them.

Already precarious before the pandemic, the situation for the workers has become worse in the past few months. “Because of the stigmatization of domestic workers as possible [carriers] of the virus,” Venega told me, “many employers ask us to live in the house to avoid using public transportation. This is not exactly an offer. If you don’t accept this offer, you are fired. You are dismissed, but because they make you an offer which you refuse, they call it a resignation. If you resign, there are [no] legal benefits. In a pandemic, we have no labor rights. We only have conditions.”

The demand that domestic workers live in their place of employment, Venega said, is not just about the pandemic, fear of disease, and the protocols of health. The pandemic, she said, is being used by employers to extend the working day for less pay. When you live in the same house where you work, working hours can end up being dictated by the convenience and working conditions of the employers, who may demand more attention once they come home from work, during weekends when receiving visitors, and according to the schedule of their children.

These are conditions, Venega told me, that the employers of domestic workers would not tolerate in their own workplaces, where they are employed, but they are not afraid to impose such terrible conditions on the domestic workers. Employers often reduce the wages of the domestic workers, saying that their own salaries have been reduced due to the pandemic.

If a worker is infected by the COVID-19 virus, then they are summarily fired. Workers are responsible for paying for their treatment and where they spend a quarantine period in these cases. This is even more terrible for a migrant, who might not have a house to go to or a family to shelter with. Being fired could mean deportation.

The “new normal,” Venega told me, is not so “new.” It is part and parcel of how things were even before the pandemic. “What is being made normal,” she said, “is greed.”

This article was produced by Globetrotter. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Taroa Zúñiga Silva is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). She is a member of the Secretaría de Mujeres Inmigrantes en Chile. She also is a member of the Mecha Cooperativa, a project of the Ejército Comunicacional de Liberación.


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Health and Safety Standards for Frontline Healthcare Workers

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America’s frontline healthcare workers have rightly been called our country’s real superheroes. But the truth is that the US healthcare system is falling far short in its obligation to protect these essential workers in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than a century.

A Failure to Protect

It should perhaps come as no surprise that frontline healthcare workers are at extreme risk for contracting communicable illnesses, particularly when we are dealing with a pathogen as infectious as COVID-19. And with a new flu season looming in the northern hemisphere, the increased influenza risk incurred by nurses and other frontline healthcare workers only serves to amplify the threat.

Worse, more than eight months after the advent of the virus, healthcare workers are still facing a significant shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). This lack of access to adequate PPE may well be the single most significant source of danger for doctors and nurses working with COVID patients.

When infected persons are asymptomatic, for example, the impulse to relax PPE standards by rationing equipment may well lead to potentially preventable disease transmission.

The Significance of Training

Because COVID-19 is a novel virus, there is still much about the disease that is unknown. Safety, prevention, and treatment guidelines continue to evolve. Healthcare systems, however, must be highly proactive in ensuring that frontline healthcare workers are up to date on the latest disease information and safety protocols.

This must include rigorous training in pre-appointment patient screening, treatment room sanitation, and risk mitigation and infection containment processes.

Job Losses and Furloughs

Perhaps one of the less-discussed but potentially most harmful risks facing today’s frontline workers is the risk of job losses and furloughs. Current research suggests that system mismanagement is pervasive across the US healthcare system, resulting in tens of thousands of job cuts, despite billions of dollars being allocated to US hospitals and healthcare systems from the emergency CARES act.

Thus, America’s frontline workers are not only confronted today by the threat of the virus, but they are also faced with the possibility of layoffs, furloughs, and termination. In the wake of a national crisis not only to public health but also to the economy, this may well leave frontline workers facing the loss of not just their health but also their income, their home, and their security.

The Takeaway

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect across the US, but few people have been more affected than America’s frontline healthcare workers. The risk of infection for these workers is particularly great, amplified by an ongoing shortage of PPE.

In addition, due to the novelty of the virus, healthcare providers may still be uninformed on best practices in risk mitigation and disease prevention. Efforts to ensure up-to-date training and support must be made to ensure that workers are prepared to protect themselves, their families, and their patients. Perhaps worst of all, the healthcare system is challenged with massive layoffs, putting frontline workers’ jobs and livelihoods at risk.

This means it is incumbent on the public whom these workers care for to help care for and protect them in return. If you are able, donate to your local organizations that are now providing equipment, financial assistance, and other resources to frontline workers. If you own a business, consider offering these heroes freebies and discounts, special operating hours, or other perks to show your appreciation and offer support.

Help relieve the burden on these healthcare workers by always remaining vigilant about your own health and the health of your community, adhering to public health guidelines to help prevent the spread. Above all, reach out to your local, state, and government officials to demand they make caring for these care providers priority number one, which must include not only financial support but also employment protection and access to quality healthcare, child and elder care, and other resources they may need to weather this crisis.

After all, our frontline workers are saving lives day in and day out. The least we can do is anything and everything we can to return the favor.

About the Author: Luke Smith is a writer and researcher turned blogger. Since finishing college he is trying his hand at being a freelance writer. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics but business and technology topics are his favorite. When he isn’t writing you can find him traveling, hiking, or gaming.


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