PROVIDENCE — A steady stream of customers poured into White Electric, Rhode Island’s only cooperatively run cafe, during its grand re-opening on May 1, International Workers Day. Familiar faces congratulated the new co-owners while ordering the shop’s beloved coffee, bagels, sandwiches, and desserts. A $5 bill, given by a longtime regular who goes by “Toy” just before opening time, hangs on the back wall of the shop.
“They’re congratulating us, but I feel like congratulating them because this was all of us together, a group community effort,” said Chloe Chassaing, co-owner and a 16-year veteran barista of the cafe.
“I just feel really encouraged to see everyone come out,” Chassaing said. “We’ve heard a lot of really kind, supportive words from people. It’s nice for us, because we know a lot of these people, either as friends or even as just customers over the years, so it feels really heartwarming.”
Another co-owner, Danny Cordova, said he could hardly believe he now owns a piece of the business he used to go to when he was a student at Central High School, across the street. “It’s really unreal,” said Cordova.
As a non-hierarchical cooperative — without bosses — eight co-owners now make hiring decisions together. They received about 60 applications within the first few days of announcing they were hiring on Instagram and Facebook. They hired five of them; if they are a good fit after a six month interim period, they will be offered co-ownership.
To be a cooperative, a business must be jointly owned and democratically controlled by its workers. White Electric’s cooperative status is part of a growing trend, sparked by the 2008 financial crisis, stagnating wages, and anti-capitalist critiques inspired by Occupy Wall Street. In 2013, there were fewer than 300 cooperatives. By 2019, the number grew to at least 465 in industries including publishing, taxi services, home cleaning, and construction, according to a report produced by the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) and the Democracy at Work Institute, grassroots organizations supporting worker co-ops.
Cooperative workers, on average, are 62.5 percent female, 37.9 percent latinx, and 12.7 percent Black, and the average starting salary is $19.67 per hour, according to the report. For traditional U.S. corporations, the pay gap between the highest paid CEO and the lowest paid worker is 303-to-1, compared with 2-to-1 for the majority of cooperatives.
As a cafe, it can be difficult to match some of those numbers. Cordova said he was the only person of color on staff for a time, but once it became a co-op, most of White Electric’s new hires are not white. New workers will earn $14 per hour, plus tips, co-owners Joelle Plante, Amanda Soule, and Chassaing said. The highest paid worker will earn $17.50 per hour, plus tips.
“No one individual is going to get rich, and that’s the way we want it,” Chassaing said. “We do want to ensure living wages though, and we’re confident that without a single boss or owner we can redistribute funds to better compensate staff for our work, while also hopefully having enough to make community donations and support our organizing goals.”
White Electric’s transition to cooperative ownership wasn’t a passive process. Inspired by the urgent calls for racial justice in the summer of 2020 and conversations with several outspoken former employees, in June 2020 Chassaing and several others drafted a letter to former owner Tom Toupin, outlining their grievances and suggesting solutions.
“The bar has always been higher for [hiring] POC and impossible to reach for Black applicants, even those who are qualified,” they wrote. “Since you purchased the cafe 13 years ago, among the dozens of staff, you have never hired or seriously considered anyone who is Black and you have only hired 3 people of color.”
In an interview, Toupin said the letter was untruthful, misleading, and “written with the purpose to go public and discredit me while trying to take over the business.”
“The community who worked there was tight knit and I often relied on my crew to make recommendations for new staff,” he said. “Unfortunately, that community is almost all white and I see now I should have been more rigorous and intentional in my hiring process.”
Thirty-nine current and former White Electric staff signed the letter, while two on staff at the time refused, according to Chassaing. “That was really hard, especially since we had previous good relations with those co-workers,” she said. “There is a strong predisposition in American work culture to side with your boss, or whoever you think has ‘the power’ to protect your job. It’s understandable, but it’s still disappointing since ultimately fellow co-workers probably have more in common and care more about each other’s livelihood.”
A month later, Toupin temporarily closed White Electric, and asked staffers to return their keys. The former staffers launched a public petition, were rehired, and decided to form an independent union, the Collaborative Union of Providence Service-Workers (CUPS).
But on the night of their successful union card check in September 2020, Toupin listed the business as for sale, with the stated preference of selling it to its former workers.
“Our initial reaction was that it seemed like a form of union-busting presented as a positive offer. But even though that may have been the case, we decided to go for it,” Chassaing said. “It definitely shifted focus since we were gearing up to work on our first union contract, to codify and improve upon some of the concessions we had already won, and instead pivoted to a crash course on worker co-ops, figuring out who wanted to commit to being part of that, incorporating as a worker co-op, researching loans, negotiating with the current owners.”
Now that the cafe has reopened, White Electric regulars shouldn’t expect to see major changes on the menu. The co-owners are excited to open the space for art shows, community programming, music and other events. And once things settle, they hope to provide guidance and information about CUPS to other local cafe workers who are curious about unionizing.
“Things can change and will change, it’s just a matter of putting yourself in it and believing it, and taking the leap,” Plante said of their organizing efforts.
“I’m inspired to see all the food service worker organizing happening around the country right now,” said Chassaing. “I think workers and customers are ready for food service jobs to be treated with more respect.”