Barista Magazine

OCT-NOV 2018

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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OOPERATIVES, or co-ops, are businesses governed by the principle of "one member, one vote." While there are several common types, this piece will focus on the model most commonly found in coffee-consuming countries: worker co-ops. While worker co-ops are diverse, they all share the common character- istics of being owned by workers who invest in and run the business together while split- ting profi ts and functioning via democratic decision-making, where each member gets a vote. While co-ops form a valuable model for equity in the workplace, worker-ownership is complex and immensely challenging. I talked to worker-owners from four different coffee co-ops to learn about the ins and outs—and pros and cons—of their unique businesses. WHY CONSIDER THE CO-OP MODEL? People have many different reasons for investing their time and money in co-ops. Running a business isn't easy in general, and co-ops as a model show an exponentially tighter pay ratio between highest-paid and lowest-paid employees than traditional busi- ness models. That's all to say the chances of getting rich running a co-op are extremely low (and seldom the goal). Additionally, worker-owners can spend years growing their co-ops with no salary while working a second full-time job to pay their bills. So why run a co-op? One major reason is the desire to rein- vest time and labor into the local commu- nity. This motive is especially common in low-income communities and in co-ops specifically created for marginalized sub- communities. Jonathan Robles and Kateri Gutierrez of Collective Avenue Coffee started their co-op to not only invest in their low-income community of Lynwood, Calif., but to give the neighborhood a viable means to invest in itself and its own entrepreneurship. "In our com- munity, labor is the most approachable way to invest in a business and gain ownership. Entrepreneurship is contagious, and Collective Avenue helps people get that spark as well as the education needed to see what goes into owning a business," says Kateri. Berkeley, Calif.'s Alchemy Collective was also formed with a mission to spark possibili- ty and entrepreneurship in the world through providing a viable model. "The core of it was always to make amazing coffee, foster com- munity, and provide dignifi ed jobs in which all workers have some amount of control over their work environment," says worker-owner Chris Taruc-Myers. "We aimed to become a business that others could look to and say, 'We could do that. We could be a cooperative like Alchemy.'" Casey McKeel of Thread Coffee in Bal- timore started their co-op as an attempt to create a model where trade could be more ethical for both farmers and workers. Thread is woman- and queer-owned, and the other worker-owners are equally motivated by the company's mission of transparent trade and uplifting people from marginalized identities in the coffee industry. LET'S TALK ABOUT MONEY Pay is one of the more challenging factors in coffee co-op worker-ownership. Recent data from the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives shows that the aver- age entry-level wage for co-op workers is $10–$13 an hour, and, as mentioned, even founding worker-owners never take home much more than that. Currently, Collective Avenue is in good fi - nancial shape, but growing the organization to that point has been tough. "There have defi nitely been a lot of ups and downs, even just around staying open," says Jonathan. "It was a struggle when there was no money coming in, but we didn't want to give up on the business because we knew a lot of people were relying on it. There were times when I almost went homeless. We see it as a long-term investment in our community even if it's caused ups and downs in our In order to keep wages equitable, Thread Coffee in Baltimore has a rule that no one can make more than two times what the lowest-paid worker makes, so wages tend to get raised from the bottom up. 80 barista magazine

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