The story behind White Electric Coffee’s shift to a cooperative model

The West End cafe was bought by a group of workers in the spring.
Photography: Chloe Chassaing & Joelle Plante / White Electric Coffee and Nick Millard / Go Providence.

Caught between Frog and Toad and New Urban Arts on Westminster Street, White Electric Coffee has undergone a makeover. The cafe, which has offered lattes, espressos and the signature “Buzzo” (homemade latte) since 2000, is the first cafe in Rhode Island to transition to a union-owned, worker-owned cooperative business model.

“I’ve had fantasies about being a worker co-op for years,” says Chloe Chassaing, who has worked with White Electric for over sixteen years. “We were talking about it, but it was kind of a fantasy.”

The cooperative model of running a business – where workers own the business and participate in all aspects of its management – is gaining popularity in the United States. According to a 2019 report from the Democracy at Work Institute and the United States Federation of Worker Co-operatives, the United States has experienced a net growth of 35.7% in verified worker co-ops since 2013. The report also notes that the top-down pay ratio in these co-ops is two to one, which is in stark contrast to a typical workplace pay ratio of 303 to one.

In addition to fair wages, worker cooperatives consider the voice of every worker and often encourage more progressive hiring practices. These ideologies, coupled with the inequalities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, led White Electric workers to write a letter of grievance to their employer. In June 2020, Chassaing and his colleagues contacted the owners of the cafe in writing with a list of demands.

“A group of us signed a letter that outlined different requests for change,” said Chassaing. “These dealt with various hiring practices, workplace issues and encompassed many suggestions, one of which was a transition to a worker co-op. “

In response, the staff who signed the letter were fired, prompting the group to form an independent union: the Collaborative Union of Providence Service workers, or CUPS. In a turn of events, the day they received their Union card check, they received an email from the owners saying they were selling the coffee. “It was very, very quick. It took us several days to talk and say to each other, do we want to do this? said Chassaing. “The first three and a half months of organizing CUPS focused on improving the workplace and organizing, and then we focused on the co-op once the previous owners put the coffee up for sale.”

They changed course, formed a work cooperative, and started raising funds to buy coffee. By January, they found out the owners would sell to them, and by mid-spring CUPS had secured the funds to buy the coffee.

Danny Cordova, first-generation Guatemalan and barista at White Electric, hopes this successful transition to a worker-friendly business model will motivate others in the industry to demand change.

“My greatest hope is that what we are doing right now can inspire many other workers in the service sector who feel like they have no hope,” Cordova says. “If we are successful, we can inspire other people.” 711 Westminster St., Providence, 453-3007, whiteelectriccoffee.com

About Glenda Wait

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