By Julia Eddy & Allison Basile
On March 14th, a group of colleagues, friends, and strangers gathered outside of ONE DC’s office at the New Community Church to embark on a special kind of Sunday spiritual journey. We set out for a lively worker-owned cooperative cafe/bookstore/event space in Baltimore called Red Emma’s Cafe. The idea grew out of organizing meetings for the DC Black Workers Center - a space that will, among other things, promote the creation of worker-owned cooperatives.
I call it a spiritual trip because it seemed from the conversation throughout the day that for many of us coops are a way of feeding the soul, in addition to hopefully feeding the mind and pocket. When I heard the music from the kitchen, smelled the warm roast of fresh fair trade coffee, and saw the mix of meetup groups, piercings, zines, books on revolutionary movements, and overgrowth of community fliers, my spirit felt instantly like it had come home.
Reggie and Josiah, two of Red Emma’s worker-owners, were our guides for the day. They walked us around the space and told us about their stories, the neighborhood, how Red Emma has evolved and operates today, and the transformational experience of being part owner in a collectively run business.
It was humbling and inspiring to hear the case study - how hard and rewarding it can be to create an alternative kind of company and navigate the pressures of capitalism; how humanizing it can be to engage in a truly democratic workplace and grow a radical vision. Below you can find some collaborative notes we took throughout the day that go into more detail.
I would like to extend my personal thanks to ONE DC for organizing this learning journey and to the folks at Red Emma’s for being open to share so much of their stories.
There are several arms of Red Emma’s:
- Bookstore, cafe, and event space
- The Free School offers anti-hierarchical classes and a meeting space. It used to be independent entity, now is nonprofit extension of Red Emma’s. There is a list of classes happening all the time. Folks can submit a proposal for a free public class or rent the space for nominal fee.
- Thread Coffee is independent coop within Red Emma’s.
History & Current Context:
- Many people who work there identify as “radical” or even “anarchist”.
- Original Red Emma’s was funded without any loans. The original worker-owners put in a lot of ‘sweat equity’.
- They found a viable business in coffee and books and operated out of a basement for ~10 years until recently when they were able to expand into current space.
- It’s a business AND a political act.
- Trying to listen to the community and give the community what it wants.
- Indiegogo campaign and line of credit with a traditional bank helped with expansion.
- Worker cooperatives are an act of resistance and rebellion. They are a political statement against market capitalism.
- Being a part of a worker cooperative makes you feel like you have a stake in the world.
- We need to infuse cooperative principles into our culture at large.
- Many progressive/radical organizers/organizations neglect to build their own infrastructure and institutions.
- Worker cooperatives can't escape capitalism. They have to negotiate with monopoly capitalism, which adds to the challenges.
- "In a worker cooperative, we can't run to a supervisor when there's a problem. We have to figure it out ourselves!"
- Regular trainings to support people as they transition from having a boss to having a lot of responsibility and self-reliance is important.
- At the end of the day, a worker cooperative is also a business that needs to sell things people will buy. It's the way it is operated and owned that makes it political.
Other Nuts and Bolts:
- $1,000 buy-in for new members - can pay one time or paycheck deductions.
- Trying to raise salaries and figure out patronage distribution now.
- People pay their own insurance and social security out of their wages.
- MD living wage is $11/hr, which is what Red Emmas members make. They are working to raise it to $12.50 and $13.50.
- Everyone is paid the same wage.
- They have had a lot of turnover which has been hard.
- Their first year in a new space it was hard to find that extra time for visioning
- They are intentional and want to be more intentional moving forward about partnering with other coops - Epicurious Bike Coop, AORTA has done staff trainings for them, Thread Coffee works with international coffee grower coops.