The Story Behind White Electric Coffee’s Move to a Cooperative Model
The West End coffee shop was purchased by a group of workers in the spring.
Wedged between Frog and Toad and New Urban Arts on Westminster Street, White Electric Coffee has undergone a metamorphosis. The cafe, which has been slinging lattes, espresso and the signature “Buzzo” (housemade coffee milk) since 2000, is the first cafe in Rhode Island to transition to a unionized worker-owned cooperative business model.
“I’ve been having fantasies about this being a worker co-op for years,” says Chloe Chassaing, who worked with White Electric for more than sixteen years. “We were talking about it, but it kind of was a fantasy.”
The cooperative model of running a business — where the workers own the company and have input in all aspects of its management — is growing in popularity in the United States. According to a 2019 report by the Democracy at Work Institute and the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives, the U.S. has seen a 35.7 percent net growth of verified workers cooperatives since 2013. The report also notes that the top-down wage ratio at these co-ops is two to one, in stark contrast to a typical workplace wage ratio of 303 to one.
In addition to fair wages, worker cooperatives take into account every workers’ voice and oftentimes encourage more progressive hiring practices. These ideologies, coupled with the inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, were what led the White Electric workers to write a grievance letter to their employer. In June of 2020, Chassaing and her coworkers approached the cafe’s owners in writing with a list of demands.
“A bunch of us signed a letter that was laying out different requests for change,” Chassaing says. “These were around diverse hiring practices, workplace issues and encompassed a lot of suggestions, one of which was a transition to a worker co-op.”
In response, the staff who signed the letter were laid off, which prompted the group to form an independent union: the Collaborative Union of Providence Service workers, or CUPS. In a twist of events, the day that they received their Union card check, they got an email from the owners saying they were selling the cafe. “It was very, very quick. It took us several days of talking and being like, do we want to do this?” says Chassaing. “The first three and a half months of CUPS organizing were focused around improving the workplace and unionizing, and we then shifted to focusing on the co-op once the prior owners listed the cafe for sale.”
They changed tack, incorporated as a worker co-op and began fundraising to buy the cafe. In January, they found out that the owners would sell to them and, by mid-spring, CUPS had secured the funds to buy the cafe.
Danny Cordova, a first-generation Guatemalan American and barista at White Electric, hopes that 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’re doing right now could inspire a lot of other service industry workers who feel like they have no hope,” says Cordova. “If we succeed, we can inspire other people.” 711 Westminster St., Providence, 453-3007, whiteelectriccoffee.com