Can Worker Co-ops Bring an End to Crappy Jobs?

“Co-ops create greater wealth in their communities. People keep that money in their communities.”

Maximillian Alvarez

Workers from co-op businesses across the city of Baltimore speak on a panel at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Kayla Rivara

Read the full transcript below.

Baltimore has become what many consider to be ground zero in the emerging solidarity economy” and the formation of worker-owned, cooperatively run businesses. There’s something important going on here, and there’s a lot that we can all learn from our fellow workers who are in the cooperative space — people who are living, breathing proof that there’s another way to run a business, that there’s another way to run our economy, and that there are other ways we can treat work and workers. At a recent event hosted by the Baltimore Museum of Industry titled Work Matters: Building a Worker-Owned Co-op,” Max moderated a panel including workers and representatives from Common Ground Bakery Café, Taharka Bros Ice Cream, A Few Cool Hardware Stores, and the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy (BRED). He talked to them about how they came to work at these different co-ops, how their businesses transitioned to more cooperative models, and they dig into the nitty gritty of what working at a co-op looks like, what it takes for workers to democratically run a business, and the real challenges, limitations, and rewards that come with this kind of work. Panelists include: Vince Green (Taharka Bros Ice Cream); David Evans (A Few Cool Hardware Stores); Craig Smith (A Few Cool Hardware Stores); Sierra Allen (Common Ground Bakery Café); Christa Daring (BRED).


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and the Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. So if you’re hungry for more worker and labor focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network.

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My name is Maximilian Alvarez, and we’ve got a really cool episode for y’all today, which is actually a recording from a Kick-ass live event that I recently got to moderate at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which is just such a great museum. If you’re in Baltimore, you’ve got to go check it out. So the event was called Work Matters: Building a Worker-Owned. And you guys may recall that back in 2021, we had my former Real News colleague and amazing journalist, Jaisal Noor, on the show to talk about this recent surge in worker-owned cooperatively run businesses in the US, especially here in Baltimore, which many considered to be ground zero in this emerging solidarity economy.

There’s really something going on here, and there’s a lot that we can all learn from our fellow workers who are in the cooperative space, people who are living, breathing proof that there is another way to run a business. There is another way to run our economy, and there are other ways that we can treat work and workers. And that also means that there are other ways for workers themselves to come together to collectively improve their lives in and outside of work. Obviously, as you guys know, we talk a lot about unions on this show and we talk about the ways that unions are and have been and can be and should be a crucial form of worker organization and a necessary vehicle for building and exercising collective worker power. But there are other types of organizations too, other things that working people are doing to improve their lives and the lives of their co-workers, like forming worker cooperatives.

And that’s why I was absolutely thrilled to be asked to moderate this panel, which included workers and representatives from Common Ground Bakery Cafe, Taharka Brothers Ice Cream, a few cool hardware stores or formerly Ace Hardware, and the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy. And we talk about a lot of stuff on this panel. We talk about how they came to work at these different worker co-ops, how their businesses transition to more cooperative models because that kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight. And we also dig into the nitty-gritty of what working at a Worker co-op looks like, what it takes for workers to actually democratically run a business instead of the bosses. And we also talk about the real challenges limitations, but also the rewards that come with this kind of work.

So I hope you guys enjoy this conversation as much as I enjoyed participating in it. Thank you once again to all of the amazing panelists who participated in this event, and thank you of course to the wonderful folks at the Baltimore Museum of Industry for hosting it and for inviting me to be part of it. I’m really appreciative. So here it is, our panel conversation on building a worker-owned co-op, today.

Auni Gelles: So the BMI has long been known for its original artifacts and immersive galleries that share a rich history of the people and industries that build Baltimore. Now we’re launching Work Matters, a series of in-person discussions on the legacies of labor and what those mean for workers today. Grounded in history, the series engages attendees in meaningful conversations about the past, present, and future of work in our city. You are here at the second program in our series, and the third program will take place in January about bakery workers.

So today we are joined by Maximilian Alvarez, editor-in-chief of the Real News Network, who will moderate this discussion, as well as our five esteemed panelists who will introduce themselves as they share their experiences. We anticipate this discussion will last for about an hour. And afterwards, you’re welcome to join us in the lunchroom across the hall for some ice cream provided by Taharka Bros Ice Cream. The museum is open until four o’clock today, so you’re welcome to look around afterwards. And I’d also like to draw your attention to our current temporary exhibition called Food for Thought, which is spotlighting food service workers in Baltimore City Public Schools. Check that out if you haven’t seen it yet, because it will only be up through February. And we also have two school groups on site today, so if you hear a little bit of noise, they’re excited to learn about work. All right, without further ado, over to you.

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, yeah. Thank you so much, Auni. Thank you to everyone here at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. I just wanted to quickly start by really giving a shout-out to the BMI and giving a shout-out to all of you for being here. This museum rocks. And it’s such not only just in terms of the subject matter, super fascinating, but in terms of the approach, the thought that goes into how folks here are curating the information, the history that they want to pass on to the next generation. There’s a real bottom up spirit to the displays and that’s why we’re all sitting here, right? The spirit of Howard Zinn lives in the BMI and it is an honor to be a part of it and an honor to be a part of this incredible panel where we’re going to be talking to folks around our city who are doing things differently at work. And there’s a lot that we can learn from that, and I think there’s a lot of hope in the work that they are doing.

Because who here has worked crappy low wage jobs before? Yeah, okay. For everyone listening, that was basically everyone in the audience, myself included. I have spoken about this many times on my podcast working people, the work I do at the Real News Network and beyond. But this is where a lot of my work grew out of was my experience, as a low wage worker in America. And whether that was in restaurants, retail, warehouses, factories, like so many other people in this country, when I was working those jobs, I had no idea there was an option beyond staying and taking the crap I was getting or leaving and trying to find a better job. Those were the only two options that seemed possible to me.

I did not know there was a secret third thing like unionizing your workplace. I did not know there was a secret fourth thing, like turning your workplace into a cooperative worker owned business. That was so far away from my mentality at the time, that feels criminal. But I think that having spent so many years talking to working people about their lives, their jobs, their dreams, their struggles, I think so many of us have a deep hunger for something else, something different.

And we all recognize, as our society continues to crumble, as the world continues to spiral out of control and as the grip of the people at the top on power gets tighter and tighter, more of us are asking ourselves, is this the only way things can be? Is this the most efficient, moral, right way that things can be? And I think it’s really, really incredible that I’m sitting here at a table of folks who are not only thinking that but are doing something about it. And I think we’re all coming to this at a time when, as I said, the world is in a very dismal place. And I think what we are seeing in the largest sense is what happens when we entrust power and decision-making in the hands of a few, whether those be folks in Washington, whether those be our bosses and the shareholders that invest in our companies. If we give over the maintenance of our society to them, this is what we get.

We need more bottom-up control over our world. We need more democracy in our world, and that starts in the workplace. And so that’s what we’re going to talk about today. And I could not be more honored to be joined, as I said, by folks who are doing this every single day. I’m going to let them introduce themselves to y’all here. But we’ve got a range of folks from Taharka Brothers Ice Cream, which we all know and love. Taharka Brothers Rocks. We’ve got the Baltimore Roundtable on Economic Democracy, which is doing vital work to make other worker cooperatives happen. We got folks from Ace, we got Common Ground, who y’all just had an incredible story of buying back the store, turning it into a worker cooperative.

So I want to hear about all of this and I’m going to shut up and just kind of throw the first question at our panel and then we will have time for Q&A later. So if you have questions, please do don’t forget them.

Okay, so first things first, human cooperation is as old as humanity itself. I want to start there. But the concept of a worker-run business and a cooperative workplace is still, I think, quite new and foreign to most of us, and I imagine it was the same for all of you at one point in your lives. So let’s start there. Let’s go around the table and have each of y’all first introduce yourselves, tell us a little bit about the kind of work that you do, and then talk us through your individual paths to entering the world of worker cooperatives.

Vince Green: I have a loud voice regardless. Can everyone hear me perfectly fine? Good. Well, I’m Vinny. I’m one of the worker owner from Taharka Brothers Ice Cream. I’ve been with Taharka Brothers as long as I was able to have a worker permit, I’ve been working with Taharka Brothers, actually my first job, I’ve been doing it since I was 15 and nine months. I’m now 27 years old, so it’s been going a little bit over a decade. It was a long journey of us transitioning to be a co-op, when we first started. A lot of people don’t know the original story of Taharka Brothers before it was even a ice cream company that everyone loves. It all started off as a nonprofits. Nonprofit, the name is called Sylvan Beach. Sylvan Beach was a nonprofit. They were down on Presstman Street where they focused on the rehabilitation of just young men re-entering the free world, the best way you can say it.

They had guys living on the top floor making ice cream on the second floor. They ran the coffee shop on the first floor. They ran that all the way up till about early 2000s. Then the economy crashed and the founder, Sean Smeeton, had no idea what was his next step. So his idea was when everything went empty, he met a young guy named Mike Prokop. Mike Prokop is one of the owners with us on board now. He was in a foster care program. Literally, he was just looking for a bed to stay in. That bed came into a transition of the big idea of why won’t we just turn this business into a business where young adults are hands-on and learning the business. This was way before co-op was really even the main idea. It was just the big idea of just teaching the youth of today’s generation the skills of running a successful business.

So fast-forward that, I got on board as a freshman, maybe 2010. The company still was trying to figure out things. We always had the big idea. BRED used to always come over like, Hey, should be a co-op. It’s the perfect option for you.” We did a ton of workshops and different stages of our. And then right, I think it was 2019, right before the world just shut down on us, we finally got the status of how a co-op could work for the Taharka Brothers. 2019, that’s when we finally was able to remove Sylvan Beach as the owners of Taharka Brothers.

And during that time, when we first switched over, we started off with six owners. Long story short, now we are still a thriving business, but we’re still trying to understand of how to be a co-op. A co-operate, employee owned company has so many different layers like an onion, and day by day, we’re still trying to learn the ups and downs and how things work, how can you make sure every voice is heard. Even the people that are not employee owners just yet, how can we put them in the correct tunnel so they can get to the point with all the other owners of being owners and shareholders of the business?

But it’s a daily grind. Especially with our business strategy, we’re kind of growing faster than what we can expect. And then with the small team, with the skills that we have, it’s kind of limited. But BRED is our best friends, so they are lifesavers and a lot of things with just advice and financial assistance. So day by day, we’re just trying to learn and keep growing and hopefully we can have as many employee owners. Our main goal is to create social change with our employees, and that’s giving them high wage jobs, good opportunities and just doing the damn thing, pretty much.

Christa Daring: Thanks, Vinny. I appreciate all the love. My name is Christa Daring. I’m the executive director of BRED, the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy. We are a local peer fund of Seed Commons, which is a national CDFI, that is tasked with financing and providing high-touch technical assistance to cooperatives and businesses that are interested into converting into cooperatives. I first discovered Red Emma’s in 2004 when they opened two blocks down the street from my high school when I was a senior. And I just started hanging out there being kind of a layabout punk kid and I was like, this place seems pretty cool, I wonder if they’ll let me wash dishes. Back in that time, Red Emma’s was an all volunteer run project. I moved away for college and when I came back in 2011, rejoined Red Emma’s as a worker owner.

I was part of that process of moving from the tiny little basement on St. Paul Street to our big expansion on North Avenue. I was at Red Emma’s as a worker owner until 2017, and now I’m back at BRED, instead on the other side. Having taken a lot from the experiences of us trying to gain financing for our expansion. When we were ready to move to North Avenue, we went to our credit union and we were like, Hey, we need about $60,000 for improvements on this space.” And they’re like, Great, who’s going to undersign the loan? Who’s going to be the guarantor?” And we were like, Oh, that doesn’t really make sense for us.” And they’re like, Okay, we’ll find the four people with the best credit and the most assets.” And we’re like, Well, that really doesn’t work for us either.”

And so to make a very long story, somewhat succinct, we ended up working with The Working World, which was a loan fund based out of New York City, and we sort of convinced them to start lending in Baltimore. And from that, and with Baltimore Bicycle Works and Red Emma’s and a few other local partners, BRED was formed from that as an ability for co-ops to come to us. And we provide non-extractive financing. We do not check people’s credit, we do not take personal guarantees. If there are assets to the business, we might put that as a security, but otherwise we are not coming to take people’s homes if they don’t make their payments. We are making our loans purely on the veracity of the business plan and the overall impact that the business is having for the workers and on their neighborhood.

David Evans: Hello, I’m Dave Evans. I’m the manager at Federal Hill Ace Hardware. I’ve been there since the opening. I actually helped put it together back in 2007. Luckily, I’m a retired firefighter and my wife at the time was like, You need to get a job. I’m tired of telling everybody I’m with a retired firefighter, and they think I’m with a 65-year-old man.”

So I went looking and I knew as a young man, I wanted to help people and I looked in the paper and lo and behold, there was a hardware store opening in my old neighborhood. And I was like, wow, this is fate. So went and applied and luckily for me, the owner was this woman named Gina Schaefer, who was an amazing woman who actually is the one that found out how to do the ESOP and decided to sell the company to us all. It was very odd at first, I have to say. At first, you don’t really see the results. So when they came to us and everything and said that we’re going to be employee-owned, I really was like, okay, what’s that mean? But until you actually see it, it makes a big difference. And I’m very happy to be working at Ace Hardware. If anyone’s been to Ace, it’s a place where the customer service is outstanding. And that’s just near and dear to my heart. I don’t really have anything else to say.

Maximillian Alvarez: Wait, I got a really important follow up, though. Do you guys also have a store cat at your location?

David Evans: Yes, Decker. I adopted Decker in 2010. He is now 16. He is infamous, he is famous. We’ve been in paper twice now. We have socks. I think we’re up to three pairs of socks that everyone comes and buy. I think we have two candles. He makes more money for the store than some of the product that’s in my store. And he has wood starter, fire starters. So we do.

Maximillian Alvarez: That’s cool.

Craig Smith: Yes, we have Brandon our cat. And so my name is Craig Smith. I’m the CEO of A Few Cool Hardware Stores. We’re a group of locally owned Ace Hardware stores in DC, Maryland and Virginia. And we have three stores right here in Baltimore. So how I came to be involved in Ace Hardware was I’ve been in the retail hardware business for about 23 years. And a couple of years ago, someone knocked on my door, named Gina Schaefer and… sorry, can you hear me okay or did someone want to get in there? We don’t want to lock anybody out here.

So a couple of years ago, Gina got in touch with me and asked if I would replace her as CEO of the company, and also she wanted to have one of my stores in her chain. So basically I sold my store and then we became employee owned.

It’s a little confusing. I’m not sure if it is for anybody or maybe perhaps just for me. We kind of double dip in this business a little bit. We are a co-op, because of our relationship with Ace Hardware, but then we’re also an employee stock ownership plan because of our own particular company as an ESOP. But with Ace Hardware we have the affiliation of being a co-op as well. So there’s a lot going on there, but we’re glad Gina got in touch with Dave and got in touch with me and it’s been a wonderful time to be a part of this company, A Few Cool Hardware Stores.

“It helps the company grow, when someone goes back like, 'Oh, that ice cream that everybody loves, I made it. I’m the one that came up with the flavors.' So it’s pretty cool.”

Sierra Allen: Hi, my name is Cece, so I’m the youngest here from what I can tell. And so I am not a Baltimore native. I’m originally from Virginia. I am 21 years old. I left home at 18 years old and my graduation year just so happened to be 2020. So I did not get graduation, did not get home. And so I was a little lost, worked a couple different places. I worked at this Jewish bagel shop, I worked at a Starbucks and it was my first time kind of getting out because I’m by myself at this point. And then I came across this coffee shop and I got to know everybody slowly. And we really have a kind of family oriented environment. A lot of places say that, and it’s always a red flag for me when I’m applying for a job when they’re like, This is a family environment.”

But I got introduced to these people and I fell in love with everyone. We became very close friends. And then this year, about five-ish months ago, the owner at our job, we were in the process of unionization and he just closed shop. Out of nowhere, he just closed the store. The managers had no idea what was going on, and they got a phone call three minutes before we were told. And then we got a random paragraph that was like, Hey, closing permanently. Never again.” And then I was just like, oh, okay. So all of us were super sad, but we immediately kind of thrust into action and through the help of BRED and some financial loans as well as a couple of us educating ourselves on everything, we were able to reopen. And we’ve been open for going on three months now. I think we just hit the two month mark. So going on about three months. Yeah, it’s been a bit of a stressful process. Everything happened fairly fast and people were surprised with how fast that we opened, but we’ve been doing pretty good.

Maximillian Alvarez: And just to clarify for the audience, y’all bought the store back?

Sierra Allen: Yes, we did.

Maximillian Alvarez: With BRED and reopened as a co-op.

Sierra Allen: Yes, we did.

Maximillian Alvarez: That’s incredible. So I want to dig in more to the weeds here because as folks could already tell from the first go around the panel, just like businesses themselves vary, a worker co-op can mean different things and look many different ways depending on the people, the business, et cetera. So I wanted to ask our great panel, what does it mean to you, to be part of a worker cooperative or part of a more democratic work structure or involved in that work and how is that different from what the rest of us are used to and what you were used to before that. Let’s talk more about what actually goes into making a worker and keeping it going. Let’s lift the hood. What do you think are the daily practical realities that folks on the outside just don’t see here?

Vince Green: I’m first in line because my seat… but it’s perfectly fine with me. That’s a very good question. I think with Taharka Brothers, what makes us being a co-op excels for us is what we call it, the GAF meter of how much you care about the company. The company could have went under so many occasions. We had this little loan thing called Funbox where we just had to hit it every week just to cover payroll. And the company at one point in time, it was a very small crew. That’s kind of why at this moment, we’re down to only three owners. That’s the story for another go around. But is everyone putting it what we call the shoulder to the boulder of pushing the company to keep going further. Even with our employees that are not owners at this moment when they are on board, I always joke around every paint y’all school, it all matters because it goes to the success of the company.

At this moment right now, we just got approved for a loan and we have a new factory getting built. With the help of BRED, these employees, they’re able to see the growth and the scaling of the company. And as the company grows, the lifestyle and opportunities that you’re able to offer our employees, they grow and also with the owners. So it’s more appealing to become an owner of Taharka Brothers. So you’re not just slaving for what some people will say, just for a paycheck. But you know this might be residual for a lifetime thing. When you have awards of best ice cream in Baltimore and you knowing you’re scooping every paint and every person you run into, you’re able to have pride in saying you’re one of the owners of Taharka Brothers, this big movement that is making some shake in the city. Especially hearing co-ops, it is great to hear and be on board of these things because like you said, it’s like the family fellowship of trying to connect and grow together, but it’s also you hold one another accountable for what they are responsible for.

So it’s not like come to work and I don’t know what to do. It’s like you come to work with your A game and you coming to push the company to the next level and you hold your own self accountable. It’s not like you come in to work and you waiting for your boss to walk in and give you your day by day schedule. Even for our employees, that’s not owners yet. They know. They walk in there, they have their shift lead, but the shift lead might not even be a owner, but they just take so much responsibility and the groundwork of building a company, they’re able to just come in and knock everything out and create their own schedule.

We have different committees where they can help create flavors and do all these other things. And then when you see it come into a reality, that was your hard work that made that thing happen. So instead of just a big company where you get all the things from a corporation, Hey, this is the new flavors,” and This what you’re going to make,” and Shut up or you’re going to lose your job,” I feel like everyone has their hand in a pot. And it helps the company grow, when someone goes back like, Oh, that ice cream that everybody loves, I made it. I’m the one that came up with the flavors.” So it’s pretty cool.

Christa Daring: From the BRED perspective, one of the things that we always boil this down to is the crucial part of a co-op is it’s one member, one vote. And you can spend a really long time in a business, you can invest a lot of money in a business. But in a co-op, you’re still, even if you invest more money, you don’t have more say in the company. There’s some nuances around the sort of financial rewards for being there longer, but I’m not going to get into that. But really the crucial part is that each person is going to get a say in what the business is doing. That doesn’t mean that every single person votes on where to buy the milk because that would be untenable. But it does mean that there is access to the decisions of the business for every person who is a worker owner there.

And that’s really necessary to make workplace democracy and also in control of not just the sort of day-to-day business and what are you going to do, but ultimately the profits of those businesses. What a traditional workplace is going to do is you’re going to work some amount of time. That work will produce some amount of value to the business, and then the bosses or the owners are going to decide what to do with that profit. That could be a change in your wage, that could be buying something else and expanding.

But in a co-op, people are going to make those decisions together. And that’s what we really talk about with economic democracy. We’re creating greater wealth. Co-ops create greater wealth in their communities. People keep that money in their communities. And co-ops were pretty resilient to Covid. That’s not saying that there wasn’t a lot of struggle, that there weren’t cuts, that there weren’t some losses. But because, as Vinnie is talking about, everyone is coming in every day and they have a personal stake in the business themselves, it’s not just one person who can get burned out. Even if you have the most beneficent boss, one person who has to come in every day and shoulder that responsibility, it’s just not going to be as resilient as a whole group of people who see this as their livelihood and the lifeblood of their community.

David Evans: Could you repeat the question for me one more time?

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Just opening up the hood. What does this look like for y’all in practice? Does it work? You said yourself, you were a little skeptical at first and that the results weren’t immediately. That’s the same for all of us. Most of us have never been in this situation. So yeah, just talk a little more about what this looks like on a day-to-day basis, what the benefits or challenges are to having this kind of approach to a business.

David Evans: So what I think is for us, it’s going to be on different levels, from a manager to an employee to assistant manager, it’s all different, to back office to CEO. For myself, I do feel like I have a little bit more, say more power. Craig’s come to me-

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, he does.

David Evans: He’s come to me many times where in the past, not really, not so much. I do feel like there’s more hands-on than… but our company was different anyway. Like I said, I was very lucky to work for the company that I worked for. Gina Schaefer and that crew are all just magnificent to work for. I didn’t really have the bosses that were jerks, and I’m very, very, very, very blessed. But I could see where now versus then is a little bit different then. So like I said, when they first said it to me at the meeting, there was no change. I just went right back to work and it was just like, it was nothing.

It wasn’t until I saw, so we get stocks… so in ESOP we actually get stocks every year. So when I saw that and I saw, okay, my hard work gives me this. So then it was like, whoa, okay, now I get it. Now I see what I’m supposed to be doing. So for me, it’s inspiring everyone else who now becomes one, because it takes two years for us. So your first year is you’re gaining ground, and then you have the plan year. And your plan year, you have to stay for that year, work so many hours, and then boom, at the end of that year, you’re now 20% invested and you have this much stock. So when you get someone to that level, then that’s when you have not power, but whatever, they see it too. And then they want to work harder and they want push and promote knife sharpenings or paint sales or anything like that. So it’s way different when you’re pushing this for your value at the end of the year versus for someone else’s money. And that’s the biggest thing for me.

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Craig Smith: That was put very well. So our company has a history of, it’s about 20 years old. It’s got a history of being very progressive, very accepting, very philanthropic, and we try to take that theme, kind of putting it into becoming employee-owned because I believe that goes hand-in-hand with the type of company that we were. And just kind of a brief overview. I know we mentioned Gina Schaefer several times and you all might be like, Who is Gina Schaefer?” So Gina Schaefer was the founder of the company, founded it 20 years ago. Also held my position as recent as about seven months ago. So I’m pretty new here as well. But what she did, which is very interesting to me, and also really what drew me to this position is she said, I don’t want to own this company anymore. I want an exit strategy.” She and her husband, Marc Friedman, own the company.

So I call us a big small company, a big small company that’s pretty successful. What do you do? How do you sell that? There could be other groups of hardware stores that might want to buy, there could be a venture capital firm that might want to buy it. But she said, ” don’t want to do any of that because who knows what’s going to happen after I do that.” And Gina has a great relationship with a lot of our folks, especially key folks like Dave and didn’t want to do that. So instead, she decided to go with an employee stock ownership plan, which is basically selling the company back to the employees at no cost to them.

And there’s a lot that goes along with this, and it can be a little fairly complicated, but Gina made it happen with her husband and we’re really glad she did. And that gives someone like Dave, knowing that he is an employee owner, to maybe go that extra mile to stick around a little longer. We don’t want to work people too much, obviously we want to be fair, but the kind of things you were just alluding to, just really willing to put it on the line for your store and for your business, and that’s something that we really believe in.

Sierra Allen: For us because we work in coffee, we do baking and we do coffee, our days start fairly early. I wake up between three and four A.M. every day. I took a nap yesterday and woke up at three. So essentially, it’s a lot of hard work that goes into it as far as, especially since we’re new. So we’re getting down the logistics of everything. It’s constantly thinking about the business. So I’m planning hot chocolate bombs for Christmas, and I already have ideas that I’m putting together for Valentine’s Day. And so it’s a lot of time being spent just constantly thinking about the business, but also knowing that you have the support of other people because we also have committees and I just came with a vengeance about cross-contamination and wanting different pictures. And so we have different committees as far as beverages, as far as baking, as far as communications, and getting stuff like this out.

Because I originally didn’t see myself as a social media type of person. And here I am doing podcasts and I’ve done a couple of interviews. So it just gives a nice breakdown. Everyone has a space. We are made up of multiple neurodivergent personalities, and so we go to everyone’s strengths and what they do best. Although I’m a social media person and I’m kind of a public person, I’m also very good behind the scenes. And so I do scheduling and things like that.

And we also are just overall there to support one another. I feel like when you work in certain companies, you don’t always get that special care that you would with a co-op. And so because all of these people are like my friends, we all care about one another. So it’s been a rough couple of months with losing our jobs. And then I’ve lost a couple of family members and I have the support of everyone around me, so I’m able to do my job, but also we have backups. So if I can’t do scheduling, I train someone else to do scheduling as well. And so you have that support and it works a little differently than if all of the responsibility was on you. So it’s a nice balance for us.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell, yeah. So I could talk to y’all for two more hours, but we only have a few minutes left. So we’re going to do a kind of final round around the table in a second where I want us to sort of zoom out a bit and take stock of where we are in the city with this. Is this a movement? What was it? Bloomberg two years ago said, if you’re trying to start a worker cooperative, Baltimore is probably the best place to do it. There’s something really interesting there, and there are other cooperatives around the city. So I wanted to ask how y’all see yourselves in this larger environment? Do you see the struggle for democratic ownership and operation of our workplaces as being connected to the other worker struggles we’re seeing around the city? I’ve interviewed Starbucks workers or moms workers in Hamden, the Baltimore Museum of Art folks, the Pratt Library folks. There’s a lot of union efforts going on as well. So are these things kind of part of something bigger?

And if there are any kind of final thoughts you guys wanted to share with the audience before we go to Q&A. But I wanted to underline that point, Cece because it’s so important and it shows that mental shift that y’all are making that so many of us haven’t made, right? Because I remember one of my favorite interviews I’ve done on my show was with a service worker in New Orleans who is also a political organizer, community organizer. And they explained to me, they’re like, I think that service workers make the best organizers because here are the skills we have to practice on job. We got to code switch, we got to deal with people coming into the shop at different points of their day. Maybe they just had a bad meeting, maybe they’re really happy.” You got to manage a lot of relationships in that time, and that can translate so well to political and community organizing.

And it was such a light bulb moment for me, because I was like, oh yeah, we could be thinking about how to maximize people’s skills and what they bring to the table, like y’all are talking about. Instead of just our boss saying, We need a warm body to perform this task eight hours a day, I don’t care who it is, I don’t care what their skills are, if they can do that, they get this wage, that’s it.” Hearing y’all, it just seems like that’s so wasteful. There’s so much more all of us can offer. And if we had more control over the decision-making process, imagine how much better our businesses could be, our community, our world, so on and so forth. You see where I’m going with this.

So yeah, with the final five minutes we got before Q&A, I just wanted to do a quick round around the table and ask if there are any more points like that, that y’all wanted to raise, the challenges, the benefits of this, what you would say to folks out there who are maybe thinking of starting at worker and yeah, just how you see yourselves in the larger atmosphere right now of worker struggle in the city and beyond. So Vinny, let’s start with you and we’ll close it out.

Vince Green: That was a lot of great things you just mentioned, but I’m going to play devil’s advocate just a little bit. I learned ownership is not for everyone and that’s a hard gut buster for some people. It is great to always put your skills, but like I mentioned, we started with six owners. I’ll just give you an inside scoop of Taharka Brothers, lift the hood up. So we had six owners when we first came to a employee owned. It’s a grind. It takes a lot of ownership, it takes a lot of responsibility. It takes a reality check of who you are and what are your skills, and growing as a company. It’s not for everyone. So we have 45 employees and if I ask half of my employees, they are perfect with their 18.50 wage and they go through a Monday through Friday schedule and they’re happy with it.

The ownership, it’s a lot. When my freezer cuts off at two in the morning and it’s 30 degrees outside and you got to walk into a -20 degree freezer to go put some tubs up, it’s not for everyone. And I think when you can accept that and when people can understand their strengths and then when they acknowledge that and then they can grow together. And then that’s when you can create change.

But I feel like when you just say, Hey, we all like this one common good and we can start a co-op,” it’s possible. But to grow and be successful, I think you have to have that mirror, you have to look yourself in the mirror, it’s like, do I have what it takes to grow together and take the pride out of the situation and to grow with the people that comes from different backgrounds, understanding and help grow the company.

And even just becoming, like you was mentioning the Enoch Pratt Library and other union things, I feel like if they was able to take parts and pieces of how co-ops work, of the different committees that we have. So I know with Taharka Brothers, we have a flavor committee, we have a social change committee, all these different committees that makes people feel more involved. But then co-ops would be more normalized just so it can go into that everyone can work with this. So it was not just like a one particular business program that can only work for a co-op. If you can take the bits and pieces out of it and apply it to your day by day, I think it would be great for other businesses to learn and grow from other co-ops.

“One owner can just decide, 'You know what? I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s not fun for me anymore,' and pull the plug. But that’s not what we see with cooperatives.”

Christa Daring: One of the things we talk about at BRED a lot is cooperative save jobs. I think we’ve seen that certainly with the Common Ground experience. That was a group of people who were going to lose their jobs, and it was 11 weeks from the notice to the time that you reopened. And that was a lot of really, really hard work that they put in with some assistance from us, but mostly them being like, we are committed to doing this and we’re going to keep our jobs. And a lot of what I heard from them at the time as a group was like, we are an asset to this neighborhood and it’s important to us to remain an asset to this neighborhood. And I think I hear that in everyone’s stories. It’s not just about keeping the jobs, it’s also about stabilizing communities and stabilizing economies.

One owner can just decide, You know what? I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s not fun for me anymore,” and pull the plug. But that’s not what we see with cooperatives. We see even when they do close, this is an arduous process as they go through deciding not just what’s it going to mean for them as individuals, what is it going to mean for the neighborhood? And I think that’s just really crucial and we see cooperatives as a vehicle for building democracy. It’s not just that people get to control the means of production as it were, but they also get to practice that and see how it could potentially scale. The United States is a democracy, but it’s so diffused that it’s not something that we can see a direct line to and that’s what cooperatives let people do.

David Evans: So I agree with you, being an owner or a manager owner is not for everybody. But for me, because I get to see the dividends at the end of the year, it makes it worth a little bit more. So when you have to do them hardships and you have to fire people or discipline people or do all that kind of stuff.

But I was going to quit. I don’t know if you know that. I did tell you that. Yeah. So I was ready. I was like, Man, I have 15 years in retail.” I was like, Man, I think I’m almost done.” And then Gina busts out with this, I’m going to sell the company.” And I’m like, What? Wait a minute. I was about to tell you I was going to leave. You can’t do this to me.” So now it’s re-inspired me. It’s kind like re-energized me and now I can’t leave. I have to see this all the way to the end. I have to. There’s no way I can leave now.

So for me, if there’s more companies like that, if it can do it to me, I literally was like, I’m done with retail. I’m so tired of customers and dealing with all these people and all this bullcrap. If it could do that to me, then how many other people would it inspire to want to work harder, to want to do co-ops, to want to open more businesses? And then on top of it, when you come in my store, you can see, I don’t want to call it the love, but you could feel like these people want to be here, most of my employees, want to be there and enjoy working there, love the store, love the cat, even the community. So for me, if more people would open up and we could get more co-ops and more ESOPs and everything, it just would be better for everybody, more employment, better wages all the way around.

Craig Smith: That was very well put Dave. Dave is a tremendous manager and we’re happy to hear him and you just freaked me out by saying that, but don’t worry, I’ll get over it. Just a couple things real quick. Thank you to the museum for having us here. I did notice there was a pharmacy exhibit. I grew up working in a pharmacy, starting when I was 12 years old that my father owned. So I have a long history of pharmacies, so that was really fascinating to me. I was telling Dave all the boxes, this is Neosporin, this is, you got Tootsie Rolls, it’s really cool.

So to found the whole thing, my dad would’ve gone insane if he saw this. So I’m very impressed with the two folks on the end, not to mention I’m impressed with you Max as well. But to accomplish what you’ve had at your ages, I’m really astounded and very impressed. And especially with a situation of things falling apart and you putting them back together, that is not what we had to do. That is an entirely different story. So thank you for doing that and congratulations. And I’m almost wishing we took a loan from you. It probably sounds a lot easier than what we did.

Sierra Allen: There’s still time.

Craig Smith: But the financial aspect, that’s just such a huge piece of the puzzle. And although a lot of this is very engaging and it makes you feel good, a lot of this comes down to dollars and cents at the end of the day. And to have a service like that is great. I will say just from my perspective, being an employee-owned company, that’s not going to solve all your problems. What you have to realize is you still have to do the work, you still have to put your nose to the grindstone self to put the key in the door in the morning. All those things still need to be done. However, we are very fortunate that we are employee-owned. We’re about 30% employee-owned right now, and within the next five to seven years, we want to be 100%. And it does take some time to get there. But however, it does help tremendously in engagement.

This is engagement in real life right here. This engagement from me, this is a big reason why I joined the company about seven months ago because we were employee-owned. Retention, recruitment, just feeling like you can do that extra thing, it really helps quite a bit. And I know the point was made, it is not for everybody. It’s true. I can’t sit here and tell you every person we have on our roster is going to be an employee owner and is fully engaged. That’s just not true. It’s not always everybody. It’s not for everybody, but I want it to be for most people. And I think with the type of company we are, it is for most people that we have and it will be for the people that come on in the future.

Sierra Allen: So I totally agree that it’s not for everyone. Our business, it’s been open for about 20 plus years. And so one of the major things for us was that this was a pivotal part of the community and people came here… they come here when they’re frustrated. I’ve had one of my favorite customers come in crying and then I just give them a pastry and I sit there and talk. We had connections with these people and so we had a medical emergency. I think someone had a seizure and we caught them. These people matter to us. And because this is not a corporation, and these are people that we personally see every day, they matter. And so it creates that relationship with them to where we’re like, you know what, these people matter and we want to work hard so that we can stay open.

But at the same time, like I said, I do wake up at three every day. I was up when you sent your email at 12, and I read it at 12 A.M., because I was responding to another worker about their scheduling. And so it does require a lot of hard work. It’s constant thinking. I have next year mapped out with things that I want to bake. And we had to do a little bit of everything. Because I bake at home, I’m a pretty decent baker at home. But I also bake in the store. And so that requires, I’m baking, I’m doing barista stuff, I’m making sure I’m engaging with customers. I remember people’s names. Sometimes you have to be an emotional support person. And so we have about 20 workers and about half of them are employee owners. I think we have about 25 workers and about 12, 13 are employee owners.

And everyone has their own place, but it’s not meant for everyone because it does require a lot of your time, a lot of your energy, and it’s something that you really do have to make that mental switch to be like, okay, now I have to change this because I am one of the youngest there and I’m bossing around 30-year-olds. And I’m like, No, you did that wrong. That’s not organized.” And so you do have to be able to put yourself in a position to be uncomfortable sometimes because these are my friends, absolutely. But you also got to do your job. And so it really isn’t meant for everyone. But if you are ready to make that shift, it’s very good to do it with people that you trust.

Maximillian Alvarez: Let’s give it up for our incredible panel, y’all. Okay, so we got 10, 12 minutes for questions. Yeah, please. So what we’ll do, since we’re still recording is please ask your question. I’ll repeat it into the mic toss to our panels. Okay, so the question was, yeah, let’s talk a little more about what the heck it looks like when an owner says, I’m leaving the company.

Vince Green: So that would be for me. So with that situation, each employee owner, they all have a capital account with their shares that they gain. So however much that their capital account has gained, there is a situation where you can… if a buyout to the company came that you can get your entire capital account cashed out, or there’ll be a small payment that it’ll be broken down for your stocks to be paid back to you. But you do lose your shares once you decide to resign. So it’s not like you can work at Amazon and still keep your shares at Taharka Brothers and maybe Taharka Brothers blow up and you cash out with millions dollars. No, that won’t work. So when you decide you are deciding to sell your shares back to the company and then there’s a payout for it.

But unfortunately, the employees kind of copped out too early before a capital account could really grow to excessive amounts. I think right now they’re probably only getting about 10 bucks a month. But that’s how business is scaling, the cost of goods and how profitable the company is. Inside scoop, Taharka Brothers, this was our first year being a profitable company just because of all the overhead that a company goes through. Ice cream is very tough. So this year, with all the expanding and redeveloping of how the company’s working, it’s our first year of actually without just breaking even, we are actually profitable and capital accounts are starting to build up for each of the owners and future owners that comes on board.

Speaker: Do you all see cooperative as an alternative to unionizing. Could you just talk more about the difference and why you chose to go the cooperative route, as opposed to the union route?

Sierra Allen: We actually chose the union route, and we happened to be forced into like, okay, now we’re going to cooperative. We were in the process of unionizing a couple of the people like moms and the Starbucks, everyone you mentioned, we are friends with them. So we know those people personally and have had some workers actually work hours there. So the unionization process helped us to be able to have the resources to form the cooperative. So we do believe in the union route as well, because like we said, cooperatives aren’t for everyone. And if you are just getting treated better at your job and you like it, then that works perfectly fine. But for us, we were in the process of unionizing and then boom, closed. And so we were just like, okay, we don’t want this business to close and now we’re going to fight to keep it open as a cooperative.

Christa Daring: And I will say Red Emma’s was a member of the IWW for a long time as a cooperative as well.

Craig Smith: I’ll just speak for us. Because I believe the very progressive nature of our company, we haven’t had a whole lot of experience with folks wanting to unionize. But the nice part of being an ESOP and having employee owners is there’s actually a lot of boxes we have to check as a company, someone like myself has to check running. It is a federally regulated program. So there’s a lot that goes on with that?

We have a trustee. We don’t just want to be stewards of your business, which I’m sure everybody is, but we have to be. And we cannot not be stewards of our business in a positive way, in a financially healthy way. So that’s another benefit to the folks that are in our stores that work in our stores because we are going to take care of their money because we want to and we have to.

Abby: My name is Abby, I teach in resource development. I study teams and leadership. How would you guys have wanted to learn about this? How do I push this now to my students? It’s not in my textbooks. How would you have me educate people about this secret fourth option?

Sierra Allen: Because I’m young and I am neurodivergent, I like to do hands-on things. So in terms of school, specifically music always helped. But I just know that maybe little plays and things like that where you actually get to see how it works out rather than just reading it. Because I like to read, but not everyone likes to read. And so having something to look at to be like, okay, this is how this works and this is how it would work if I existed in this space, is most helpful for me and a lot of people that I know that I work with.

Vince Green: I will add to that. I’m in BRED’s apprenticeship program. Co-ops been existing for, like you said, it’s a humanitarian thing. But there’ve been co-ops before these great co-ops. So there’ve co-ops that has been united with the African-American groups. I am terrible at quoting names and things. But if you can just do a deep dive of how co-ops has always been existence and showing examples and then showing the updated examples so you can go through a past tense to a present. So looking at comparing it to the co-ops that we have up here, visiting them co-ops. My best experience, I always think is having honest conversations. I always like to go to the Ace Hardware.

I recently, before we even started this panel discussion, I was saying to Ace Hardware, I was just at your store and I never knew you guys was co-ops until I went to your store and I was talking to one of your employees, and I learned more about each other. I do that with almost every co-op I meet like, What’s your bylaws? What’s my bylaws? How do you get started? What was your losses? Like cross-examining one another and hearing the stories. I think that’s the most unique thing is hearing those stories, meeting those people, walking in the environment and getting the feel of it. I think everybody loves field trips, so I think that’s the best way is just getting hands on, meeting those people, hearing the stories. That’s the best way. I’m not a textbook guy, I can zone out so easily. But love being engaging.

Craig Smith: Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s a real challenge. The answer is it’s hard to teach people what it is and how it works. It took me a while as well. Even as an Ace Hardware store, we’re a co-op, but I’ve spent the last twenty-some years trying to explain to people what a co-op is and what that even means. We’re not Target, we’re not a corporation. So just real short in nutshell, collectively, the people that own Ace Hardware stores, the retailers, own the whole company, and we’re a purchasing co-op, not necessarily employment co-op.

So like I said, we took it a step further and made an ESOP. I try to use sports analogies. I know that doesn’t work for everybody. But to someone like Dave, we’re talking about it and it’s like a three year plan. You join our team and you’re learning the playbook. You don’t understand what’s going on on that year one, but you’re earning time with your team. Year two, you’re on the sidelines, you’re actually getting a salary from the team, but you don’t get the money yet because you’re still learning, you’re on the sidelines. Maybe you have a headset. Year three, you’re on the field, you’re playing. You get all that money that you earned and it goes into an account for you. So that trail is kind of what leads into you having those shares. And actually, in our program and in ESOP, it doesn’t cost anything to the employees. It’s based on the financial health of the company. And so that’s kind of how to explain it. I even brought infographics here that I was looking at, making sure I’m saying the right things. We are always looking for another way to say it and another way to explain it well. But I’m always open to suggestions. And I know sometimes when I use the football analogies, people are like, what the heck are you talking about? But I have to realize I’m in Baltimore, so probably people do.

Christa Daring: One thing I just want to add. So BRED hosts an annual event called the Co-Op Jumpstart, which is that in theory, someone could come in the morning and say, I have an idea for a business,” and by the end of the day, they would leave with all the tools to jumpstart that business. We have a bunch of different exercises that we do in that, but it’s really collaborative and I think that’s crucially how all of this works, is people bouncing ideas off of each other, poking holes in the analogies and making sure that everyone’s clear on that. And sometimes a lot of what we do at BRED is just like, here’s how to read a balance sheet, here’s how to make a break even, here’s how to do your business model canvas, which are just some of the hard skills that are hard to receive otherwise.

Maximillian Alvarez: And I just wanted to chime in here on two things too, because on the media side, one way that we want to help is to try to provide y’all and others with real world examples that people can see and hear and hear directly from folks on the front lines like we’re doing here. So I would point folks to some of the reports we’ve done at the Real News Network. My former colleague, Baltimore native, legendary journalist, Jaisal Noor, did an incredible series two years ago on how worker cooperatives in and outside of Baltimore fared through COVID-19. So he looked at the Evergreen in Cleveland, looked at a home healthcare cooperative network in New York along with Red Emma’s and Joe Squared and other places here in the city. And he talked openly and honestly about the benefits and the challenges, and we hear directly from folks describing those challenges.

So I’d say those are a great resource, but also as a former educator myself, I feel a lot of sympathy for your position because so much of what we do at the college level is essentially undoing the damage that K through 12 has done to our students. And I would just blow that up in a more general sense because our task is to undo the relentless social conditioning that all of us receive just by living in this country. I say this all the time, a lot more happens to us at work than just the work we do on our shifts. There’s a lot of conditioning that happens at the workplace. We are made into subjects who are taught to accept that we are generally powerless when it comes to making decisions at work, that there are undemocratic hierarchies with people at the top, making decisions with labor laws that are so screwed that we could get fired like that for looking at a manager wrong, or for no reason at all.

And so if you go through life experiencing that, you’re going to become the subject that they want us to be, which is compliant, which is someone who accepts those hierarchies. And that’s not just going to stay in the workplace. You’re going to take that with you. You’re going to accept that our leaders, our governmental leaders are also kind of at those top of those hierarchies that we don’t really have the right to question or challenge, yada, yada, yada.

And so that also happens at K through 12. From the beginning to the end, unless, I don’t know, you go to a Montessori or something, you are practiced in the experience of being at the bottom of a hierarchy, accepting undemocratic norms. And so I think the answer to the question is just however we can try to get ourselves, our pupils, our fellow workers, to question that, to say that’s not the only way it can be. And in fact, there are folks like this doing and practicing an alternative, that all is important, that all helps. So we’re probably out of time, but I just again, really wanted to thank our incredible panel and ask if we could give one more round of applause for them.

I also wanted to once again, thank the BMI and give one more round of applause for this great museum. Please support it however you can. Okay, that’s it. Bye. Thank you.

All right, gang, that’s going to wrap things up for us this week. One last time, I want to thank the Baltimore Museum of Industry for hosting this awesome event and for letting me be part of it. And of course, thank you to all the panelists for sharing your incredible stories and insights. And thank you all for listening and thank you for caring. We’ll see you guys back here next week for another episode of Working People. And if you cannot wait that long, then go subscribe to our Patreon right now and check out all the awesome bonus episodes that we’ve got there waiting for you and our patrons.

And also, go explore all the great work that we’re doing at the Real News Network where we do grassroots journalism that lifts up the voices and stories from the front lines of struggle here in the US and around the world. You can sign up for the Real News newsletter so you never miss a story and help us do more work like this by going to the​re​al​news​.com/​d​onate and become a supporter today. I’m Maximillian Alvarez. Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Solidarity forever.

Speaker 11: When my no longer see, I live on. Yes, I live on. Wherever we go, we’re going to roll the Union on the song. I live on. Yes, I live on. Wherever hungry, where are we, just as hungry as hungry can be. I live on. Yes, I live on. While mean things are happening in this land is the song I live on. Yes, I live on. Wherever the book mean things are happening in this land is red, I live on. Yes, I live on.

Wherever this of me is showing, I live on. Yes, I live on. If I have help to make this a better word to live in, I’ll live on. Yes, I’ll live on. When my body is silent and in some lonesome grave, I’ll live on. Yes, I’ll live on. When my songs and poems are read, I’ll live on. Yes, I live on. Some days from this earth I’ll be gone, but I live on. Yes, I live on. I’ll live on. Yes, I’ll live on. We may not be remembered by everyone, but I’ll ive on. Yes, I’ll live on. I may not be number one, but I’ll live on. Yes, I’ll live on. Years may come and years may go. And to them, I’ll live on. Yes, I’ll live on.

We believe in and who’s sincere. And for this reason, I pass it on to one behind me that we have picked up the where we left off. And for that reason, we have come to let you know that the cause to live on. Oh yes. Yes, we live on.

Additional information

Permanent links below…

Featured Music…

  • Jules Taylor, Working People” Theme Song
  • Jules Taylor, Working People Live Show” Theme Song
  • Jules Taylor, John L. Handcox I Live On Remix”
  • Follow Jules Taylor on Twitter and Facebook

Studio Production: Maximillian Alvarez
Post-Production: Jules Taylor

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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

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