Workers refuse to give up: Forming the Common Ground Cafe Cooperative

On July 2nd, we workers of Common Ground Bakery Cafe in Baltimore, Maryland, were suddenly all laid off and saw our place of work close down after beginning a union drive under the banner of Common Ground Workers United. Two months later, we successfully organized a takeover of the cafe as a worker-owned cooperative.

The sudden closure of the cafe, which had been a staple of the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore for over a quarter of a century, came as a shock to both us and our community members. We were given less than 12 hours notice via group message that we were simply not to report to work the next day, and without any explanation, 30 people suddenly lost their jobs.

We came together to fight for a union because we were tired of struggling to make ends meet while we create wealth that makes other people rich. This is a sentiment shared by a huge and growing section of the working class — that’s why support for unions is at a historic high. We wanted to come together to collectively stand up for our rights and win a better life, and we were determined that we wouldn’t let the owner stop us no matter what — even if he closed down the shop.

Unable to return to work, we began organizing our response to the closure the very next morning. The existing organization and channels of communication that we created during the union drive were crucial to our ability to act quickly. We created an instagram account, @commongroundworkers, and made a public statement calling out the owner of the cafe and stating our intention of “forming a worker-owned cooperative to save our jobs and Common Ground.”

The account quickly gained a large following and we saw enormous support from our surrounding community through donations and words of solidarity. We soon connected with the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy (BRED), an organization that helps with cooperative development in the city, and began forging a path toward collective ownership.

Many other local cooperatives, such as Red Emma’s, Mera Kitchen, Thread Coffee, and Metta Wellness, jumped in to help us in building our new cooperative structure. After much effort and anticipation, we reopened the shuttered coffee shop as Common Ground Cafe Cooperative on Sept. 18. 

After our grand opening, Common Ground Workers United partnered with the Baltimore Party for Socialism and Liberation, as well as several other local cooperatives, to host a film screening and panel discussion about worker-ownership. Speakers shared their thoughts on the role of cooperatives in the labor movement and the fight for workplace democracy here and around the world.

Our experience at Common Ground is not an isolated incident. It is a common tactic of the capitalists to close up shop when the workers organize together. Just a month after the closure of our cafe, another nearby Baltimore restaurant, Busboys and Poets, closed when workers were planning to strike. We were also partly inspired by a case of a unionized cafe in California, Slow Bloom, that closed down and was later revived by the workers as a cooperative.

In times of capitalist crises, it is also common for companies to fall apart and capitalists to move their wealth out of production, thereby threatening the livelihoods of workers. In those contexts, the workers sometimes take over the companies as happened in Argentina in 2001. 

Worker-owners make decisions collectively in our Workers’ Council and Committees. Individual worker-owners may take on special roles or responsibilities, but they are overseen by committees dedicated to their particular area of work. All Committees are overseen by the Workers’ Council consisting of all worker-owners at the very top. It is essentially a reversal of the previous power structure. 

Furthermore, all worker-owners are paid the same at the start and have an equal share in the business. Anyone who is newly hired is on track toward worker-ownership after a year of getting settled into their positions. This makes it so that there is never a permanent division between worker and owner within the workplace.

However, there are still challenges to worker-ownership. Although we operate under a cooperative model, this is done within a competitive economic system. Cooperatives are still under pressure to make profits, repay expenses, and remain competitive with other businesses. Furthermore, cooperatives face an added threat of eviction or supply cut-offs from the landlords and capitalists. 

Then there is the issue of what sectors of the working class can realistically form a cooperative. BRED has successfully helped many small food and service cooperatives grow through non-extractive loans and administrative support, but it would be a much more challenging task for larger scale industries and chain businesses where much of the working class are employed. These are some major limitations to cooperatives, which unions do not face, and this results in there being very few existing cooperatives.

Despite these challenges, Baltimore has been and remains a leader in the cooperative movement. In 1794, a Baltimore shoemakers union formed the first cooperative in the United States when their union demands were not met. By the time of the First Reconstruction after the Civil War, Baltimore had become a hub of worker cooperatives and unions, especially among Black communities. These workers were organizing together to push many progressive reforms, including basic cooperative incorporation acts that we are still fighting for to this day.

At Common Ground Bakery Cafe we were determined to form a union, and we didn’t even let a shop closure stop us. Our fight as coffee shop workers of Baltimore has proven that when the workers are united, we will never be defeated!

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