If you want to launch a co-op, Baltimore may be one of the best places in the U.S. to do it. There’s a small but sturdy network of worker co-ops in Baltimore that have garnered national attention. Among the most successful is Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, where BRED Executive Director Kate Khatib is a worker-owner. (When the author of this story published a book in 2019, Red Emma’s hosted a public discussion of it.) Red Emma’s strives for maximum democracy, making decisions by consensus and giving each employee one ownership share and one vote. However, the model takes many forms. Some cooperatives have chief executive officers and division managers; a worker-owner’s “one vote” can be limited to their representation on the board. What’s essential, says Khatib, is that workers at the lowest level of the organization are represented at the highest level of governance. “Co-ops will almost always choose the path with the most security for their workers,” she says.
In March 2020, worker-owners at Red Emma’s decided that they couldn’t stay open and keep customers or themselves safe during a pandemic, Khatib says. They shut down and furloughed themselves. The co-op applied successfully for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and some emergency grants from local and state government. By May it had brought several workers back on payroll, and in June they went online with a “general store” featuring Cajou Creamery and other local businesses. In September, the cafe opened its outdoor seating, which brought back more staff. Worker-owners voted on all of these decisions.