Brewing Justice at Café Chicago

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]

Waiting long hours on street corners for jobs, often in freezing weather, Chicago day laborers drink a lot of coffee. Now they will also be roasting and selling it. And rather than the watered-down McDonald’s or Aldi’s coffee they often drink, it will be organic fair trade coffee sold at sliding scale prices to make it affordable for people from all walks of life.

This is Café Chicago, a new worker-owned cooperative under the auspices of the Latino Union and the Albany Park Workers Center. The project has been in the works for more than a year, and on May 1 will selling its first bags of coffee.

“This project started as a conversation, and now it’s going to be a reality,” said Jose Luis Gallardo, 38, a day laborer who serves on the board of directors of the Latino Union and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “When you drink the coffee you’ll know where it came from, who planted it, who picked it, who roasted it, who ground it, that it’s organic and natural.”

Café Chicago was sparked in part by local activist David Meyers, who for about seven years has roasted and sold fair trade coffee now called Resistance Coffee as part of his farming and food justice project the Chicory Center. Meyers serves as an advisor to Café Chicago, which has received start-up funding from various foundations and individuals allowing them to purchase a roaster, rent space and hire four full-time staff. In all, 10 workers will run the cooperative with support from a network of volunteers including other coffee roasters, lawyers, and graphic designers.

“With the economic downturn day laborers aren’t really getting jobs anyway, so it’s the perfect time to start thinking about taking over the means of production, not just for day laborers but for everyone,” said Meyers.

So far the worker-owners have spent much time discussing what it actually means to be a cooperative, the logistics of roasting, the business plan, their outreach strategy. They’ve developed working groups among the workers and volunteers to handle the various aspects of the business, and they’ve toured cafes and other roasting operations for insight.

At a meeting in late March, said Café Chicago worker-owner Marisol Willis, 42, “We all came together as one, the energy was amazing. Everyone had their different skills and things they could offer. When you work together, everyone benefits. If we just keep that attitude, there’s no question of anything but a success.”

Willis is not a day laborer herself but joined the project to help incorporate women into Café Chicago. Latino Union organizer Eric Rodriguez noted that Café Chicago will in a sense bring the Latino Union “full circle” to its roots. It was formed a decade ago by women who worked for staffing agencies on the south side. Since then other organizations have taken the lead in the struggle to reform the temporary staffing industry; and the Latino Union has been primarily focused on street corner day laborers, opening a workers center five years ago and currently including worker pickup spots in Avondale, at a Home Depot in Cicero, in Back of the Yards, and in Albany Park, where the center is located. The Latino Union is also broadening its focus with the launch of a domestic workers collaborative based at the Albany Park center.

Rodriguez, 29, noted that the day laborers are already experienced business people, constantly negotiating contracts with employers.

“This is also about developing an alternative economic system,” he said. “Usually they’re fighting against the bosses, now they will also be the bosses.”

Workers and organizers hope Café Chicago will become profitable enough to provide funds for the Latino Union as a whole, making the organization less reliant on grants and donations that can fluctuate especially in a tight economy. Café Chicago will also be a form of outreach, with the mission statement or other information printed on coffee bags and brochures that reach a range of buyers—including the employers who hire day laborers.

Café Chicago will buy unroasted beans from the Madison cooperative Just Coffee, which features fair trade coffee from around the world starting with coffee from the Nicaraguan women’s cooperative La FEM.

“It just makes you feel better drinking it since you know there was no injustice along the whole way,” said Willis.

At first, they will sell bags of roasted coffee at cafes, stores and farmers markets’ and to individuals. They hope to raise enough money to also open a café in connection with the workers’ center. They will make sure people can use LINK cards to buy the coffee.

Norberto Gonzalez, 46, came to Chicago from Puerto Rico a year ago with no job or place to stay. Someone told him about the Albany Park Workers Center. He didn’t get any work his first day there and considered “not wasting my time” by going back. But he did, and now he says the workers center “put clothes on my back, put a roof over my head. That’s why I want to give back and help create opportunities for other people.”

“Everybody’s part of the team,” continued Gonzalez. “It’s beautiful. You can sit down with your family and have a cup of coffee and say, ‘I worked on this.’ It is beautiful to be with my friends and plant something and see it grow.”


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