Commentary :: Worker-Owned Café Offers Local Food, Space to Talk


In a world structured on hierarchy, infused with inequality, and dominated by elites, progressive politics has to focus on what needs to be torn down. But just as important is the process of building alternatives to replace this exploitative system. What kinds of institutions can meet human needs rather than serve the power-and-profit desires of the few?

When we’re honest about the depth and scope of the problems we face today—when we abandon the fantasies that market forces or politicians will lead us to the promised land—these building projects become even more important.

Here in Austin, Texas, we’re involved in one such experiment. Although in its infancy, we write about it both to suggest others consider similar projects and to solicit feedback from those who have been successful in such endeavors. In planning a worker-owned-and-operated café that would be the nucleus of a progressive social center, we recognize that others in the cooperative movement have been where we are now.

Austin prides itself on its commitment to locally owned businesses, socially conscious consumerism, and progressive politics. Our hope is that “Piqueteros” (a name drawn from the movement of un- and under-employed workers in Argentina) will embody all of these qualities and more through a worker-owned-and-operated café—one of the few operating in the United States, and the first of its kind in Austin. Over the past decade, a network of worker-run businesses has emerged in Austin, including a recycling center, thrift store, brew-pub, and bookstore. Piqueteros seeks to complement this growing movement of cooperative enterprises.

Our goal is to offer wholesome food at the lowest price possible using local and seasonal ingredients, but we will also provide a community space for people to raise awareness about the pressing issues of our day. Though it may sound hokey to those who don’t know the history of ordinary people’s struggles for dignity (that is, to those who believe the capitalist story that says we need corporations to be productive), we strive to be a successful example of ethical, non-hierarchical business, building on the energy and passion of fellow workers and of the surrounding community.

Worker self-management offers a powerful alternative to the exploitation, hierarchy, and greed of corporate management systems. While capitalism systematically undermines the ability of employees to participate in workplace decisions, worker co-ops—owned and operated by the workers themselves—allow us to practice direct democracy and nurture our human capacity for self-governance.

We have much work to do to make Piqueteros a reality. But it is such work that has helped create a more progressive world in the past and can animate our politics in the present.

When we critique capitalism, people often respond with a reasonable question: What system would you put in its place? No one should pretend to have a fully worked out economic system that we can just take off the shelf and apply. A just and sustainable economy will be built, not imposed. Experiments such as Piqueteros are part of that construction project.

Robert Jensen and Carlos Pérez de Alejo wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Robert is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Carlos is a community organizer and independent journalist based in Austin. Photos of Robert Jensen and Carlos Pérez de Alejo
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