It’s debate watch party night at Democracy Brewing in February, and as presidential candidates take the stage to sports-star hype introductions, the politics fans at this European-style beer hall are getting rowdy, like Patriots fans when Tom Brady takes the field. The biggest cheers come from two waiters when they see Bernie Sanders—the candidate who would most approve of the way their workplace is organized.
Democracy isn’t just a clever theme at this 2-year-old brewpub. The beer names hint at the business’ mission: the Worker’s Pint blonde ale and the 1919 Strike stout. The beer coasters explain it. “Democracy Brewing is all about two American ideals,” they read: “Democracy, and owning your own business.” The brewpub, which opened on Independence Day 2018, is a worker-owned cooperative—and an innovative program at Boston’s City Hall, the Worker Cooperative Initiative, helped it get started.
James Rasza, the brewery’s co-founder and CEO, says Democracy Brewing was created as a “public house” in the British tradition, “one that could really build community, because Boston has become more and more transient.” A former labor organizer, Rasza says he also wanted to “showcase solutions to people’s work life”—to give workers a stake in the company, a say in how their workplace is run, and at least $15 per hour. “It seemed like being a public house that brewed our own beer and made great food was a good way to showcase that to the public, while also really creating good value for the public,” he says—“not just in food and beverage, but also hopefully something deeper.”
The city of Boston’s Worker Cooperative Initiative helped Democracy Brewing launch by lending it $150,000, and by paying a contractor to create a credit memo about the business’ prospects. “It’s a huge chunk of what made it possible for us to open our doors,” Rasza says. He credits the credit memo with helping the brewery raise much of its $1.8 million startup capital.
Boston launched the co-op initiative in late 2017 through its Economic Mobility Lab. The goal, says Jason Ewas, who was head of the Worker Cooperative Initiative and the Economic Mobility Lab until last month, is to help workers build wealth. That’s important as a response to gentrification in Boston, which often ranks as the nation’s third- or fourth-most expensive city for housing and has a huge wealth gap between black and white residents.
“One of the main drivers of wealth is business ownership,” says Ewas. “What this does is it multiplies radically, if it’s at scale, the number of business owners.” Research suggests that employee-owned companies, from co-ops to companies with employee stock ownership plans, tend to be more resilient during an economic downturn, Ewas notes, laying off fewer people and going out of business less often than traditional companies.