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Iron Roots Co-op

Iron Roots Co-Operative is now fundraising to secure a brick and mortar location in Madison. Worker Justice Wisconsin and Iron Roots have a unique connection: The founders of Iron Roots met through Worker Justice Wisconsin (WJW) after experiencing wage theft and mistreatment at each of their respective workplaces. Thanks to the hard work of the founders as well as help from the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition (MCDC), Iron Roots is now ready to put down roots, so to speak, in their first location. WJW spoke to one of the founders, Chaz, about the process of forming a co-operative restaurant and why it’s so necessary for workers. 



Chaz: The reason we’re all coming together to start this co-op is because there is a plethora of exploitation in the restaurant industry, such as discrimination based on race or sex. Another issue is ‘’golden carrots’ being used to motivate employees when the goal is extremely difficult to complete. We will be as transparent as possible so that employees know exactly what they are getting into without the problem of false promises. Everyone involved with this project has worked in restaurants and has experienced being taken advantage of via overworked hours, underpay, wage theft, and empty promises for advancement.

As a Restaurant Co-op we will be getting rid of the idea of a tipping wage and we will start all staff off with a fair living wage. Due to us being a co-op, all staff members are owners, which gives them an equal voice in the direction of the restaurant and how it operates. As our business becomes profitable every employee will receive some of the profit, which will encourage strong work efforts as everyone gets a piece of the pie. We will also strive to allow our employees plenty of time to focus on their and their families’ lives, something overlooked by many corporations in today’s industry.

Everyone involved with this project has worked in restaurants and has experienced being taken advantage of via overworked hours, underpay, wage theft, and empty promises for advancement."

Chaz Keeley, co-founder of Iron Roots

How did you choose the name Iron Roots?

We chose the name name Iron Roots is because when I first hear the word ‘cooperative,’ I think of a tree. Just like a tree, the deeper and wider the roots grow, the taller and stronger the tree. I want our cooperative to have a strong foundation so we threw the word iron in, hence Iron Roots.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as founders of Iron Roots Cooperative? How did you overcome it?

There have been many challenges that came up, especially with Covid. But I think the hardest thing was finding the right 5 people with the right skill and mindset for this project to be on the board. When we started this, there were 8 of us then within 1 year of working on Iron Roots co-op a lot of them drifted off, leaving just Mat and I. I was able to find new people but they had more money on their mind or they were too worried to take a risk like this (which I understood). But I was looking for people who were crazy enough to change the food industry, who shared the same ideals I had, who wanted to build a company that truly believes in equality–equal opportunities that see people not as a workforce but as investment for a better tomorrow. In the end, I reached out to all the great talent I worked with in the past for other restaurant companies and to one of my role models: my brother. In the end I found a team that was crazy enough to make a change in how restaurants can be run: myself, Mathew Maierle, Kenneth Roche, Zach Keeley (my brother), and Jaxon Muzik. 

It reminded me of this: ‘The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.’ – Steve Jobs

How did MCDC and Worker Justice Wisconsin help you along the way?

It all started with Worker Justice Wisconsin two years ago. I was asked to attend a Worker Co-op workshop to learn more about what a co-op is.* So I brought Mat and a few others with me. We were introduced to Charity from MCDC who has been educating, advising, and connecting us to new people to help us along the way. To be honest, if it was not for Charity Schmidt and MCDC we would have never gotten this far.

If supporters are unable to donate to your GoFundMe, what’s another way they can support you?

Word of mouth is always the best advertising so just tell your friends and family. Besides that make sure to stop by and try our menu when we are open!

 

Integrating co-op development into our work furthers our ultimate mission: living wages and benefits, dignified jobs and a voice in the workplace, and the recognition of workers’ rights.
Rebecca Meier-Rao
Rebecca Meier-Rao
Executive Director, Worker Justice Wisconsin

*Thanks to a partnership with and grant from the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition, Worker Justice Wisconsin is able to hold educational sessions on worker cooperatives. Here, attendees can learn about the benefits and relevance of being a worker-owner as well as the resources available to them through MCDC.