At Common Wealth Printing and Collective Copies UE Members Work Without Bosses ... and love it.
Working without bosses, UE members at two shops in western Massachusetts have only themselves to blame — and reward.
Collective Copies in Amherst and Common Wealth Printing in Hadley are both worker-owned enterprises. And the worker-owners of both businesses proudly pay dues to amalgamated UE Local 264, based in Holyoke.
Collective Copies wasn’t always collectively-owned. Formerly part of a chain, the photo-copy shop workforce wrote its first chapter in UE history back in the early 1980s.
At what was then Gnomon Copies, "working conditions were terrible, the pay was low, there were no benefits and no job security," recalls Stephen Roy. To improve their conditions, workers organized into UE in mid-1982. "We tried to negotiate but got virtually nowhere," Roy tells us. "Gnomon kept putting us off, hoping we’d go away. Just before September we went on strike."
The strike lasted through the fall. In December, Gnomon workers won their first union contract. But their victory was short-lived: "Two weeks later, the landlord evicted Gnomon."
A BOLD IDEA
The new UE members had a bold idea — keep the business going, but under very different ownership. After all, Roy observes, "we’re the ones who were actually running the business."
Workers got a start-up loan, bought machines and rented a second-floor space above a bookstore. In early 1983 Collective Copies was in business. An innovative pre-paid copy plan helped raise needed funds for equipment.
Fifteen years later, "we’re doing great!" enthuses Roy, the most senior of the eight worker-owners. Now in its third location, Collective Copies is finally in a ground-floor storefront. Every move has brought expansion.
"We work really, really hard, but we are working for ourselves, not for someone else," explains Roy. "We give ourselves good pay and good benefits!"
Responsibility is shared and decisions made by consensus. On the second Wednesday of every month, the worker-owners close up the shop for three hours for deliberations. "We decide what we need to do, and then try to do it," Roy says.
Job security is fairly high, since no one member has the power to unilaterally fire another. The two non-members currently at Collective Copies are serving a six-month apprenticeship; they share in the profits but not the decision-making. If they survive the apprenticeship, they will become full members.
After 15 years Roy sees only benefits and no real disadvantages to collective ownership. "Some of our decisions might be made more slowly. That’s not a big disadvantage," he points out; "if it’s a big decision we want to give it more thought."
Collective Copies celebrated its 15th anniversary and workers everywhere with a May Day festival and an "Unstrike." The store’s doors closed as collective members hosted — and enjoyed — a festival on Amherst Common with free food and music and booths that introduced the community to unions, cooperatives and non-profit organizations.
Some Collective Copies customers are referrals from Common Wealth Printing, in business for nearly 16 years as a worker-owned enterprise. The highly competitive, technology-driven nature of the printing business has given Common Wealth a somewhat different history and structure.
Routine, day-to-day decisions are made by supervisors or the front office. Weekly meetings of the 10 worker-owners tackle business questions, investment decisions or personnel matters. Decisions are made by majority vote, not consensus.
New hires have a year-long apprenticeship before they are asked to join the cooperative. "Joining the cooperative gives them a vote in the decision-making process and a share in the profits, if there are any, and an opportunity to lose a paycheck if we’re not doing well — employees have to be paid," explains Diane Brawn, pressroom supervisor.
Common Wealth’s worker-owners recently voted to reduce their wages by 25 cents to $10.75 an hour, points out office worker (and board president) Peter Thews.
"Printing is becoming capital intensive and technologically advanced," says press operator Ed Rayher. "It’s a highly competitive, risky kind of business. That puts a lot of pressure on the group to perform efficiently in the marketplace — and that contributes to tension."
"It’s not always easy to assemble a group of people who work well independently," says Brawn. "Some people work better in a highly structured environment where you have a boss telling you what to do."
Brawn, who came to Common Wealth twelve and a half years ago with nearly a decade’s experience in printing, has to struggle to remember what it was like both to have a boss hovering over her and to be kept in the dark about business decisions.
"It’s a very empowering thing to be able to work with other people and move a company in the direction you want to go in, to have discussions about how much harder do we want to work, do we want to move ahead," Brawn says. "If the company goes under, maybe it goes under because of bad decision-making, but at least they were our decisions."
Rayher agrees. "I enjoy the ability to have input into the company. It’s like owning your own business. We have a lot of control over the quality of our lives."
The downside, he says, "is that in a small cooperative the conflict of personalities can be quite a problem. There is no authority to appeal to except for ourselves."
The advantages and disadvantages are the same, Brawn points out.
"You have to give up an extra portion of your life to running the business and coming up with creative ideas," she says. "You don’t just go in and have somebody say to you, ‘here’s your work,’ and you finish it and walk out at 4. It goes beyond that."
THE CHALLENGES OF FREEDOM
On the other hand, Brawn continues, "people create their own hours. If it’s a really incredibly sunny, beautiful day and you can afford to take the time off, there’s no problem if you leave two hours early, as long as your work is done.
"There’s a hell of a lot of freedom," Brawn says. "But it takes a hell of a lot of discipline to make the company work. It’s a real challenge. Who wouldn’t rather be lying out in a field of daisies than be in a pressroom?"
Thews, who juggles a myriad of business details in the front office while trying to locate new customers, is sold on the idea of worker ownership, despite the headaches. He came to Common Wealth Printing in 1982 after a stint with a worker-owned produce trucking firm. "There are sacrifices, but I spend more time with my family," he says. "I have a vote, I have power that I would never have working for someone else."
That’s a power that can be used for good, he believes. "Although we have to watch the bottom line, we can focus on doing what we can to meet individual workers’ needs. There are times when we probably should have laid off people. But we have a pro-worker mentality, not a corporate mentality. This brings its own complications — it’s easier in a standard workplace with a boss who’s a jerk and hands out pink slips.
"As a result, we’re not as efficient as we could be," Thews admits. "Maybe we spend too much time in meetings, but that’s democracy."
Customers are satisfied, Thews adds. Common Wealth’s prices are generally competitive. "We probably don’t make as much money as we should, but we’re nicer. Our customers like us because of that," Thews suggests.
SUPPORTING THE UNION
Without bosses, collective bargaining or grievances, why belong to the union?
Although a UE member for 12 years, Diane Brawn’s direct association with the union began in recent years when she looked for guidance on a benefits issue. Today she is a president of amalgamated UE Local 264, represents her local at District Two Council meetings, represented her national union in Mexico and attended the recent Organizing School.
UE is an important source of information and guidance, she says.
"We support the labor movement by paying union dues," says Thews. "Some of our customers are here because we are a union shop. If anything we feel guilty because we don’t put as much energy as we might into labor issues."
Both shops use a UE labor bug on their products.
"Worker ownership and the labor movement have a lot in common — they’re all about empowering workers," stresses Stephen Roy.
"It’s important for us to be part of UE, in solidarity with UE," Roy tells, standing in front of signs at the May Day festival emphasizing Collective Copies’ link to the labor movement.
"Because we’re worker owned, we see it as really important to be a part of the labor movement, to be part of a great union like UE," Roy says. "We’re really proud to be members!"