At Common Wealth
And Collective Copies
UE Members Work Without Bosses ...
... and love it.
Collective Copies workers celebrate 15 years of worker ownership and UE
membership with an 'unstrike' and May Day festival on Amherst Common.
Have Printing Needs?
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Common Wealth Printing
can be reached at 413-584-2535 by telephone, 413-584-6495 by fax or e-mail
Their web site can be found at:
Collective Copies can be reached
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 wasnt always collectively-owned. Formerly part of
a chain, the photo-copy shop workforce wrote its first chapter in UE history back in the
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 wed 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, "were 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, "were 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
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. Thats
not a big disadvantage," he points out; "if its 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 stores 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
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 were not doing well employees have to be paid," explains
Diane Brawn, pressroom supervisor.
Ed Rayher, printer, is a worker-owner at Common Wealth Printing.
Common Wealths worker-owners recently voted to reduce their
wages by 25 cents to $10.75 an hour, points out office worker (and board president) Peter
"Printing is becoming capital intensive and technologically
advanced," says press operator Ed Rayher. "Its 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."
"Its 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
decades 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.
"Its 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.
Its like owning your own business. We have a lot of control over the quality of our
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
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 dont just go
in and have somebody say to you, heres 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 its a really incredibly sunny, beautiful day and you can afford to take the time
off, theres no problem if you leave two hours early, as long as your work is done.
"Theres a hell of a lot of freedom," Brawn says. "But
it takes a hell of a lot of discipline to make the company work. Its a real
challenge. Who wouldnt rather be lying out in a field of daisies than be in a
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."
Thats 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
its easier in a standard workplace with a boss whos a jerk and hands
out pink slips.
"As a result, were not as efficient as we could be," Thews
admits. "Maybe we spend too much time in meetings, but thats democracy."
Customers are satisfied, Thews adds. Common Wealths prices are
generally competitive. "We probably dont make as much money as we should, but
were nicer. Our customers like us because of that," Thews suggests.
SUPPORTING THE UNION
Local 264 President Diane Brawn and Peter Thews are long-time members
of the Common Wealth Printing workers' cooperative.
Without bosses, collective bargaining or grievances, why belong to
Although a UE member for 12 years, Diane Brawns 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
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 dont 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
theyre all about empowering workers," stresses Stephen Roy.
"Its 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 were 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.
"Were really proud to be members!"
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