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Collective Copies Celebrates 20 Years!
By Jessica Gordon Nembhard, coordinating editor, GEO Newsletter

Collective Copies opened in March 1983 in Amherst, Massachusetts. It is a worker-owned, collectively managed, unionized copy center. The original six worker-owners had been employees of Gnomon Copies. In mid-1982 Gnomon’s employees in Amherst unionized to address intolerable working conditions and that summer they went on strike. Community members joined the picket lines, boycotted the shop, and kept the issue alive. The strike and boycott were successful in great part because of both the workers’ stamina and very strong support from the community. At the end of the six-month long strike, however, Gnomon was evicted from its storefront and left town. Six former employees decided to open their own worker-owned copy shop. They pooled their resources—mostly knowledge, experience, energy and commitment—and secured the necessary loans.

Collective Copies has grown every year, more than doubled its size and space, bought its own equipment, digitized the business, opened a second store (in Florence, MA), while continueing to give back to the community (at least 10% of profits annually), and to practice collective management and consensus decision-making. Its successful story is a wonderful one that includes all the elements of self-management and the cooperative commonwealth about which GEO so often writes.

Below is a brief interview with Steve Strimer, a worker-owner of Collective Copies for the past six years, who sums up the co-op’s accomplishments and current status. The accompanying box provides excerpts from a paper by Benjamin Turner written while he was a student at Hampshire College in 1999 titled, Collective Copies: An Exercise in Workplace Democracy.

Steve Strimer Reflects on Collective Copies

GEO: Please give our readers your reflections on where the company has come, lessons learned, and where it is going,

Steve: When I came on in 1997 I was worker-owner #7. We are now at fourteen members. In ‘97 we were doing the bulk of our copying on two antique Xerox 8200 analog machines from the 80’s with only one analog color machine. We now have a second shop, four networked color machines, and own two Xerox DocuTech digital copiers. Close to half our work is being printed from digital files. That is real change and it’s been a challenge to keep pace with both the production and interpersonal problems that have arisen. I am proud of our response as a group.

GEO: How does it feel to be a member of a successful collective or cooperative?

Steve: Once I became part of a worker-coop (Common Wealth Printing back in 1979), I knew that I could no longer work in any other environment. I could no more work for a boss than be the boss of somebody else. Fortunately for me, the worker co-op model was understood and supported in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. Now support and viability are to be found across the nation. When the recent Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy (ECWD) conference was over, a thought returned to my mind. The IWW wanted to create one big union and the feeling I have, now that so much good networking is going on, is that of being a member, and owner, of one big cooperative company that is trying its best to benefit its workers, the community, and the world.

GEO: What are the most important things our readers and others should know about CC?

Steve: At Collective Copies we do great work, together as one group. There is no boss, nor even a manager. Our process is one of constant, uninterrupted collaboration. We try to have a lot of fun while doing what needs to be done.

GEO: Tell us about the challenges of being a worker-owned copy center.

Steve: Copying has changed as much as any industry in the last five years. It used to be you’d throw the originals in the document feeder and go. Resisting the creation of a hierarchical environment based on different levels of computer and technical skills is a great challenge. As a business we need to cultivate the talents and skills of each worker. If some skills are intrinsically more valuable to the bottom line of the business, we must find ways to preserve our equality in spite of that fact. As a worker-owner you make a commitment to show up each day and dedicate yourself for eight hours to your co-workers, the customers, and your own development whatever your skill level, talents or experience.

GEO: How do you think Collective Copies is poised for the future?

Steve: In the face of massive budget cuts statewide and at the University of Massachusetts [one of their biggest clients] in particular, we need to look at new markets to maintain sales volume, which is the same as saying, “to preserve jobs we must do active sales promotion.” Bidding on the state contracts, exploring print-on-demand, and networking with the movement—especially unions and worker cooperatives—is our concentration. Fortunately costs are under control giving us the resources to do the sales. Having these fundamentals in place will allow us to perform the wider community service part of our mission.

Interviewer’s Note: Many thanks to Steve Strimer for his time and the many materials he passed on to me; and to the members of Collective Copies for all their hard work and dedication to “getting it right.” For more information see http://www.collectivecopies.com/; also see “A Working Life Beyond Bosses” at www.ranknfile-ue.org/uen_ueprint.html.

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