“So often, I think, progressive organizations or businesses are justâ€¦theyâ€™re marginalized or you know, ‘Oh, they can’t succeed. They can’t make it happen. You can’t mix ethics with business,’ and that sort of thing, or that you can’t financially sustain an organization that works on progressive politics. And I think proving that wrong is important.”
Albert Street is where Winnipegâ€™s Old Market Autonomous Zone (A-Zone) has been located since 1996. The A-Zone is home to three collectively run businesses that operate under an alternative economic model called Participatory Economics (parecon for short).
Parecon was developed over the past decade by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel as a vision for a more humane economy to replace contemporary capitalism. Its guiding values are: “equity, solidarity, diversity, and participatory self management.” The key vehicles to attain such an economy are: “council democracy, balanced job complexes, remuneration according to effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning.” ( http://www.parecon.org )
This vision has inspired the businesses in the A-Zone as they operate non-hierarchically through consensus-based meetings and committees. In addition, all the workers share a balance of the creative, empowering work with the shit work. These three parecon businesses are Mondragon Bookstore & Coffeehouse, which carries only vegan food and progressive/radical literature, Natural Cycle, which is a bike shop and courier service, and G7 Welcoming Committee Records, the political punk label started by Propagandhi.
I visited the A-Zone on Albert Street in October and had the opportunity to sit down with Derek and Lorna of G7 and talk to them about what theyâ€™re about and how it all worksâ€¦
Question: How does G7 Welcoming Committee Records differ from other independent labels in terms of the decision making process and the workplace structure?
Derek: A few differences between G7 and other labels isâ€¦thereâ€™s a lot of labels that do release a lot of political music and that sort of thing, but there’s not a lot of other labels that make that their specific goal or their stated purpose to do exactly that. Which I think is unique in that we look for that in every project that we put out. And also the organization is, whereas other labels or just businesses in generalâ€¦they may advance progressive ideas but the structure of the actual organization is in no way a progressive structure. So it’ll be replicating a top-down kind of capitalist structure that would be the same kind of structure that would be in any corporation that the organization may be opposed to but they replicate the same thing internally. So at G7 we’re all equal partners, weâ€™re all equal owners, we all have an equal decision making process, we all make the same amount of money and thereâ€™s no division based on how long weâ€™ve been here or how muchâ€¦what our skill or knowledge level is doesnâ€™t determine our compensation or ability to make decisions.
Lorna: Yeah, and just if we’re putting out political music and explicitly that then it makes sense that the organization would be that as well. It’s not run with hierarchies and usual forms of sexism and racism. So it seems to just make sense to run that way.
Q: Can you talk more in detail about the workplace structure? Do you guys specifically incorporate parecon into the way you run things or is there still some sort of division between what people do for work?
D: I think there’s theory and practice a little bit still. Basically, our goal is to incorporate parecon, or our own version of parecon, the best way we can. And itâ€™s kind of a work in progress all the time. In a way itâ€™s a difficult thing and you find in a small business that often the most pressing thing to happen isâ€¦things have to get done very quickly sometimes. So often in those scenarios the people who are most familiar with those things will just be the first ones to do them because the prime importance of the success of the band or whatever project is happening is the imminent accomplishment of a certain thingâ€¦In terms of spreading the labor out between people more and more when it’s not so urgent, when it’s not so imminent for the next time things are coming up people can be more comfortable doing different tasks.
L: And teaching new skills.
D: There are certain tasks that are easy enough for everybody to share equally, that you can just pick up very quickly. But other things, when you get to creative concepts or crunching numbers and accounting and stuff like that sometimes people need a lot of training or they need to get familiar with the idea or a certain concept before performing it competently at a level that can be maintained with the standard that the label has. Itâ€™s just a matter of slowly getting people trained like that. Recently weâ€™ve had two new people come on just in the past month or so. Thatâ€™s a fresh opportunity as well for us to get people involved in all different aspects soâ€¦
L: But even just thinking about parecon, it’s a theory itself so there’s different ways that businesses can run within parecon. Like the cafÃ© downstairs that I worked at for six years until a couple months ago. The goal there is that everyone has a very similar job complex or the same one really so now there’s committees where you take turns doing accounting and promotional stuff, and everyone works in the kitchen and does orders and that kind of thing. But other workplaces that run on parecon have more specialized tasks. For instance I’ve been doing, I’d say, the bulk of accounting stuff for a few years [at G7] which doesnâ€™t actually run contrary to that as long as I feel that I’m getting an equal share of creative tasks and doing some drudge work or whatever, if I feel interested in the work, you know?
Q: Do you think that the limitation of tasks here compared to the cafÃ©/bookstore, for example, has created a division of labor?
L: I don’t think there is really a limit of tasks at G7. There is definitely a limit of obvious tasks. That’s different from working at Mondragon, because work there is basically fuelled by customer demand. Someone’s at the counter, soup needs to be poured, tomorrow’s special needs to be made. It’s different at G7, because the only immediate and outwardly obvious tasks are the phone ringing and the mail order that has come in. But really, there is a virtually endless list of tasks that we can do. Now we’re developing committees to train each other in our particular skills. As we do this, and become more comfortable with the different work, we’re able to see other tasks that would make the label function better. So, we’re working on marketing and promotion stuff more, helping bands with tours, etc.
Q: But in terms of parecon, what does it mean to have a more formal division of tasks within this model?
L: There is division of labor in all of these businesses. We labor under the same structure that Mondragon does. Not everyone there is trained in all aspects of the job, but it is something that people are working toward (not everyone knows accounting, food ordering, or marketing, but these are committees they will rotate on to eventually). There are many types of collectives that are working on parecon and collective principles. South End Press is considered a parecon business and it doesnâ€™t function in the same way that Mondragon or G7 does. There, division of labor is part of how their businesses work, but what makes them (and us) collectives is that they strive to give each person a balanced job complex. One person doesn’t get all the glory work, and another all the shit.
Q: So, having a somewhat formal division of labor doesn’t impede G7’s goal of having a participatory workplace?
L: Obviously we have a participatory workplace. What makes it participatory is not the committees that we are each on, which are rotating, but that we are contributing in different ways to our own workplace. We all are responsible for decision-making, and are in charge of where we’re going from here. No manager, no one here has more say than any one else. It’s very equal. No minions.
Q: What is your relationship with the other groups in the A-Zone? What are your visions for the A-Zone in general?
D: Well I think ideally the building would be filled with different groups and businesses that were related on similar levelsâ€¦
D: Politically, yeah. And also, hopefully have it as an example. Have it in working order enough so that it can be an example of something that can work in this fashion. So often, I think, progressive organizations or businesses are justâ€¦theyâ€™re marginalized or you know, “Oh, they can’t succeed. They can’t make it happen. You can’t mix ethics with business,” and that sort of thing, or that you can’t financially sustain an organization that works on progressive politics. And I think proving that wrong is important.
For more info: http://www.g7welcomingcommittee.com
Matt Dineen is an activist, writer and student at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Matt Dineen
News Service: TheExperiment