Tuesday, October 11, 2005

My Socialist Experiment – A Tale of Give and Take Between Best Friends

Yes, it’s true, I have lived the dream! In the fall of 1979, I was officially admitted to a cooperative living arrangement at the “Hadley House”, a beat up, very charming old house in Hadley, Massachusetts, tucked between the academic burghs of Amherst and Norhtampton. The idea was to share household expenses and work while upholding the socialist and feminist ideals then in vogue with college students. A big influence locally was the University of Massachusetts economics department—one housemate, Michael Hilliard, was sprinting his way through the undergraduate program quickly and efficiently, bound for grad school, and ultimately the academic life (Michael is now an economics professor in Portland, Maine).

As a freshman, I had taken Economics 101 to fulfill a gut requirement at my father’s request. He had advised me to take some economics, accounting or management courses. Maybe he hoped I would major in business. Although I figured I was heading for the Art department, I indulged dad’s request. To my amazement, and ultimate delight, the professor was none other than Samuel Bowles, a brilliant proponent of economic justice who had been booted out of Harvard for his leftist leanings. The simplest fact about distribution of wealth in our society was news to me. Five percent of the people in this country own far more than 50% of the wealth, etc., etc. Stuff like that. It was the beginning of real-world awakening for a naïve suburban brat (me). After a couple weeks, dad asked me how the economics course was going. “My professor is a Marxist.” Great!

Back to Hadley House. There was room for five students. The idea was to keep the house balanced between male and female. So there would always be the slightly skewed three to two ratio. It was three women until I moved in, then it was always three guys until I moved out the following august, escaping to the west coast. I believe I was the first coop member who was not a worker at the student run veggie coop lunch restaurant in the UMass campus center called “Earth Foods”. I loved Earth Foods! You could get a huge lentil loaf and salad for two and a half bucks or something like that. Hippy Heaven! They had good veggie pizza too. I got a kick out of the serious, doctrinaire demeanor of the workers there.

Anyway, my “in” to Hadley House was my old pal Andy, who I’d known since we were ten years old. Andy was the funniest, craziest, crankiest person I knew. I didn’t like him either when we were first acquainted in fourth grade. But by sixth grade, we were tight because of our mutual love of Jack Kirby in particular and Marvel Comics in general. Andy is the guy who turned me onto Robert Crumb. He showed me Uneeda comics, one of the most frankly sexual comics Crumb has done. Sadly, I borrowed it from Andy and my dad confiscated it, never to return. But my brother, one year older, and I got quite a graphic eyeful from that comic as junior high students.

So the other members of the coop aren’t too sure about inviting ‘ol Steve to join the commune. Sure, I’m friends with Andy, but am I a vegetarian? No meat in Hadley House! Indeed, Fran (another Earth Foods alumnus) was against me coming in, as she didn’t know me and was suspicious. She was going through her own drama, and was on her way to living as a separatist feminist. You have to be voted into the house, and my commie vegetarian credentials are in serious doubt. After all, isn’t this the infamous campus cartoonist who drew a typical Joe college farting uncontrollably after eating lunch at Earth Foods? The same John Bircher who penned a cartoon making fun of Prof. Sam Bowles himself? Guilty, guilty, guilty! Except for the John Birch part. My entrance into Hadley House society came down to whether Andy could sway Michael into voting for me. He could. I was in.

Over the course of the next year, we cooked vegetarian, bought food from, and contributed labor to the Amherst Food Coop (my job was cutting the cheese, no lie!), and fought over which girls to vote into the house when an opening came up. Andy started dating someone named Jill, a smooth talking pre-law student, and stirred quite a brouhaha when she cooked him a chicken dinner in the house one night! Michael, Andy and I engaged in a cooperative transportation experiment when we bought our landlord Doron’s beat to shit Ford Pinto off him for $200.00 bucks, and took turns running out of gas. Michael did a good job handling the heating oil bill, while I failed with the phone bill, resulting in service being shut off. Andy and I were concerned to bring out Michael’s fun side (he was obsessed with his academic work and Hegelian theory), we made sure he ate an ever increasing amount of blotter acid as the year progressed! All in all, a really good time was had by all while we learned a bit about shared responsibility.

With this Marxist indoctrination behind me, I embarked on a socialist work experiment when I opened my screen printing shop in Oakland in the spring of ’87. I was coming off about a half year period where I had earned most of my living from my Dog Boy comics, then being published by Fantagraphics. As the so called “black & whites” comics market caved in that spring, I decided I better go back to screen printing T-shirts as a back up. But I didn’t want to give up my cartooning life, so I hit on the idea of taking on a production worker to run the press. I would concentrate on marketing the service and handling the logistics of producing the jobs, thus keeping a big part of my schedule open for drawing comics. My idea was that the press operator and I would split the profits 50/50 after expenses. That way, they would get a fair share of the fruits of their labor, while I would get a highly motivated individual to produce jobs for me. My reasoning was that the worker would do a good job, as they were making an owners share of the profit. The system worked, by and large, but to say that I was naïve about how it would work is an understatement.

I invited my friend Rolf, a promising painter, to join me and run the press. He did, and for eighteen years we have worked together, splitting the profits. We are now splitting up the assets of the shop, as I am moving to Portland and he will remain in Oakland. We have both consistently made decent money for the amount of work involved.

That being said, here is where I made my miscalculation. I expected Rolf would respond to the shared work/shared profits arrangement with the same enthusiasm I had. I did not recognize he would have a different idea than I of how the working world is organized. As I am someone who is not comfortable having a job, it’s hard for me to see that most people are not comfortable doing contract/freelance work. Being more risk averse than I, Rolf has maintained a permanent part time job throughout our business relationship. He prints shirts in the shop on Fridays, and will pull shifts in the early morning, and occasionally on weekends, when the shop gets very busy.

As the business grew, and Rolf maintained his part time job, it became necessary for me to operate the press on a regular basis. This bit into my cartooning time, subverting the reason I looked for help to begin with. Ultimately, I solved the problem by hiring other printers to work Monday through Thursday, leaving just enough room in my schedule to get some artwork done. This was tough also, as I couldn’t afford to offer anyone a truly steady job. Rolf was drawing just enough cash out of the business to prevent me funding a full job for another person.

I provided employment for Rolf that fairly compensated him for the services provided. Over the years since ’87, he’s averaged more than $50.00 / hour for his press work, not bad. As we dissolve our business relationship, he is walking away with more than a dozen viable accounts, a great client list to start on his own with. We have had bumps in the ride, negotiating the terms of our arrangement along the way, but we both worked hard and pulled decent money from the shop. I am proud of this, and I believe Rolf is too.

For my own part, it was frustrating to realize, a few years in, that Rolf was not going to evolve into a full time press operator, running all the jobs I sold. Indeed, he made it clear he did not like the work, considering screen printing physically demanding and rather nasty, what with the ink and solvent involved. While that is true enough, I had a production problem to solve. I had to step up to the plate and assume control over more and more production, until it was pretty much my show, with Rolf as an able adjunct in a more minor role.

Although it slowed my progress, being unable to afford a full time worker with Rolf in the picture, I remained loyal to him. As a friend, and as a matter of honoring my word, I didn’t feel it would be right to rescind my offer of part ownership in the business. I had to respect that Rolf was finding his own comfortable level of involvement. I have been conflicted over this. Part of me considers that I have learned valuable lessons in living and in human nature with my involvement in this business relationship, while part of me wonders, why did I sacrifice my time to honor this cooperative experiment that clearly didn’t pan out for me?

Certainly, I believe that it is in the best interest of my business to pay my press operator well and treat them with respect. However, when I move to Portland, I will be hiring a press operator rather that seeking a partner. My challenge will be to create a decent job for one person, and to be sure to serve my own needs at the same time. So, you ask, where the hell did Steve’s purported socialist ideals go??? Bottom line, I’ll say it again. I’m in the position to create one job, so my goal is to make it a decent one. What does that mean? First and maybe foremost, it means above average pay. Many shops try to pull too much profit out of their labor force. This results in a bad vibe amongst the troops. Why work hard when the boss is a greedy asshole? Indeed! So figure out what the industry average is in your town, and pay more. You will get more loyal workers who will do a better job. This helps foster a good esprit de corps, but it’s still the boss’ responsibility to set the tone of mutual respect and mutual integrity.

As for my socialist ideals, how about this list from the Green Party. It sounds good, it’d be a tall order to live up to it, but it’s sure worth a try:

Ten Key Values of the Green Party

1. Grassroots Democracy
2. Social Justice
3. Ecological Wisdom
4. Non-violence
5. Decentralization
6. Economic Justice
7. Gender Equity
8. Respect for Diversity
9. Personal & Global Responsibility
10. Future Focus & Sustainability

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