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Workers’ control

A ground-breaking radical online newspaper, and how it put its values into practice in the workplace.

The theory of participatory economics (see our interview with Michael Albert in PN 2530) provides a framework for creating a new kind of workplace in present-day market economies. Unlike some facets of the parecon vision, which may seem lofty and futuristic, the workplace model can to a great extent be immediately implemented. I say this with confidence because I have done it.

For four years, I, along with several coworkers, laboured in a parecon-based workplace to produce a daily, online news publication called The NewStandard.

Our particular project was a less-than-ideal laboratory for parecon. At its peak, when there were six of us, we worked from four different locations, which made communication challenging. We worked gruelling hours to meet daily publishing deadlines, leaving little time and energy for other aspects of our organisation. And the funding pressures of the new and alternative-media industries kept our publication on the financial brink.

Yet we found even this to be a rich environment in which to stave off hierarchy using the parecon fundamentals – balanced job complexes, participatory decision-making, and payment for effort and sacrifice.

We divided our work into four categories: managerial, content, administrative, and something we called “conmin”. Had we all been working in the same physical space, there would have been a janitorial category, but since we each worked from home, the messiness of our respective workplaces was not a collective concern.

The managerial category covered work related to decision-making. It included attending collective meetings, participating in email discussions, serving on decision-making committees, and other forms of coordination and management that involved policy-related decision-making.

The content category included tasks associated with creating and publishing: reporting, editing, website development, etc. Since this work became the public face of our organisation and required a high skill level, we considered it very empowering.

Administrative work included most of the behind-the-scenes tasks: bookkeeping, answering email, providing technical support to website users, opening the snail mail, answering the phone, cutting and pasting website text or computer code, taking meeting notes, etc.

Finally, the conmin category was something we created to encompass tasks that were less desirable than most content work, but more empowering than most administrative work. This was not one of our original categories, but we created it out of necessity to acknowledge that some tasks carry empowerment with them, but are nonetheless tedious. This category included activities like writing text for our fundraising drives, fact-checking, and putting together our member newsletter.

When we divided up work, we tried to make sure that each staffer was assigned roughly the same number of hours of each kind of work. It didn’t always come out equal, but we tried to address inequities by rotating tasks when possible and assigning new or temporary tasks according to who was low on certain types of work.

Organised anarchy

We arrived at decisions using a variety of democratic methods. When a decision had a large impact on our organisation, we required consensus, which to us meant that everyone actively accepted the decision. We also limited the circumstances in which members could block consensus to those in which a member felt a decision constituted a radical departure from the mission or core values of the organisation or the decision would pose a moral dilemma unacceptable to the blocker.

When the impact on the organisation was smaller and removed from the realm of morality and core values, we employed a voting method. Sometimes we used simple majority (four out of six votes, for instance), and sometimes we required a supermajority (five out of six votes).

Dissent was always recorded in our meeting notes, even when dissenters eventually accepted an outcome.

To better comply with the principles of parecon, we also sometimes used “proportional input”, to account for the disparate impact a decision might have on one or more staff members. When using a voting method, individual staffers were assigned additional votes based on how much the decision would impact them.

Accountability

Any staff member could ask for an accountability meeting about another staffer. At the meeting, the problematic behaviour would be described in detail and the negative impacts on individuals or the organisation would be listed. Staffers would then decide if the violation was mild, medium or severe. For mild violations, staffers could ask the violator to write an “owning up letter” to the rest of the collective. For medium violations, there were several options, including prescribing a course of restitution (like extra work to make up for the extra work caused to someone else).

For the most severe violations, the collective could, among other things, decide to take away decision-making power specific to the offence.

All full-time staff members of The NewStandard were paid the same salary, regardless of seniority. With our freelance journalists, we got pretty close to a system for payments based on effort and sacrifice. We made a list of the different kinds of work entailed in writing news articles and then we assigned a dollar value to each. Conducting a full interview with a source was worth $20, while reading a document (like a court transcript) was valued at $10.

We set up an online system so that, after publication of an article, a journalist could log on through our website and fill out an invoice which would be reviewed by an editor and adjusted accordingly.

For those of us who worked at TNS, it was life-changing. Those who had never even heard of parecon before joining our collective quickly adapted to it and became devotees.

Jessica Azulay will be talking about TNS at the Rebellious Media Conference in October. For a longer version of this article, please see Jessica Azulay’s essay in Chris Spannos ed., Real Utopia: Participatory Society for the 21st Century, AK Press 2008.

Topics: Media