BERKELEY -- Businesses experiencing hard times are often on their own to face cutthroat marketplace competition.

But that wasn't the case when Inkworks Press, a 40-year-old collective print shop, found itself unable to rebound from the recession. Facing an uncertain future, Inkworks got support from the Cheese Board, itself a Berkeley collective since 1971.

In early March, the Cheese Board finalized the purchase of Inkworks' building on Seventh Street in southwest Berkeley and leased the building back to the print shop for two years, allowing the printers time to plot out their future.

Getting help from the Cheese Board "feels so right," said founding Inkworks member Erica Braun, noting commitments of both collectives to workplace democracy and the "stewardship of community resources."

Howie Epstein operates machinery at Inkworks Press, which got a reprieve when its building was purchased by the Cheese Board and leased back to the
Howie Epstein operates machinery at Inkworks Press, which got a reprieve when its building was purchased by the Cheese Board and leased back to the printing collective for two years.

"To me, the supportive energy and shared sense of values is kind of similar to our beginnings," Braun said.

Inkworks' founders didn't see themselves primarily as printers entering a joint business venture, but as activists who learned the printing trade in order to create newsletters, pamphlets and posters for community and progressive causes. The collective likewise believes in a unionized and worker-controlled workplace.

These ideals are evidenced today in the lobby at Inkworks, where pamphlets on reproductive rights and green values are displayed near some of Inkworks' celebrated posters, one proclaiming "No human being is illegal," and another, "I am Trayvon."


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Collective decision-making, especially on complex issues such as addressing the downturn in business, can be "a long and arduous process," said Nobuo Nishi, a collective member since 1981. Such decisions are made by a supermajority of the 11 members, with dissenters coming to accept the decision. Decisions are not "ramrodded through," Nishi said.

The decision to sell the building they'd owned since 1987 came after several years of losses. The recession "was probably the dramatic turning point for us," Nishi said. "We weren't ready when the bottom fell out in 2009."

Grendl Löfkvist at Inkworks Press, which received support from the Cheese Board, a fellow collective in Berkeley.
Grendl Löfkvist at Inkworks Press, which received support from the Cheese Board, a fellow collective in Berkeley.

The recession hit Inkworks' nonprofit clients at the same time that technology made it easy for them to switch from printed materials to websites and online newsletters.

The economic downturn, however, didn't bankrupt the business. "We survived because we have a very loyal customer base and collective members willing to make a number of sacrifices to keep the business afloat," Nishi said. Sacrifices included agreeing to a pay period without salary and a pay cut.

Inkworks was able to upgrade its machinery and business improved, but not enough to dig the operation out of its financial hole, Nishi said.

And so, about a year ago, members began to explore selling the 8,000-square-foot, mostly paid-for building, and relocating to a smaller space with a more modern, more efficient and smaller operation.

They didn't have a future clearly mapped out last spring when collective members started talking casually to Cheese Board friends about selling the building. That led to more formal discussions within each collective about the Cheese Board buying the building.

All 50 Cheese Board members toured the property before approving the purchase. Smaller committees met to discuss details of the sale.

"I think the lawyers were shocked," said Cathy Goldsmith, community liaison (as well as baker, dough maker and more) with the Cheese Board. "Nobody was looking to out-deal someone. We just wanted the deal to be fair and equitable, so they could find a new way to move on."

This isn't the first time the Cheese Board has supported other worker collectives. It helped spawn the five Arizmendi bakeries, training workers, helping with financing and even giving them their recipes. The Cheese Board and each Arizmendi bakery are independent collectives linked through the Arizmendi Association of Co-operatives.

The Cheese Board collective doesn't know what it will do with the Seventh Street property once Inkworks moves on. It could become a warehouse for various collectives, co-op housing, baking space, or perhaps a day care for collective members, Goldsmith said.

And as the Inkworks presses continue to turn, the printing collective will be deliberating on how to reinvent itself, "perhaps collaborating with the artists-activists that we print for," Braun said, adding, "It's really great that the Cheese Board stepped up. It gives us time to restructure and explore the future in a supportive environment."

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