Black Bear Bakery is “dedicated to being a different kind of work place that allows its participants to be at the center of a worker-controlled environment.” The following was an interview between Andy Lucker and David Feldman, of Black Bear Bakery.
Andy: What is Black Bear Bakery?
David: Black Bear Bakery is a worker owned and operated collective bakery in south St. Louis.
How did Black Bear Bakery start?
Black Bear Bakery evolved out of the Lickhalter Bakery, which itself changed over the years. Lickhalter Bakery was started by Russian Jewish immigrants about a hundred years ago. In the mid-nineties, the owners at the time decided to give up on the business and in a surprising gesture of good will handed the business assets over to a handful of the employees for a nominal fee who had expressed interest in continuing the bakery as a collective enterprise. The bakery has existed under its current name, and current principles since 1997.
Are there any items on or off the menu that make it unique to other bakeries?
Lickhalter Bakery was known for its old world rye breads which Black Bear is proud to make to this day, using the same tried and true recipes. One aspect of the business that has come about in the past few years is the vegetarian cafe which features a healthy and affordable line of sandwiches, soups and other breakfast and lunch items.
How are decisions at the bakery made? Does that have a large effect on the items on your menu or other tangible examples?
Decisions at Black Bear are made based on consensus at weekly meetings. While individual workers make important day-to-day decisions as need be, decisions which affect the collective as a whole are made as a group. The collective members more skilled at food prep tend to come up with their own cafe menus independently of the rest of the collective. As with any job complex here, the collective as a whole is kept informed of new projects but generally individuals with some area of expertise are left to their own best judgment…
How are workers at Black Bear Bakery remunerated (compensated or paid) for their work?
Black Bear workers are all paid an equal hourly wage. In good times we might give ourselves a small raise. In worse times, collective members not struggling personally might forgo weekly pay so that others can pay their bills on time.
Has anyone ever suggested variations for remuneration?
We pretty much all agree that we deserve higher pay! Black Bear has made decisions recently with the intent of bringing in more steady income. Expanding our cafe hours is the best example of this. We’re fortunate to have very decent, very skilled collective members who love working without a taskmaster or a manager looking over their shoulders. Another benefit of a horizontal workplace model is that collective members who lack knowledge regarding a given job complex can be trained by their peers and not by someone with a vested interest in exploiting them.
A common libertarian criticism of previous socialist enterprises has been that capitalists were removed, but bosses stayed in place. Workers, then, could not manage their labor themselves, because someone else had a monopoly on knowledge, information, empowering tasks, and decision-making. How does Black Bear Bakery attempt to safeguard workers’ self-management against the potential of a new boss class?
"Safe-guarding against a new boss class" is an ongoing struggle in my opinion. Whether at Black Bear, some other collective or in society as a whole during a revolutionary period. I basically agree with the aforementioned criticism. I identify as an anarchist, therefore, I’m not interested in substituting a capitalist or managerial class with a bureaucratic structure with an inherent hierarchy, even if it claims to be acting in the benefit of some idealized "working class." On a practical level, Black Bear Bakery attempts to create an environment where individual workers are encouraged to take on new responsibilities and develop their own initiative by instilling a work ethic based on the fact that this business is in their hands and not in the hands of an elite group of owners. It’s not always easy but I think it’s infinitely preferable to working as a wage slave.
Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel propose "balanced job complexes" as part of their alternative model for a "participatory economy". They argue that some tasks socialize rote and obedient behavior, while others reproduce assertive decision-making; so workers need to rate and balance these among the workers, to ensure that participation is learned and encouraged among everyone. Does Black Bear Bakery do this? Have they considered it?
I’m fairly familiar with the PARECON movement and I think it’s totally compatible with the anarchist ethic. I’m sure everyone would agree that certain job tasks encourage critical thinking and enhance problem-solving skills and others, while necessary, can be completely uninspiring. I agree that rotating labor and creating "balanced job complexes" is a sound solution. On a societal level, I think that undesirable work should be shared by the community and performed on a rotating schedule so that no one has to do this sort of work exclusively. The rest of our time could be devoted to whatever our skills and passions dictate. This is predicated on destroying not just capitalism but also hierarchy. In the meantime, getting collectives up and going and keeping them running seems like the most practical strategy in confronting concentrated power in the world. The collective I work with tries very hard to maintain a workplace not governed by capitalist principles, even though we exist within a capitalist business framework. We’re not really in a position to undermine the larger business practices of Western capitalism. I’d like to think that our existence for over a decade as a workers’ collective could serve as inspiration for other like-minded folks in the area to get their own left-libertarian projects started…
As far as day-to-day operations go, we’re currently trying to set a concrete system in place so that our training process is more geared toward all collective members becoming acquainted with all job complexes. It’s difficult, although we’re trying…
Worker collectives can showcase workers’ self-management, as I think you have demonstrated Black Bear Bakery does. Is it the only way of furthering the cause of the worker class?
It seems to me that there’s an unfortunate tendency among many contemporary anarchists to label social movements as "reformist" and counter-productive. I agree in theory that single-issue activism is probably the wrong way to go about solving the world’s problems. I agree that capitalism can not be reformed and that we have to not just fight against it but also create viable alternatives. That being said, I’m not so quick to judge activists who put their heart and soul into movements that are more reform oriented. There are only so many hours in a day and everyone has to find their own calling. Someone working with a mainstream business union to gain benefits for working families is probably doing more helpful and beneficial work than a middle-class art student who sets a dumpster on fire at a protest…
I don’t want to be sectarian but I often find myself at odds with some of my comrades on this issue…
How does Black Bear Bakery hire people? How has it cultivate its politics among new workers?
Black Bear employees hire applicants and friends of current collective members as needed. It should be said that not everyone who works here is an avowed anarchist. We don’t force any views on collective members. In fact, many of the self-proclaimed anarchists here have different opinions on what anarchism is and should be…
Has Black Bear Bakery ever fired anyone?
I don’t believe Black Bear has ever fired anybody. It’s not outside the realm of possibility however. In my experience, workers who probably should be fired tend to leave on their own because of the dirty looks they get from the rest of us…haha.
What sort of unique events is Black Bear Bakery host to that wouldn’t be found at every other bakery?
I would say the best example of a "unique event" is our annual May Day celebration. This year will be the third annual celebration which has featured St. Louis’ own, May Day Orchestra. It seems to be getting more popular each year, too. This year some folks are organizing a larger event which will hopefully have day-time events as well as an evening drinking session…
Black Bear Bakery is located at 2639 Cherokee St., St. Louis, Missouri . Their phone number is (314) 771-2236. They are open on Tuesday through Saturday, from 8 a.m.-5 pm, and Sundays from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; their café is open Friday through Sunday, from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. They only accept checks and cash. Black Bear is on both, MySpace and Facebook, so friend them! www.blackbearbakery.org/