The NewStandard: A ParEcon Workplace is Possible

[An excerpt from the book Real Utopia (AK Press, June 2008)]

A parecon workplace is possible. I have experienced one, and now I believe we can overcome capitalism.

The hierarchical workplace is an insidious institution. It is a powerful mechanism through which capitalism imposes and normalizes some of its most vicious values: It thrives on competition. It encourages authoritarianism and subservience. It rewards workers for their race, gender, education, output, age, conformity, and their ability to "work the system." It is dangerous for individual empowerment and democracy, yet it is embraced even by most social-change organizations. It must be subverted.

The theory of Participatory Economics provides a framework for creating a new kind of workplace in present-day market economies. It shows us how to organize our work around a different set of values: equity, solidarity, democracy, and diversity.

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 co-workers, labored in a parecon-based workplace to produce a daily, online news publication called The NewStandard. TNS, as we called it, was 100 percent reader funded and not-for-profit. It upheld the highest ethical standards in the news industry and focused on the perspectives of people most affected by current events and government and corporate policy.

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 grueling hours to meet daily publishing deadlines, leaving little time and energy for other aspects of our organization. And the funding pressures of the news 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 were able to experiment, invent, and reinvent until we found ways of operating that were increasingly efficient and fair.

The workplace structure we created for ourselves was unlike any other parecon-based organization we have ever heard of. Parecon’s emphasis on diversity, self-management and solidarity allowed each of us to participate in the development of our organization and to help it work for each and all of us. So here is how this exciting economic vision was put into practice by Megan Tady, Shreema Mehta, Catherine Komp, Brian Dominick, Brendan Coyne, Michelle Chen, Simone Baribeau and myself.

Jill of All Trades

There are many ways to implement balanced job complexes. Some groups have rotated tasks, giving everyone a turn at each to-do. I know of at least one organization that tried to assign an empowerment ranking to each chore. At TNS, we didn’t have the time to get very scientific about it and we also needed each staffer to work on things she was good at.

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 organization 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 the 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. We also audited ourselves periodically by keeping track of who spent how much time on what.

Some aspects of our jobs were very similar. For instance, participation in collective meetings and email discussions were part of everyone’s balanced job complex. We also took turns acting as facilitator and note-taker at meetings.

The rest of our workdays were fairly specialized. My own balanced job complex during the last year of publication consisted mostly of editing work (content) and an occasional writing assignment (content). I was also the main fact-checker (conmin), the article coordinator (managerial) and the bookkeeper (administrative). And I posted content to the website most mornings (administrative).

Brian Dominick’s job complex included website development (content), copy editing (content) and writing/editing short news bulletins (content). He also posted content to the website (administrative), answered the mail and phones (administrative), performed website upkeep (administrative) and provided technical support (administrative). And he coordinated our In Other News section (managerial).

Another co-worker, Megan Tady, spent most of her time writing articles (content) as well as doing some editing (content). She was a member of the fundraising/promotion and accountability committees (both a mix of managerial and conmin). And she managed all member email (administrative). Most of the other "managing reporters" like Megan had similar job complexes.

Organized Anarchy

At TNS it wasn’t that no one was in charge; everyone was in charge. But we did not make decisions in isolation, which would have lead to chaos. Instead, we developed a sophisticated structure to facilitate quick group decisions, self-management and accountability. This was based on a formal policy we called the Participatory Decision-Making Process.

The goal of the decision-making process was to engage all participants in order to account for diverse views and opinions and arrive at the most widely agreeable or acceptable outcomes. The greater the impact a decision would have on the organization, the more agreement it needed.

We arrived at decisions using a variety of democratic methods, including consensus and voting. When a decision had a large impact on our organization, 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 organization or the decision would pose a moral dilemma unacceptable to the blocker.

When impact on the organization 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 super majority (five out of six votes).

Regardless of which method was used, a formal discussion process always preceded a decision so that staffers could weigh in, ask questions, modify proposals, or express dissent. 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 other, more-unorthodox methods, in conjunction with consensus or voting.

One such method was called "proportional input." We used this to account for the disparate impact a decision might have on one or more staff members. When using a voting method, like simple or super majority, individual staffers were assigned additional votes based on how much the decision would impact them.

When using proportional input with consensus, a person who stood to be disproportionately affected by a decision could block consensus, even if the decision posed no departure from the organizational mission and presented no moral dilemma. 

Another unorthodox method we used was called "proportional outcome." This method was designed to increase the diversity of our decision-making outcomes. For instance, we used proportional outcome to decide which of several possible new features to implement on our website. We each ranked the possibilities from favorite to least favorite, added up the scores assigned to each item and then used the items with the top three scores.

Proportional-output voting was invaluable in cases where we were seeking the "best" solutions, rather than trying to determine right and wrong ways of moving forward. We often used this method when deciding how much to buy or how much to spend on something. Instead of trying to gain majority support for a specific number, we would each propose a number, average the proposals and use that average as our final decision.

This Participatory Decision-Making Process probably sounds complicated, but over time it became pretty intuitive. For most day-to-day decisions we reached unanimity very easily, even when a voting procedure could have been used. Most of us found it easy to reach compromises and stay relatively unattached to our own preferences because no one wanted to sit in meetings longer than necessary. Staffers had to agree to the decision-making process before joining, and experienced staffers helped newer collective members navigate the process until they were comfortable with it.

Speaking of meetings, we did have a lot of them. We held short morning meetings (about 20 minutes) most weekdays to decide which stories TNS would pursue. These meetings took place at the same time every morning and were conducted over a free conference-calling system. Other day-to-day decisions were made over email, instant message, or an occasional emergency conference call.

Decisions that could not be made with these methods or that needed longer discussion were saved for our weekly meetings, which were also held by conference call. These lasted about one to two hours. Facilitation for these meetings rotated among all staff members. The facilitator was also in charge of putting an agenda together and sending it out to all collective members ahead of time. Note taking for these meetings also rotated.

We also held board meetings a few times a year. For these, everyone traveled to one location for a "retreat," which involved a series of meetings over two or three days. Whenever possible, we saved major organizational decisions for these face-to-face discussions. The task of creating the agenda for these retreats rotated among staff as well.

Before you think the TNS workplace was utopian, let me assure you that we did have problems. Sometimes people habitually missed their deadlines. Sometimes staffers violated our policies. Sometimes they abused power. Eventually, we realized that we needed a way to hold each other accountable for such transgressions.

The main goals of our accountability process, developed over several months, were (1) to provide a fair and quick way to address problematic behavior, (2) to focus on restitution instead of punishment, (3) to provide staff members with support or resources they needed to change their behavior, (4) to allow transgressing staff members to own up to their mistakes and self-manage their remedies.

Any staff member could ask for an accountability meeting about another staffer. At the meeting, the problematic behavior would be described in detail and the negative impacts on individuals or the organization would be listed. Staffers would then decide if the violation was mild, medium or severe. Severity of violations would determine which remedies staffers would have at their disposal.

For mild violations, staffers could ask the violator to write an "owning up letter" to the rest of the collective in which she would describe her own problematic behavior and apologize for it. For medium violations, there were several options, including asking the transgressor to come up with her own plan for restitution, prescribing a course of restitution (like extra work to make up for the extra work she caused someone else), corrective instruction (like re-reading the journalist handbook or read a tutorial about the specific area she messed up with).

For situations in which decision-making power or other forms of empowerment were abused, the collective might temporarily shift the transgressor’s balanced job complex to include more rote work and less content or management work.

For the most severe violations, the collective could decide to take away decision-making power specific to the offense. The collective could also decide to downgrade a staffer’s status from full collective member back to trial collective member. This was a severe step that would strip the transgressor of blocking power for six months at the end of which all other collective members would have to reach consensus to restore full membership.

Payment for Effort and Sacrifice

All full-time staff members at The NewStandard were paid the same salary, regardless of seniority. Though we started off having receive pay in the form of promised "sweat equity," by the end, we were paying $21,600 per year, a living wage in most of the cities from which we worked. We also provided health insurance and eleven days paid vacation.

Our sick-day policy was a little less traditional. We wanted to recognize that some people get sick more often or have more family emergencies than others through no fault of their own. So we gave each collective member three personal days that they could use in the event of sickness or personal emergency. And then we created a collective "pot" in which we put four days for each staffer. (For instance, when there were six of us, there were 24 days in the pot at the beginning of each year.) Anyone could use days in the pot if they ran out of personal days. But if the pot had ever run out of days (which it never did), anyone who used more than four from the pot, might have to start paying days back. This just meant that some of the days they took would revert from paid to unpaid days.

The result of this policy was that people had a disincentive to take more days than they needed because they knew that leaving days in the pot would help other collective members. Staffers also knew that if they took more than seven days, they might have to pay some of them back if the pot ran out. This policy helped foster solidarity among the staff, as well as accommodate a diversity of needs.

Aside from employing a full-time staff, TNS also paid several dozen freelance journalists over the years. We knew that coming up with a system for paying reporters based on their effort and sacrifice would be difficult, but we tried anyway. I think we got pretty close.

We made a list of the different kinds of work entailed in writing news articles and then we assigned a dollar value to each. For instance, conducting a full interview with a source was worth $20, while reading a document (like a court transcript or a scientific study) was valued at $10. Calling a source for comment chalked up $5. There was a base fee for all articles on top of which fees for these specific types of work were added.

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. She would list all the interviews conducted, calls for comment made, documents read, etc. She could also note any extra effort that went into the article. For instance, sometimes journalists had to read documents that were hundreds of pages long or sometimes sources were particularly difficult to interview. When she was done, her editor would review the invoice and adjust amounts accordingly. The editor could also add bonuses for clean copy (which saved others labor time), a quick turnaround (which implied sacrifice) or other extra efforts.

The Capitalist Intersection

Many people think that our nonprofit, reader-driven funding model killed TNS. I think it would be more accurate to say that capitalism killed TNS. Our funding strategy, which was to ask readers to donate a small amount each month, proved successful in many ways. Per reader, we raised an extraordinary amount of money, much more than we could have if we had tried selling our readers’ eyeballs to advertisers.

Our main funding problem was that we never gained enough readers. I believe that is because our news-making model incorporated gobs of hard work and ethics, and we were competing in a greed-driven marketplace that generally rewards exactly the opposite.

Aside from funding, the toughest challenge our collective faced was hiring. The U.S. education system and capitalist economy do not prepare people for working in a parecon workplace. We needed people who were skilled journalists, but willing to work for low pay while putting in the extra effort our high standards required. We also needed people who were ready and able to take on the challenges involved in managing a struggling nonprofit organization, but who were willing to share that power collectively.

We found that many skilled journalists did not always have the desire to manage an organization or enthusiasm for collective decision-making. And people with enthusiasm for our workplace values often lacked the reporting or editing skills we required. On top of that, almost everyone qualified for the job could find better pay elsewhere.

For those of us who did end up working 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. The very things that made hiring hard, made working on TNS rewarding. Each of us was able to learn and grow in many different directions at once and develop diverse aspects of our professional lives. Although our adventure did not last forever, the four-year experience that we created for ourselves and the example that we provided to those who came into contact with us still reverberates.

We discovered the parecon workplace to be an inspirational institution. I believe it could be a powerful mechanism through which a movement for radical economic change could facilitate and normalize its most vital values: equity, solidarity, self-management and diversity. It encourages individual empowerment and democracy, yet it is rejected by most social-change institutions. They see it not as a threat to capitalism, but as a threat to their internal status quo. But, if we must become now what we wish to see in a better society, resistance to true workplace equity and democracy must give way, and nonhierarchical workplaces must be implemented.

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