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No Bosses Here

John Korber

On First Avenue on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a red and black sign points passersby to May Day Books and Infoshop, inside the lobby of the converted food market that also houses the Theater for the New City, a community ensemble .

May Day is a non-profit bookstore run by members of a workers’ collective and volunteers. About half of us are Wobblies – members of the Industrial Workers of the World, a union that for a century has advocated workers’ control of industry through direct democracy. Other May Day workers include anarchist communists, libertarian Marxists, and Green Party supporters. Our books, the occasional film screenings, and forums reflect the diversity of our ideologies.

In a neighborhood dominated by four colossal Barnes and Nobles bookstores, May Day is more an experiment in cooperation and collective process than a commercial venture. It is a nonprofit organization with an educational mission. We have a library, we support local artists and authors by accepting consignments or purchasing their work, and we contribute books and resources to other info-shops and other organizations. We also contribute to the work of the Theater. As an example of inter-cooperation, we purchase some of our own stock from AK Press, itself a worker-operated cooperative in Oakland. Small donations and book sales replenish our stock, pay the rent, and maintain the physical plant of the store. Nobody gets paid. The only reward for working there is the occasional thanks from the people who visit the store, and the satisfaction of getting things done with our fellow workers.

As an experiment, May Day operates without the typical hierarchical management system. Is it possible for a workplace to function with a consensus decision making system? Will people get things done without a boss? A pervasive expectation in our culture is that nothing gets done without someone giving orders, and without the threat of getting fired. May Day’s nearly four years of existence shows that democratic process, long denied to people once they step through the door of their place of work, can function well there. People can and do collaborate as equals, motivate themselves to work, and sustain a project of value to the community.

May Day is open seven days a week. Collective members and volunteers also organize and attend two meetings a month which provide direction and guidance to sustain our self-management. The meetings feature consensus based decision making. In the past few years of May Day’s operation, a two-tier system featuring collective members and volunteers has emerged. Collective members are usually longer-term contributors who have agreed to perform more shifts or to join a number of working groups. Working groups are at the heart of May Day. The one or two people covering any given shift are supported by working groups that attend to volunteer orientations, merchandise ordering, maintenance/construction, publicity, fundraising, tabling, website development, and the lending library. Both collective members and volunteers vote on most matters, but only collective members vote on matters that would alter significantly the fate of May Day. In traditional workplaces, supervisors may show up and wreak havoc, and then waltz off to leave the people on the shop floor to dance to their tune. Instead, we take responsibility for our decisions, and we feel the impact immediately.

May Day Books and Infoshop is a live experiment for the community as we implement radical participatory democracy in a sustained and growing worker-run collective. We are independent but also part of a network of bookstores and infoshops across the United States and Canada that embodies the democratic ideals that we advocate.


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