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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

The Best Job Ever

An Interview with Steve Manning

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GEO Original
September 2, 2021
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[Editor's note: this interview was recorded in the fall on 2019. The audio recording of this interview, along with interviews of other worker-owners, can be found here.]

Malikia Johnson: Can you say your name and how long you've been a worker-owner?

Steve Manning: Alright. My name is Steve Manning: and I am a worker-owner at the Cheese Board Pizzeria. I have been here somewhere between 16 and 17 years.

Malikia Johnson: Wow! And what were you doing before?

Steve Manning: Well, I've done a lot of things before.

Malikia Johnson: OK.

Steve Manning: People often say to me, "couldn't hold a job, huh?"

Well, I started out my first serious job right here in Berkeley. I was a letter carrier for the US Post Office. I did that for a little over a year in 1966. It was a different town then. It was an exciting town then. And then I went with a gold miner for a year and a half, in the Sierra Nevada, and actually pulled some gold out of the ground. I was working in a mine. I wasn't the owner, or the primary — I don't have a lot of gold, let me put it that way. I saw it, but I don't have it. But that was very interesting.

And I came back and I worked for the State of California Department of Health, Viral and Rickettsial Diseases for ten years, in the laboratory, which is very interesting. Working with a lot of dangerous diseases, trying to keep you guys safe out there. And that was right at the start of the AIDS epidemic. We didn't even know what it was. We just knew that people were getting real sick and it probably seemed to be contagious. So we were trying to figure it out when I was there. And I left just about the time we finally got a name for it.

Then I worked as a commercial photographer for many years.

Malikia Johnson: OK. [laughing]

Steve Manning: Yeah. And photography has always been my passion. I went to the Health Department thinking I was going to work there for a year and learn to be a photographer. It took me nine years. I'm a slow learner, apparently. But, so then I did commercial photography and then when the digital revolution started coming in, I saw that it was going to be a hard thing. In fact, most of the photographers that I knew at the time are no longer doing that because the digital thing just squeezed the money out.

So I went to work for a company called the Nature Company as a naturalist and environmental affairs officer, and they were eventually acquired by the Discovery Channel, and I worked for the two of them for almost fifteen years. And that was actually a very cool job, like someone designed a corporate job just for Steve. And then...we hit a few bumps in the road...and I found myself unemployed. Many people did. I wasn't personal. It was many people, unfortunately.

And at that point in my life, I was looking for — I was trying to find a job, I went on a lot of job interviews and I ran into that thing where, "Oh, you're extremely qualified. You've got a lot of experience, a lot of great {inaudible}." And no job offers were forthcoming.

And so actually, my wife and her friend were having a slice of pizza up here one day, and she saw the sign and she said, "why don't you apply there?" And I said — I'd known people that worked in the collective for many years. And I thought, "well, if nothing else, it's more practice: there's a job on the staff, I'll try it." And wonder of wonders, here I am. I don't know how it happened. I'll tell you the truth, I do not know.

But I can tell you this, that all those jobs — most of which were quite good, right? Social service, working at the health department. You know, all that stuff’s really good. None of them gave me the personal satisfaction that I gain from working in an egalitarian, democratic workplace. It's just phenomenal. I love it.

You know, that doesn't mean we don't have a lot of disagreements. That happens with human beings, right? But disagreeing as equals is fundamentally so much different than in a power imbalance. It's a beautiful thing. I wish most of our society was organized this way. I think it would make a much more truly civil, civil society.

Malikia Johnson: Did you know about cooperatives before your wife saw the sign, or was it something you'd been introduced to?

Steve Manning: Well, you know, I came to Berkeley in the 60s. I saw a lot of cooperatives. There were a lot of them. This is one of the few that endured, which is interesting. Actually, I had a friend who is a sociologist who studied cooperatives, so I knew quite a bit about the collective model. And one of the things he found is that with very few exceptions — like Cheese Board — the only ones that really persevered were ones that were organized around some kind of religious {inaudible}. I'm not going to use the word 'cult.' Oh, I just did. [laughing]

Malikia Johnson: [laughing]

Steve Manning: But that seemed to provide the glue that kept things together. But apparently it was very hard.

You know, there used to be — I don't know if you know about the Berkeley Co-op. Well, this grocery store down here, that wasn't that long ago became a Safeway, and now they might start using {inaudible}'s name again, it's got more cachet. Originally, that was a Berkeley Cooperative Grocery. And the place that Whole Foods is, at Telegraph and Ashby, that was originally a Berkeley Cooperative Grocery. There's a place down on University. It was a pretty big deal. But it grew big and people did some stuff they shouldn't do in management.

Malikia Johnson: OK, within the co-op.

Steve Manning: And it imploded. And now we don't have it anymore. So there was a lot of cooperatives that — and that one was actually quite successful. You can imagine, all the different locations and everything. But you really got to keep your heart, and be honest about everything in order to sustain. Fortunately, we're doing it most of the time here. [laughs].

Malikia Johnson: OK. And can you talk more about the challenges or benefits of the consensus decision making process, how that plays out in the actual work?

Steve Manning Well, the challenge is, of course, I don't get my way all the time. [laughs] But the benefits are — and this is an interesting thing that I was just stressing to these law students — that many people say, "well, democracy is such a terrible and messy inefficient thing. Don't you guys find yourself just mired in that all the time, and you can't get anything done?" Well, I worked for a lot of corporate places, and people could shirk responsibility beautifully in those things. Better than here.

Here, the way we do things: we have a business meeting every month for each side [of the business: the bakery side, and the cheese side], and then quarterly for everybody to get together. And we put up an agenda, and anybody can put up an item they want to deal with. And you have to say what it is, and explain it somewhat, and have an idea that's developed, you know. But then it comes up on the agenda, and we deal with it. And actually, I find that we are more efficient than almost any place I worked for in a corporate [inaudible]. Because nobody wants to deal with it again.

Malikia Johnson: I see. So, quick clarity: the people that work in this one [the bakery side], are they just worker-owners of this, and then the people that work in...

Steve Manning: We're all one collective.

Malikia Johnson: OK.

Steve Manning: We're all one collective, but we are operate in two different departments, because the rhythms there are very different. And so we have a fair amount of autonomy between the two sides. We do work different hours and we make our own hiring decisions. They make their own hiring decisions.

Malikia Johnson: That's excellent. Can you talk a little bit more about the benefits of working at a co-op, outside of the paycheck?

Malikia Johnson: Outside of the paycheck? Well, the number one thing, I think, is working with people as equals. It is a powerful thing. I can't stress it enough. It's truly the greatest intangible reward. For me, I like my paycheck, but that is the most valuable thing. I've made a living many ways. That is the most powerful thing.

Malikia Johnson: So let's say a competing bakery tried to get you out of this one. How much would they have to pay you to be able to go to a traditional hierarchical structure? Like what would they have to do to get you to leave?

Steve Manning: They would have to do something extraordinary. At my age, you know, I probably can't be bought, honestly. I probably can't be bought. I love this place and I don't know what they could do. They couldn't do anything that they would do, you know? I mean, I suppose we could get fantasy crazy, right? But, you know, there's no realistic offer that would make me want to leave this place.

Header image of Steve Manning by Brooks Jones, via the Me Myself & Pie blog.



Malikia Johnson (2021).  The Best Job Ever:  An Interview with Steve Manning.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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