Inkworks Celebrates 30 Years of Collective Enterprise

By Zelda Bronstein Special to the Planet
Friday June 11, 2004

After 9/11, two signs appeared in the windows of many East Bay homes. One said “Hate-Free Community,” the other, “Justice not Vengeance.” A third, urging “No War in Iraq,” was widely displayed after March 2003. All three came from Inkworks Press in West Berkeley. Inkworks is a print shop with a mission summed up by two words on the cover of its brochure: “Progressive Printing.” By “progressive,” Inkworks means not only what gets produced, but how the work gets done. The press is a collective—a union shop owned and operated by the people who work there.  

This year Inkworks celebrates its thirtieth anniversary. As the date suggests, the collective was born in the ferment of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. “We were a group of activists,” says Erica Braun, Inkworks’ general manager and one of the founders. “There was a print shop before this, associated with an adult high school, where some of us learned how to print... We decided to set up a job shop that would be a resource to community groups... We seriously gathered the skills to make sure the project had a good foundation.”  

The challenges weren’t just technical. At that time, Braun notes, “there were very few women in the trade—really none. I had the wonderful experience of calling up other printers and asking how to fix our old press. From the older guys who really valued hard work, you’d get respect.” The younger men, she recalls, “were terrible.” 

Inkworks’ founders apparently learned what they needed to know. Today 21 people work at the facility on Seventh Street just north of Ashby, which the collective purchased in 1987. With two 12- by 18-inch presses and two 29-inch presses—one single-color and the other two—Inkworks can and does handle a great range of high-quality, offset printing assignments.  

Such breadth, says Bernard Marszalek, Inkworks’ sales and marketing manager, was once common for commercial presses but is getting rare. Nowadays, most print shops focus on labels or booklets or newspapers or some other format, and for good reason: Specialization makes for greater efficiency and hence larger profit margins. “If you’re doing one thing,” Marszalek notes, “you get that stuff down and have people trained for that thing.”  

At Inkworks, by contrast, “we still do a range of work—way beyond what most shops our size would probably do.” That’s because Inkworks is committed to meeting the needs of the progressive and non-profit communities. That commitment is reflected in the remarkable diversity of the shop’s products: posters, bumper stickers, window signs, leaflets, brochures, logos, books, newsletters, magazines and some hard-to-classify creations, such a deck of “war profiteer” playing cards, done in collaboration with Corp Watch, that parodies the deck that the U.S. military distributed in Iraq.  

Over 90 percent of Inkworks’ jobs are for nonprofits. “We don’t turn away projects,” says Marszalek. “If we can do them in-house, we do them here. Otherwise we find vendors who can produce the work. We bargain for the jobs ourselves, but we service the community in a way that many shops probably would hesitate to do because they wouldn’t seem profitable.”  

A client that’s not well-funded or that has no money at all is treated differently than one that has substantial financial backing. Besides discounting for community groups, Inkworks does a few projects each year as close to cost as possible. When the product is the first issue of a newsletter or magazine, says Braun, “We’ll donate the labor; you pay for the materials. You can get most print shops to donate the printing but not to underwrite the first issue.” 

Certified by Alameda County as a Green Business, Inkworks is listed in Co-Op America’s 2004 National Green Pages. The shop uses vegetable-based inks, and papers that are recycled and free of dioxin and chlorine. “Our practice,” says Marszalek, “is to minimize waste of all kinds; very little goes out of this shop.” This summer, Inkworks is taking a big technological leap in the direction of environmental sustainability. The shop has purchased a new, four-color digital press that uses no metal plates and that will bypass several stages of film and chemistry, greatly decreasing Inkworks’ contribution to the waste stream.  

Like all major decisions at Inkworks, getting the new press had to be vetted through the shop’s democratic decision-making process, which is to say it had to be approved by the entire collective. On routine matters, a majority vote suffices. “It’s the bigger decisions,” says pre-press specialist Nobuo Nishi, “like getting this new press, which is a huge expenditure and will affect the direction of the shop,” that require unanimity.  

Fifteen of the 21 people working at Inkworks are full members of the collective. New workers go through a six-month probation period, after which they become peers with everyone else. Everyone draws the same hourly wage. Inkworks is a union shop, so wages and benefits are union-scale. Year-end financial surpluses are equally distributed through a profit-sharing account. Members receive their dividends when they retire or leave the printing industry.  

About half the owner-operators at Inkworks have been working there for over 10 years. Finding new people is becoming more and more of a challenge, due in part to the increasing technological sophistication of the printing industry.  

Nishi joined in 1981. “When I came in,” he recalls, “I didn’t have any experience in pre-press. Somebody else came into bindery without any skills at the same time, and we were able to contribute fairly quickly to the shop. I think right now we would be very wary of bringing in people without any experience.”  

“The other side,” says Marszalek, “is that computers are just second nature to everybody, so a lot of people have some level of skill. But still, the software that you need to know now is more demanding than simply hands-on.”  

Add to this the recent closing of the last local resource for training on large presses, the Graphic Arts Union’s training center at the Printers Institute of Northern California. That closure reflects the outsourcing of printing and the consequent loss of local jobs in the industry. 

The upshot of all these changes is that those who are most likely to be taken into the shop are older people who already have the experience in the field. “It’s a big issue with us,” says Nishi, 54. When I started, I was just over 30, and was probably the median age of the group at the time. Now, I’m still the median age!” 

Training and technology aside, participating in the Inkworks collective demands a set of faculties and inclinations that can be hard to find. “Not everybody is cut out to be both into the craft of printing and the responsibility of managing and being a participant,” observes Braun. “Sometimes you can do two of these things and not the third.” 

“It’s also a privilege to do it,” she goes on to note. “People struggle everyday to keep body and soul together, to live out their ideals. There’s a message there. That people can do that.” 

And that they can do that right here in Berkeley, one would like to add. Inkworks’ longevity is a testimony to both the vision and commitment of its participants, and the progressive character of the local community that supports its work. To be sure, these days the shop gets work from distant clients. So many thousands of people printed out the post-9/11 window signs from its website that Inkworks’ Internet service provider warned that the shop would need to upgrade its capacity.  

But Berkeley is home. “We want to be here,” says Marszalek, “because people know where we are. We’re close to the freeway exit, which is important in terms of moving paper around. We want to be here also because we’re close to another green printer, Consolidated, down the street, that does a kind of work we can’t do, on a web press... We complement each other. Being allied with the vendors in the area is good... Also, we’re a union shop, and we like to promote union jobs, and we think it’s important that Berkeley have a diversity of resources in terms of its tax base and its community... But mainly we want to be in Berkeley because we feel part of this community, in terms of Berkeley being in the forefront of promoting green businesses.” 

This last sentiment meshes nicely with Mayor Bates’ green business initiative and the forthcoming establishment of a Sustainability Office under the Berkeley city manager.  

But its greenness is only of the many ways in which Inkworks embodies Berkeley at its best: a community that is both humane and forward-looking, committed to justice and to quality endeavor, intensely democratic and imaginatively enterprising. 

Happy Birthday, Inkworks! Here’s to 30 more!