Web exclusive: This is an expanded version of the article that appeared in the Summer 2022 Green American Magazine
For activists across social and environmental movements over the decades, GBN-member Syracuse Cultural Workers (SCW) has been a mainstay, selling posters, buttons, bumper stickers, t-shirts, mugs, books, cards, and more – including their globally renowned Peace Calendar – all designed by artists who capture in image and word the progressive political messages of the times.
SCW emerged in 1982 when the local activist organization Syracuse Peace Council decided to stop producing the Peace Calendar that Dik Cool initiated at the Council. Dik launched Syracuse Cultural Workers, which started with the popular Peace Calendar, and has grown in terms of offerings and staff.
This spring, SCW announced the exciting news that it is transitioning from a sole-proprietor model to a worker-owned co-op. In speaking with Dik and a group of some of the 13 employees, all laughed and shared: Lots of people thought it was always a co-op and even that they all lived together!
Because of Dik’s anti-hierarchical instincts, the business has, however, operated with the feel and ethos of a collective in many ways. “Being a collective was in the air,” said Andy Mager, Coordinator & Social Movements Liaison. By having a strong emphasis on respecting and supporting employees, and cultivating community in the work place, Lisa Kane, Assistant Bookkeeper, shared: “Becoming a co-op makes sense because it is who we are.”
In May 2021, SCW began discussing the idea of a transition to worker ownership at a monthly staff meeting. Dik, now in his late 70s, has been stepping back from various aspects of running the business. What should the next step be? Should they sell the business? Or pursue Dik’s gifting of the company to workers as a co-op?
Initially, it wasn’t clear how to proceed and the idea of continuing with the sole proprietor model was still on the table. Several workers had experience with worker-ownership, and they organized workshops with an expert on co-ops to better understand the real implications of being a co-op. Not surprisingly, everyone needed to understand: what happens in the co-op model if there’s a crisis? Who decides and manages how to proceed? Ultimately, workers agreed unanimously to pursue worker-ownership.
SCW is drafting a structure for governance and management with five levels of worker engagement. There isn't yet a deadline for completion; they want to take the time needed to grasp and review their choices, to hear from everyone, and to allow the direction to unfold. The co-op spirit and approach clearly infuse their process, boding well for next steps. Other positive signs for future success leap out from workers’ views on what they are so proud of at SCW:
We’re always at the front of issues. Always new products that reflect what’s needed – whatever needs to be said and told.Nick Janvier, Shipping Specialist
My life’s work is community organizing. We’re not just selling product but helping groups and individuals be effective.Andy Mager, Coordinator & Social Movements Liaison
I’m proud of our sense of community, working toward the same cause - peace, love, justice.Lisa Kane, Assistant Bookkeeper
This is passion-driven work, the work is priceless. It’s great to see democracy in the workplace, with skill-building to be critical and loving.Karen Kerney, Art Co-Director
There’s a lot to be proud of, longevity, perseverance, and quality; our mission and commitment.Dik Cool, Founder & Publisher
Dik elaborated, noting that half the staff have been with SCW for 15 years or more, and what a testimony that is to the value of SCW’s mission and the deep community that has developed, even with lower-level pay. Breaking bread together over soup in the fall when fulfillment and shipping needs are most intense and celebrating individuals’ milestones and birthdays – all contribute to everyone feeling valued.
“Our ability to respond quickly to world events is also really important. We have letters from people all over the world describing how they use our products to advance the causes they are dedicated to,” Dik added. Those letters include comments such as:
I do believe that art is a powerful force for change and you are one of the best examples of this idea.Customer in Montreal, Canada
Keep those gutsy posters coming. This country is desperate for alternatives.Customer in Spokane, Washington
…pleased to see that SCW just keeps on doing great work and finding graceful, beautiful ways to convey progressive values.Customers in Cleveland, OH
I am an Old Marine from a long conservative family. You can now say that you have Republicans and Conservatives among your customers.Customer in Barrington, IL
And here’s an interesting bit of feedback SCW shared – the reason the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Lexington, KY gave for rejecting a Peace Calendar in 1989 that was sent to anti-imperialist political prisoner Susan was due to its inciting disorderly conduct in the security of the institution. (The power of art and history!)
Returning to the transition to worker-ownership, Dik said that he is following developments but is not in the thick of it: “It seems to be going well.” He added, laughing at the understatement, “The business has never been financially robust. Selling political products often doesn’t show a profit. It’s a tough call, evaluating collective and personal responsibility.” Workers will have to figure out how to manage without Dik’s leadership and subsidies to the business in the future.
What’s next for Dik? He’ll be spending more time focusing on his health and on his grandkids-of-the-heart who live next door with whom he has a “gruncle” – grand uncle – relationship. He also looks forward to gardening, traveling, and speaking. Dik certainly has decades of insights, passion, and business smarts to share with people across the generations.
What does SCW most need to succeed going forward? Everyone agrees – more orders! Andy expressed concern about their aging customer base and the need to attract younger people; fortunately, that’s improving with social media outreach. Karen agreed, asking, “How can we continue to be successful with outreach across movements?”
“We want the business to continue to play a role in moving society forward, especially at a time when things are moving backward,” Dik affirmed.
Nick summed-up so much of what the SCW team shared with Green America: “It takes a certain person to work here. This is the longest place I have ever worked. Syracuse Cultural Workers needs to exist. I have so much appreciation.”
The Green Business Network congratulates Syracuse Cultural Workers on its next phase as it continues to be a beacon of hope and effective organizing for people and the planet.