This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2002

Café Resistance

David Leibl

In downtown Winnipeg, a group of radicals is trying to create a different kind of café/bookstore. But as David Leibl finds out, even when there are no bosses, some things in the service industry never change.

Photograph of Cafe Resistance

There’s a disheartening tranquility about an afternoon stroll through Winnipeg’s Exchange District, the locus of what was once western Canada’s largest metropolitan centre. Many of the palatial brick buildings that sprung up during the city’s turn-of-the-century boom are now vacant, casting lonely shadows on the district’s quiet cobblestone streets. An array of arts organizations, small businesses, nightclubs and eateries have found a home in the Exchange, but only a handful of Winnipeggers actually live here. The area becomes a vibrant cultural hub for a couple weeks every summer when the city’s jazz and fringe festivals take over, but the excitement is short-lived. Mostly it’s just quiet.

Although the Exchange has shown modest growth in recent years, it’s a far cry from the thriving commercial centre it was a century ago. Growth slowed during the First World War, but even afterwards, the Exchange remained a hotbed of activity. It was here, in the spring of 1919 that tens of thousands of workers demonstrated during the Winnipeg General Strike. It was in the Exchange, in the early 1930s, that workers’ groups organized to force out the fascists who had began to rally in the district’s Old Market Square.

Today, guided tours of the Exchange recount the agitation of the era, but it’s a small bookstore that best preserves the spirit of resistance that once flourished there. Since it opened in 1996, Mondragon Bookstore and Coffeehouse has become a mainstay of Winnipeg’s activist community. Customers and passers-by are greeted with politically-sloganed t-shirts in the front windows and an outdoor sandwich board quietly advises carnivorous diners that no meat is to be found here. Inside the brass-handled entrance, a likeness of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata painted on the café’s menu board looks out over customers as they dine, while a giant banner that covers nearly the entire back wall of the bookstore reminds, “Labour is entitled to all it creates.” The workers preparing food behind the counter don’t immediately come off as the beatnik vanguards of revolution, although scruffy beards are far more abundant here than at most other restaurants.

The bookstore’s sections include “prisons,” “black liberation” and “indigenous resistance,” and it’s decorated with everything from anti-Harris posters à la ocap to faded sepia-toned photos of workers rioting a few blocks away during the Winnipeg General Strike. In the kids’ section, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat sits one shelf below another children’s mainstay, Amy Asks a Question: Grandma, What’s a Lesbian? One of the workers has fastened a sheet of paper to a bookstore table inquiring, “Did you know: ‘Boss’ spelled backwards is double-S.O.B.?” A chronological 10-page list of U.S. military interventions is taped to an adjacent bookcase.

Although there’s certainly no mistaking—even at first glance—the political ideology upon which it was founded, Mondragon’s atmosphere is inviting. With its natural light, hardwood floors, stone pillars and wrought iron accents, the café is a mellow, relaxed environment where staying and chatting long after the coffee’s done is seldom frowned upon. Giant picture windows and a welcome absence of top-40 radio make Mondragon an ideal place to read during the day, and the couches assembled in front of the café’s fireplace are a popular spot in the winter.

On one level, Mondragon is just a counter-culture bookstore and café, a pinko Indigo. But it’s important for what it represents; an attempt to create a little island of equality and liberty in an economic system that tends to favour hierarchy. The place takes its name from the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain—a network of some 30,000 workers that cooperatively operate more than 150 businesses. Besides selling radical books and vegan food, Mondragon’s workplace is based on the principles of participatory economics, or “parecon.” Everyone who works there is a co-owner, all work is shared evenly, there are no bosses or hierarchies and everyone earns the same wage. No one at Mondragon is ever required to perform work at the behest of someone else and all decisions affecting the workplace are reached by consensus.

The four rabble rousers who founded Mondragon were influenced by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s parecon manifesto Looking Forward. The book provides a model for a non-hierarchical workplace where all work is shared fairly and evenly. Albert and Hahnel call the structure a “balanced job complex,” the principles of which the Mondragon collective used to devise its own workplace framework.

Mondragon opened its doors six years ago with a collective of 10 members, most of them young and university-educated and acquaintances of the founding four. Although Albert and Hahnel provided many of the ideas, the original Mondragon collective had to develop the blueprints for its workplace structure largely from scratch. Together, the group created a collectively authored policy handbook (the current incarnation totals more than 30 pages), equally dividing the cooking, cleaning, table-waiting, bookkeeping, book-selling and decision-making duties required to operate a bookstore and café.

Much of the menu was based on members’ own recipes, and books were ordered based on what individual members thought Mondragon should carry. The café, originally conceived as a coffee house that would sell a limited selection of sandwiches and snacks, began to expand its menu to include a rotating selection of full meals. The bookstore, which the original collective anticipated having to subsidize with proceeds from the café, turned out to be self-sustaining. Today, the Mondragon collective has 13 members. Co-founder Paul Burrows estimates that it is the largest parecon workplace in the world.

Mondragon’s application of the principles of parecon to the service industry is actually a bit remarkable. During its conception, there were no more than a handful of functioning parecon workplaces, and none of those were retail businesses. Other parecon workplaces, notably Z Magazine and radical publishers South End Press, as well as two other workplaces housed in the Mondragon building (publishers Arbeiter Ring and record label G7 Welcoming Committee) are not service-oriented, retail environments.

It’s one thing to share tasks in a cultural organization like a magazine or record company, where there’s a mix of drudgery and creative work to be done. But the Mondragon collective quickly discovered that creating a balanced job complex in a café meant sharing a fair deal of often-menial tasks. The realities of operating a restaurant mean the majority of any worker’s shifts are spent cooking and cleaning.

But in one way, it’s the menial work that makes Mondragon’s no-bosses, work-sharing structure all the more important. The cheesy uniforms, deference to management and obligation to smile, smile, smile normally associated with food-service jobs are absent at Mondragon. And the worst of the shitwork—often relegated to lower-ranking workers in traditionally structured restaurants—is split among everyone at Mondragon, so no one ever has a full day of washing dishes or mopping floors. There’s also an assumption at Mondragon that rank-and-file workers are capable of making decisions and should be trusted. After only six months on the job, member
s of the collective are given keys to the building, codes to the alarm and signing authority at the bank.

Although Mondragon collective members enjoy a level of self-determination and agency that other restaurant employees only dream of, they still have to do shiftwork, and the pay is no better than what one would earn selling coffee and books at Chapters. Current members seem generally pleased with what they do, but few stay for more than a few years. All but a handful of the original 10 have moved on. Two of the remaining founders, Paul Burrows and Lorna Vetters, may soon be gone as well. Burrows worked his last shift at Mondragon this spring and is planning a move to Montreal in the fall, while Vetters says she’s considered relocating to New York to pursue training as a chef.

After nearly six years of operation, running Mondragon remains a perpetual challenge. Collective members, even those who have been part of the project since day one, still make only minimum wage—perhaps part of the reason some members have left so quickly. Nonetheless, Burrows says the very fact Mondragon can pay them at all is a testament to its success.

“It’s hard to run a business that actually pays people a living wage and not go under. Every paycheque the Mondragon pays out every two weeks is a small victory,” he says.

Vetters says much of the idealism that made the project exciting in the early days has given way to the day-to-day task of simply keeping the business afloat. “I think in the first years we were more pumped about being this kind of pioneering place; the first place of its kind,” she says. “We spent more time discussing how we should operate and what our goals for the structure were.” Regular meetings about issues related to workplace structure and participatory economics still take place, Vetters says, although “they’ve taken a back burner to running the place.”

“Someone told us once that we spend too much time working in the place and not enough time working on the place. Maybe that’s true—not ‘cause we want it to be, though.” And that raises a larger issue. For all of Mondragon’s tinkering with job complexes, workers ultimately have to deal with the often unpleasant realities of food service. Is it possible to attain real liberation in an industry where the customer is always right? Even progressives have been prone to grumpiness when they’ve received less than “total customer satisfaction” at Mondragon.

“We don’t require people to be all smiles at all times,” Burrows says, “and even leftists who pay lip service to workers’ self-control have complained that someone is too grouchy or too cold.” Burrows says dealing with indignant customers can be a delicate challenge. Liberated workers shouldn’t have to take shit, but the business can’t succeed without customers’ financial patronage.

Vetters says realizing that Mondragon’s success rested on the whims of its customers was somewhat jarring. “We rely on people constantly coming in and being entirely pleased with the experience they have in the café. It’s more customer service than I imagined it would be.”

And that’s perhaps the inescapable dilemma for any organization trying to sell something in a market economy. Mondragon may be a worker-friendly oasis on the inside, but even within the largest restaurant empires, the real double-S.O.B. isn’t the manager or the owner. It’s the customer with a wallet out, ordering lunch and expecting a free smile.

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