Promoted content

Freedom of the press co-op: A product of 1970s grassroots organizing in Santa Cruz

Presented by Community Printers
A group of people are smiling outside a building

The late 1970s in Santa Cruz were a time for significant grassroots organizing and social movements. The Neighborhood Food Co-op was expanding access to organic food choices, sowing the seeds for what would later become New Leaf Market. Salud Para La Gente was working to ensure South County residents had access to quality affordable healthcare. California Certified Organic Farmers was setting new standards for organic farming, creating the guidelines that are now followed around the world.

Two people stand at a counter in a store

And in a small storefront downtown, the members of the Helen Keller Print Collective started a small printing shop that would ultimately become Community Printers.

“Many of us shared the commonality of being organized as worker-owned cooperatives,” said Ross Newport, sales manager of Community Printers, reflecting on this era. “The creative energy of the 1970s planted so many seeds in this community.”

It was a time when social awareness and revolution were really taking hold, with community members banding together to create programs and organizations aimed at addressing the problems they saw around them. And they were doing it very much independently, without help or assistance from the government. Victor Aguiar worked at Ecology Action for 30 years. He recalled its evolution from a volunteer-run recycling effort in the parking lot behind Bookshop Santa Cruz in 1970, to an organization with national impact, focused on energy conservation, transportation, climate change, and now employing about 100 people.

When Newport joined the printing shop, it was focused on providing free printing services for non-profit and community organizations — printing posters, brochures and books to help get their respective messages out.

“Community Printers created an avenue for getting information out - and it was founded on the principle that ‘freedom of the press belongs to those who own the printing presses,’” said Newport.

Someone stands by a printer

Community Printers even stayed local when it came to funding. The Santa Cruz Community Credit Union, which opened the same year, provided the business loan for Community Printers to purchase a used surplus Army printing press. “We were the first business loan they ever gave,” said Newport.. “No one else would have given us a loan. We were too motley of a crew — and back then, most credit unions weren’t supposed to give business loans.”

As Community Printers moved beyond free services, it was imperative that the printing company stay true to its community-centric, worker-owned ethos. They’ve been able to do just that. Now, 45 years later, the company is the largest printer in the Monterey Bay region, serving a customer base still largely composed of non-profit organizations and educational institutions, but which also includes many high profile for-profit companies. That includes everything from CSUMB, to Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, and the regional chapter of the SEIU: one of the nation’s largest labor unions that represents almost 1.9 million workers in healthcare, public services and property services. They’ve also worked with Poly (formerly Plantronics) for over two decades, in addition to public, private and non-profit organizations throughout California.

What’s inarguably helped Community Printers’ longevity has been the ability to adapt and evolve with the times — and the technology. About a decade ago, they branched out into packaging and signage after seeing the need from some of their larger clients. Services now also include fulfillment and shipping.

Someone walks through isles of boxes

The diversification is critical to their success; printing today is essentially a technology business, one that is always evolving and morphing. The community-focused mission and worker-owned structure, however, are just as important and that ethos is a significant factor in doing business with Community Printers. Organizations like SEIU choose Community Printers for its values and structure.

Newport and Chief Financial Officer Shelly D’Amour credit strong community relationships and the company’s worker-owned cooperative structure as being key to Community Printers’ longevity.

“Homeownership among our staff is higher than many places with higher wages and I think it really comes down to transparency,” he said. “If you have a sense that you’re working in a secure place and that you have a long-term future, you’re willing to sink roots, maybe invest in a house and look to the future.”

“There used to be a lot more printers than there are today - is it a fluke that the worker-owned cooperative is still here and growing? I don’t think so,” he said.

Community Printers grew out of a wealth of grassroots efforts that very much defined the era locally, but the company hasn’t let itself get stuck in the past. It continues to change and adapt in terms of technology, services and more.

“Community Printers’ story isn’t just about nostalgia,” said Newport. “It’s about dreaming big. It’s about thinking globally and acting locally.”