Susanna Cobb

Terrytown, NY

 

I came to the Free Press in the fall of 1969. I’d seen an ad in The Old Mole. My husband and I had recently moved from New York, where I was a caseworker, first with the Nassau County Welfare Department, and then with an inner-city foster care and adoption agency. The families I worked with and my remarkable supervisors in both places were African American, an eye-opener for middle class me.  “Black is Beautiful” was a new banner, and I learned that the black community held as many divergent political perspectives amongst themselves as did the whites. I became disillusioned with social work, viewing it as a band-aid on society. It looked like the Free Press was a place where people were serious about changing dysfunctional thought systems, and… I could learn useful skills!

 

     Hester, Charlie, Joanie and Don were there already. Also, there was Tim Moriarty, who was an original NEFP member and the expert on running the press. He had been trained through a traditional apprenticeship and knew what he was doing.  He was a shadow figure when I was there, mostly working at night as I recall.  He was probably trying to avoid the daytime scene with its influx of untrained labor such as myself. There was bad tension between Tim and Don, who was an early driving force in the creation of the press. The press by this time was a functioning entity, and as a matter of pride and economic survival, Tim wanted to be paid a living wage. This would have bankrupted the press and created a hierarchy of labor that was unacceptable to Don, who by this time had also learned to run the press. It was a pivotal decision not to pay standard wages. After Tim left, NEFP relied on labor that was trained in-house. NEFP gave full support to the unions in every other way it could, but in terms of its internal operations, it was a bona fide worker’s collective.

 

     When I joined staff, salaries were a big issue. At my first staff meeting pay scales were discussed, probably prompted by the urgency of Tim’s campaign for higher wages; a new ceiling of $40.00/week was set, up from $35.00. That this was acceptable to a majority of the staff reflects the fact that the NEFP was attractive to people who were able to look at working at the press as a mission, a mission for which it was worthwhile to figure out ways to get by on as little money as possible.

 

     At the meeting I was asked what salary I wanted (up to the $40.00 ceiling). The novelty of being asked to participate in a discussion of my own salary was a jolt from the blue.  Up to this point, I had been told what my salary would be, take it or leave it. I said I would take no salary per week because I already had an adequate source of financial support. (I hid the fact that the source was my husband, as this was just too bourgeois.)  "From each according to her ability, to each according to her need," was my reasoning.

 

      I have not forgotten my surprise and admiration when Hester made the very principled argument that I MUST take wages because to do otherwise would reflect a lack of respect for my own labor! We agreed on $10.00 per week, and I collected that amount weekly for the next three years. Hester was right. Even that small amount of money created a sense of reciprocated respect.

 

     Another aspect of respect for workers’ labor was involved in the requirement that everyone should cycle through all the different jobs needed to get the job done.  There would not be just one or two people who knew how to run the presses, clearly the most demanding and highly regarded of all the skills. When we talk to each other about starting at the Free Press, we usually remember whoever it was who taught us to run the Chief 22 or the Chief 20. We also taught each other how to run all the other machines listed in Charlie’s accompanying piece on the layout of the shop. Everyone performed the less skilled tasks as well, such as filling literature orders. There was real cooperation amongst staff members because of appreciation for the value of all the tasks… except for housekeeping, which as in the wide world, was an undervalued skill set.

 

     At the heart of the New England Free Press operation was its mission, which was to print and distribute left-wing political thought, primarily in the form of pamphlets; this was to be done as cheaply as possible to ensure the widest possible distribution. We had regular literature meetings at which potential material was proposed, discussed, and voted up or down by majority vote. Discussions could be heated, but a fairly wide net was cast, and we ended up with a list that was pretty representational of white left-wing thought at the time. Most of us had personal reasons to regret the lack of black liberation literature, but we were conscious of issues of white coptation and constrained ourselves. By addressing the issues of injustice that directly affected our own lives, we hoped to ultimately benefit everyone. We were invested in getting the message out because we had chosen the message.

 

     The three years that I was at the Free Press (1969-72), there were three successive trends in the content of our literature, reflecting the rapidly widening scope of The Movement.  When I was first there, the primary focus was on class and anti-war issues.  As draft resisters with working class backgrounds, Charlie and Joan brought authentic perspective to these discussions. Tom joined the Free Press soon after I did and brought to bear a wealth of knowledge regarding power struggles in Vietnam and Asia.  Without losing sight of these issues, the next phase was an outpouring of women’s liberation literature, abetted by Hester and her close involvement in the Boston women’s movement. The ink never dried on our women’s lib pamphlets before we turned our attention to publication and distribution of literature to support the unprecedented political push for gay liberation.

 

     We sought out material to print, but it also came to us.  Important Movement groups were springing up all over the Boston area, and they needed a press to get their words out. There was no internet, no social media. We did job printing for organizations such as Red Pencil, Committee for Concerned Asian Scholars, and United Farm Workers.  We also printed posters, simple images of at most two colors; a big seller was Rosa Luxembourg.  My favorite was a pregnant man looking at us with reproachful eyes.

 

     The best known of our publications was Our Bodies Ourselves. Elsewhere, Hester tells of bringing it to life in its first iteration as Women and Their Bodies, A Course; and Charlie tells the history of our marketing decisions. It was an ambitious undertaking for the Free Press given that it was a book, not a pamphlet. Its second appearance in April 1971 with its more self-affirming title, Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS) must have been the occasion for my driving to the web press plant with film boxes filled with layers of heavy flats into which we had stripped negatives of the revised copy received from the Boston Women's Health Collective. I cannot do justice to a description of the expressions on the faces of the men who received and inspected the flats before accepting the job.  They were dumbstruck to be in a position of printing pictures of women's genitalia as an above-board business transaction. We had the cash in hand and they were not going to turn down the job.

 

   The distribution of that book was a phenomenon. Demand skyrocketed rapidly, and after Jim O’ joined the staff in the fall of 1971, I remember we spent hours and hours loading those newsprint books into the cardboard boxes to which we affixed postage and the labels that Don had typed, then tied with string and loaded into my VW bug.  I was proud of my speed and dexterity flipping and tying those boxes. Legend has it that we delivered so many boxes of literature to the Post Office that eventually the car axle broke. Boston’s pot holes didn’t help; but Jim’s inexhaustible supply of jokes and ditties did.

 

     In fact, the esprit de corps was high, buoyed by youthful optimism and good humor. You may recall a left-wing slogan popular at rallies held in protest of government lies and coverups regarding the Vietnam War:

“There is Some Shit I Will Not Eat.”

 It was very amusing to find the slogan taped to the fridge.

Some wit amplified the humor by adding:

"You Are What You Eat."

Below that:

"Do I Look like a Vegetable?"

(That was from Don, who boiled one pound bags of frozen peas and ate them in one sitting.)

Capped off by:

"Well, Now that You Ask."

 

     We sang while we worked. Some of us belted out show tunes and formed chorus lines when the machines were down. A transistor radio near the press tuned to a rock station inspired lusty vocal accompaniment, especially when the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival version of “Proud Mary” was broadcast:

“Big wheel keep on turnin’, Big Mary keep on burnin’ …. Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river,” …keeping rhythm with the Chief 22.

 

    Our bonhomie attracted hangers-on, people who contributed time and energy without the recompense of even the teensiest Free Press salary. Demitrye (one name only) was one such person.  He showed up speaking in a hoarse voice due to his battle with esophageal cancer. He was a free spirit who did not want to be tied down by commitments but offered to fix the sagging literature shelves over a weekend when everyone was gone.  It was the weekend of the total solar eclipse of July 10, 1972, which added to the drama when the shelves COLLAPSED after Demitrye loaded them with literature. Judy Werner is another gentle soul who contributed to the ethos of the place as a lobbyist arguing in favor of 50 % women on staff. Which happened with very little resistance.

 

     When the Boston Women’s Health Collective made the decision to go with Simon and Schuster as their publisher in order to get OBOS into the maximum number of women’s hands countrywide, the Free Press did not collapse. We had an already-established niche in the market for left-wing literature, and most of our other titles continued to be in demand, including the influential book by Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais, Labor’s Untold Story.

 

    The day came when my father arrived from NY to visit my place of work. He had spent his teenage summers as a printer’s devil with his grandfather’s newspaper in the heart of Republican Iowa and was pleased to think that I might carry on the family tradition. He was familiar with traditional print shop protocols. Differences were to be expected because this was offset, not typeset work; but he was not prepared for the environment that he encountered. He took in the fire hazards including the two-burner hot plate and myriad ashtrays near towering stacks of paper, the coatings of combustible paper dust, and the dangling electrical wires, along with grimy window panes and teams of cockroaches hustling into cracks in the floor boards. I saw our lax housekeeping and safety standards through his eyes, but he never said boo, and I continued to love the place for its mission and its egalitarian ethos. It is ironic to me that the conditions we tolerated in the name of workers' right-to-choose are exactly the kinds of abuses from which workers' rights organizations fight to protect workers.

 

     I suppose that a certain level of chaos was to be expected in a worker-controlled enterprise when the workers were young and anti-establishment in outlook. There may have been grumbling, but I secretly welcomed our self-imposed time-analysis study aimed at reducing the self-inflicted frustrations of inefficiency; and I hereby welcome the opportunity to acknowledge the utter brilliance of Claudette’s time-sink category: “Looking for tools.”

 

      Discussions started up about our personal political goals aside from the collective goal of publishing left-wing literature; we talked about length of employment. I was not the only one who was attached and happy with the status quo. The argument was that NEFP had become our cocoon and that we needed to get out and struggle in the real world. A consensus formed around the idea that three years was the maximum that people should stay on, allowing others the opportunity to move in, and giving ourselves the challenge of spreading the word. It is remarkable how many people did exactly that.

 

     I left in October 1972 and found a job working at an in-house offset print shop in Watertown, MA.  I put to use the prepress skills I learned from Charlie and later passed on to Karen Mae. I earned a living wage as a cameraman and stripper for more than a year at Doble Engineering Co. where I was supervised by an ex-Marine, and then for five years more at Creative Arts Book Co. in Berkeley CA, where I was supervised by a Vietnam vet.  I don’t think I changed any hearts or minds except to show that a woman could be a cameraman. Years later, working as an occupational therapist in a nursing home in New York, I had an opportunity to unionize our department, but it didn’t fly.  I have no regrets; at NEFP I learned the only failure is not to try.

 

Susanna Cobb

October, 2018