It’s always amusing when two obsessions collide unexpectedly – it gives that frisson of the interconnectedness of all things – and even better when three do. I had that enjoyable thrill upon learning that there is a bar in Wilmersdorf, Berlin called Die Straßenbahn (The Tram) and that it bills itself as Berlin’s oldest collective. As trams are a collective means of transport, and beer is best enjoyed in a group, I suppose it’s not so strange.
Die Straßenbahn was founded in 1977, which puts it slightly ahead of the Ale House in Leeds, which was founded in 1979 and opened its doors in 1980. Our take on worker collectives was the common ownership worker’s co-operative, which put a legal form around the loose operating principles of collectivism: non-discrimination, equal pay, job rotation, collective decision-making. In creating this model constitution, ICOM, provided a quick and easy way for radical groups to establish businesses that would express their political values. It managed to bridge the gap between company law (IPS law actually) and the arduous processes of collective decision-making, which at their best are intuitive and rewarding, and at their worst require endless discussion until all opposition is persuaded, crushed or bored into acquiescence, without even the dignity of recording a vote against.
The beer revolution
The Ale House undertook the experiment of transplanting a radical organisational model from the wholefood sector to the licensed trade, which was a much more traditional environment. It coped with the reality that a small retail business – the first real ale off-licence in northern England – was not capable of supporting a team workforce, and would in fact rely on a single manager plus part-time assistants. It may have been, in some of the members’ minds, a ‘dry run’ for a possible future career move into running one’s own pub.
In our case, we diversified into a wholesale operation and eventually a microbrewery, but the co-operative eventually collapsed and the shop was taken over by Timothy Taylor’s – which is a noble enough end for any real ale business. The collective in Berlin have carried on living that dream, complete with equal pay, fortnightly team meetings and a tips pot which goes to good causes – I very much hope to go and drink a pint or two there soon. And the same ideal is coming true across England as more and more village pubs are rescued by community co-operatives making use of the community shares principle.