Sep 04

Empowering Work for All

Since it’s Labor Day, I wanted to put out an idea that I have had for a long time, but honestly haven’t thought about in a while.  Why do we think it is ok to have an economy where finding a job often means doing menial work that is not under your own control?  Forget the low pay.  What if work could be something that helped you fulfill yourself?  Such fulfillment can come from something simple like mastering a craft, such as carpentry, bricklaying etc.

But the reality is that a huge portion of the jobs are offered by corporations that place the bottom line above all else (as they are required by law to do) and treat their employees more or less like replaceable parts.  Of course you can do a good job, become a manager and acquire more empowering work that way.  But why does empowering work have to be a scarce resource?

Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have done excellent work on an idea called Participatory Economics, which includes the idea of a “balanced job complex.”  Think of each job as a list of tasks.  Under our present system, some people have jobs where the list of tasks is empowering (decision-making, creating, collaborating) and other jobs have lists of tasks that are disempowering (restocking shelves, sweeping, taking the trash out).  If you gave every task a rating based on empowerment, the average rating for some jobs would be much higher than others.  The idea of a balanced job complex is that everybody has roughly the same average rating.  So if I worked at a bookstore, sometimes I would be stocking shelves, but other times I could be leading a book discussion or deciding which books to order.  Or if I worked at a restaurant, sometimes I would be wiping grime from the floor and other times I would be trying out new recipes.

To me the case for balanced job complexes is such common sense that I have not heard an objection to it, on both pragmatic and moral grounds, that I don’t think can be overcome.

1 comment

  1. Ngawang Trinlay

    This is a great post and raises an interesting issue. I’ve always wondered why so many people accept the best they can hope for is some big shot business owner will be nice enough to provide them with a job. Is this precarious existence where one can be fired at the owner’s whim a just system? Is this something that should exist in a democracy?

    The other issue of work being something fulfilling is a great topic. I think that real democracy will start with people in places that affect their everyday lives. Maybe we don’t care so much about lobbying our senators or representatives but we all want to be treated fairly at work and in our daily interactions with people. This is where ideas of democracy and worker participation can really begin it seems.

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