A Program Seeking Dignified Work

Michael Albert


want to dignify work so we seek to equalize the empowerment effects of all jobs.

But how?



the Bottom


work is intentionally dumbed down precisely so that workers don’t gain

confidence and knowledge facilitating demands about conditions or wages. And the

same holds for workers being systematically isolated from one another and denied

interaction and sociality. All this degradation enhances control from above.


one initial move toward dignified work is to improve the circumstances,

conditions, and options of those in the most menial, disempowering jobs. We

could demand improved conditions, a less stressful pace of work, better

ventilation or other relevant improvements, plus allowances for on-going

education to get better work, for example.


workplace and job has its own unique details, of course, but still, in a

workplace with many rote and boring positions, workers might usefully seek the

right to trade tasks for variety, to increase workplace interactivity for

sociality, and to freely use inactive moments for creative engagement and

learning rather than simply enduring boredom.



the Top


toward balanced job complexes includes not only bettering the lot of the worst

off, but also having those with a monopoly of desirable and empowering tasks

take on some onerous responsibilities. Think of a law firm. There already exists

the interesting concept of pro bono legal work. Firm members, that is, are

supposed to donate a certain amount of their energies to the indigent as a

social responsibility. Campaigns to dignify work can also benefit from having

those with elite jobs do tasks they otherwise would not have opted for. Thus, we

might demand that those who have enjoyable and empowering work must reallocate

some of their time to tasks ordinarily lower in the hierarchy in their

workplaces, thereby allowing those with less fortunate work assignments the time

to pursue better options.


would spend some time doing tasks for their secretaries or for those who clean

the building, freeing the latter to enjoy on the job training, etc. Or nurses,

orderlies, and custodians could demand time for further training, less stress,

better conditions, and more social work arrangements and the doctors and

administrators in their hospitals could have to make up at least part of 

the labor difference. Just thinking about it, don’t you find yourself smiling?



A New Middle


to have secretaries and custodians, nurses and orderlies, or folks doing rote

labor on assembly lines or waiting tables in restaurants benefit from better

conditions or get a little extra time for new training, and having those

hierarchically above them in their workplaces doing some onerous tasks to make

up for losses, of course would be very good. But an even better approach would

literally change the tasks that people do. We could demand, for example, that

owners give workers in lower positions more information processing tasks, more

tasks that give confidence and develop decision-making skills, and more

decision-making tasks per se, while reducing the amount of these same tasks in

the jobs of those in higher administrative and policy-making positions.


nurses and custodians and assembly workers and cooks and waitresses and delivery

drivers assess their workplaces and demand reallocation of tasks and

responsibilities from the jobs of those hierarchically above them into their own

job definitions, with some of their onerous tasks in turn going upward. As a

result, job requirements become more humane and empowering, and move toward

being balanced.


demand more diverse empowering responsibilities that give them more time in

intellectual and decision-related functions. Waiters redefine waiting on tables

to be more interactive and social and less servile. They demand new conditions

and social relations involved, as well as more decision-making power in their



know all this probably sounds vague—but I think that that’s proper at this

stage of discussion. There are few if any general rules about such matters. The

issue is for those employed in each firm to use their councils to reassess their

work and raise demands to reallocate components of work more fairly than when

they are allocated to dehumanize, atomize, and disempower most employees, and

elevate only a few.





central issue in balancing jobs is ensuring that by virtue of their economic

lives all employees are comparably prepared to participate in decision making

and have comparable access to decision making involvement. Thus, the best and

most critical alterations to seek on the road to dignified work are those

impacting empowerment. Workers especially seek reforms that spread access to

knowledge and information, that enlarge day-to-day social interactions, that

enhance decision-making skills, and that win increased direct decision-making

influence, of course.


of only doctors being involved in discussions and decisions about hospital

policy, this “task” is re-allocated among doctors, nurses, and orderlies.

Instead of managers being a separate category alone in possession of relevant

decision-making information and opportunities in factories, redefinitions

distribute responsibilities and information among all workers, thereby reducing

hierarchies of power.



Our Own Work


organizations and movements to effectively advocate balanced job complexes in

society, they will have to address their own internal job complexes as well. For

one thing, who is going to seek just work assignments at GM and then passively

do only rote tasks in his or her union or other movement organization? And who

outside such a movement will be impressed if it doesn’t practice what it

preaches? “You say you are for balanced job complexes. Then why don’t you

have them?”


about The Nation, Mother Jones, Greenpeace, The Institute for Policy Studies,

NOW, the NAACP, labor unions, massive peace movements, local housing campaigns,

the New Party, and whatever other progressive or left institutions or movements

you wish to bring into focus. In each case you might ask whether they have

balanced job complexes or whether they have typical corporate divisions of labor

so that some folks monopolize fulfilling and empowering tasks while others have

only rote and obedient ones. If, the latter situation pertains, do the folks

doing onerous jobs get paid more? Will the movement “owners”, “ceos,”

and “managers” welcome demands from their workforces to balance movement

circumstances for empowerment effects? Will they reallocate tasks in a steady

progression toward balanced job complexes, including reducing their own elite

prerogatives? Perhaps in some cases the answer will be yes, but not always.

However, the central issue isn’t assuaging the worries of those now

administering movement organizations. It is attaining a movement that practices

what it economically preaches, a movement that benefits its members, improves

its product, becomes congenial to working class constituencies, and makes

credible its external demands, all by attaining balanced job complexes in its

own organizations.


as Blacks and Latinos and women in movement projects, organizations, and

campaigns have had a responsibility to push, cajole, and struggle the movement

forward on matters of internal race and gender relations over the past few

decades, so too do those who now occupy the rote and lowly positions of our

movement organizations have a responsibility to push, cajole, and struggle the

movement forward on matters of internal class definition. The strategic focuses

and demands noted throughout this commentary for society, apply as well to our

own institutions, though we can hope that the struggle inside our institutions

will be quicker, completed soon, and able to provide a solid foundation for

larger subsequent struggles outside our institutions.




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