9. Seeking Dignified Work 

I would like to believe that people have an instinct for freedom, that they really want to control their own affairs. They don’t want to be pushed around, ordered, oppressed, etc., and they want a chance to do things that make sense, like constructive work in a way that they control, or maybe control together with others. I don’t know any way to prove this. It’s really a hope about what human beings are like,
a hope that if social structures change sufficiently,
those aspects of human nature will be realized.
-Noam Chomsky 

We want to dignify work so we seek to equalize the empowerment effects of all jobs. But how? 

Upgrading the Bottom 

Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with
the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen
if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.
-George Orwell 

Much work is intentionally down precisely so that workers don’t gain confidence and knowledge that would help them make demands about conditions or wages. And the same holds for workers being systematically isolated from one another and denied interaction and sociality. All this degra- dation enhances control from above. 


An initial move toward dignified work is to improve the circumstances, conditions, and options of those in the most menial jobs. We could demand improved conditions, a less stressful pace of work, better ventilation or other relevant improvements, plus allowances for ongoing education to get better work. Each 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 interaction for sociality, and to freely use inactive moments for creative engagement and learning rather than simply enduring boredom.  

Lowering the Top 

  He, who before was the money owner,  now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labor-power follows as his laborer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other hesitant, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing  to expect but—a hiding.
-Karl Marx 

Moving toward balanced job complexes includes not only bettering the lot of the worst off, but also allocating some onerous tasks to those with a monopoly of desirable and empowering responsibilities. Think of a law firm. There already exists the interesting concept of pro bono legal work. Firm members 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. 


Lawyers 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 sociality, 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? 

Creating A New Middle 

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn
That those to whom evil is don,
Do evil in return.
-W. H. Auden 

Seeking to have secretaries and custodians, nurses and orderlies, or workers 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 do 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. 

Thus, 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. 


Secretaries 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, as well as more decision-making power in their restaurants. 

All this probably sounds vague—but 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. 

Emphasizing Power 

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I bear.
- William Blake 

The 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 must 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. 

Instead 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. 


Dignifying Our Own Work 

Let us learn this lesson well because the fate of
revolution depends upon it. “You shall reap what
you sow” is the acme of all human wisdom and experience.
-Alexander Berkman 

For 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?” 

Think 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? 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 preaches economically, 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. 


Just 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 “working class” 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 chapter 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.