Let’s Put the Nature of Work on Labor’s Agenda: Part One


Capitalism fails workers in at least three ways. It cannot guarantee that a job will be available to any worker who needs one. It cannot guarantee that a worker who has a job will receive adequate compensation for it. And it cannot guarantee that a worker who has a job with adequate pay will also have a job that utilizes that worker’s capabilities.

Through their unions and political organizations, workers have tried to counter the first two failures. They have pressured governments to spend money to generate employment and to employ workers directly. They have fought for unemployment compensation and other forms of publicly-funded social security. They have battled employers to force them to pay higher wages and to fund benefits like health insurance and pensions. Success in these endeavors has varied, but at least workers have seen the failures and tried to do something about them.

Workers have, however, done little to address the third failure. It is a rare job that demands the creativity which is every human being’s birthright. Unique among animal species, human beings have a well-developed and seemingly limitless capacity to both conceptualize labor and then execute their conceptions. Through the interactions of thinking and doing, we have achieved remarkable progress in reshaping nature to our advantage. We have invented tools and machines to raise the productiveness of our labor to heights unimaginable to our ancestors. Our capacity to conceptualize and execute, in a dialectical unity, is what helps define us as human.

Given what humans can do, it is remarkable how few workers in capitalist economies engage in what under any criteria can be described as fully human work. Here are the ten jobs in the United States that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates will have the largest employment growth between 2002 and 2012: registered nurses, post-secondary teachers, retail salespersons, customer service representatives, cashiers, janitors/cleaners, nursing aides/orderlies/attendants, truck drivers, teaching assistants, and personal home care aides. The last eight categories encompass work that in general is routine and also often stressful and detrimental to worker health. The first two appear at first glance to be jobs that might utilize a worker’s full potential. However, both have been subjected to the rationalization capitalism always enforces whenever workers do skilled, integrated labor. More and more teaching in post-secondary schools is done by part-timers working under extremely degraded conditions. Nurses have seen their work divided and stretched out; few nurses get to do what they could do. (Details on teaching and nursing will be provided in Parts Two and Three of this series.)

Even where jobs do give workers some control over their labors and where the work might termed creative, these features are negated by the damaging nature of the product: advertising, dangerous drugs like cigarettes, armaments, prisons, public assistance as done in the United States, and a host of others. A scientist working for a tobacco company or an armaments manufacturer is doing anti-human work, no matter the level of skill.

If we extend our view to the entire world, which consists mainly of poor capitalist countries, the situation is much worse. The vast majority of workers perform labors which demean body and soul: child laborers, slave laborers, indentured workers, the self-employed and self-exploited. Children selling their bodies, jockeying camels, and making bricks; women toiling as servants and sweatshop workers; everywhere you look, work spells misery.

Yet despite the continual degradation of work, unions and labor political organizations, and even revolutionary governments, have given little thought and devoted little action to the human need to do satisfying work, to live to work rather than to work to live. Even Lenin was a fan of Frederick Taylor, the man who systematized the degradation of labor. It is time for this to change. It is time to put the nature of work on labor’s agenda.

To be continued . . . .


Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.