How we Define Work Itself. Happy Labor Day!
Labor, or the nature of work, has been front and center in our national reckoning with the aftermath of Covid. Articles and studies are looking at how our experiences during lockdown are changing the way we think about work. The topics include: permanent telecommuting, shorter work weeks, shorter work days, child care benefits, even- gasp- higher pay.
Indeed, these are the exact kind of issues that early Union organizers sacrificed jobs and even lives for in the 1890’s. Well, not telecommuting, but working conditions, in general were the point of early union strikes. When Grover Cleveland sent federal troops into Chicago in June of 1894 to break the Pullman strike, riots and deaths were the result. The PR was very bad.
It isn’t really clear if Labor Day was an attempt to smooth over the strained relations between Wealth, Government and Workers, or the acknowledgement that at least one day a year should be a holiday for every worker. Probably a bit of both.
But this history lesson has relevance today, Labor Day 2021. In 1894 it was clear that there were two classes in the US, the Owners and the Workers, or Wealth and Workers (for alliteration’s sake). (For a breif period we have enjoyed the emergence of the middle class, but is that really relevant when income inequality has been moving us back towards a two class system?) The Wealth class makes money by owning things. The Worker class makes money by working for the Wealth class.
The Worker makes money by working for the Wealth class. This industrial age definition of Work is the problem. The modern version of this is “work is the production of value for the Owner class, or an increase in GDP.”
If this definition strikes you as self-evident, that is because it is the water we swim in, the air we breathe. It is so difficult to imagine another concept of work, that countless articles on reimaging work don’t even go there.
This definition of work is killing our planet. It necessitates an economic model that cannot be sustained. And it isn’t very empowering for the human spirit either.
We need to redefine work as “activity that produces value for Society.”
Simple. Which is what makes it elegant- yes?
Is this just a round-about way of describing “democratic socialism?” It depends on how you define socialism. I am not saying that Society should replace the Wealth class and own the means of production (which is really communism, as opposed to socialism). I am not saying anything at all about ownership (at least not in this article).
Just a real re-imagining of the concept of work.
Work that produces value for society encompasses the “caring economy” in which so many people, especially women, work hard to keep the young and the old alive and healthy. If they take care of children in a daycare center and produce value for a company- then it is work and is compensated. If they do it at home and produce the same value, but without enriching a Wealth holder, it is not considered work, and is not compensated.
Sucks for caretakers, but how does that impact the climate?
When work is only rewarded if it enriches the ownership class, this happens to coincide with work that produces and exchange of money, which is measured in the GDP. So much of GDP does not produce value for Society. We have all noticed that the more catastrophe there is, the more money is to be made. The covid pandemic made Billionaires richer, while those who serve society were often left without any means of support at all.
In reimaging work, we don’t need to throw out the concept of producing value for Owners, but do need to expand work to include producing value for society. This not only opens up the caring economy, but also opens a pathway for the huge amount of climate drawdown and mitigation work that needs to be done. This work needs to be supported by society, as it benefits society.
We cannot prioritize only the work that can be transformed into profit centers for the Wealth class.
Yes, Bill Gates disagrees with me on this one too. He is, after all, the one who counseled Oxford to partner with AstraZeneca to distribute their vaccine, instead of making it open source and allowing for world-wide manufacture and distribution.
There is a role for the Wealth class in combatting climate change. Big business can make money in a carbon-free economy. But the model of extraction and exploitation has to give way to social good. We must recognize the value of all work.
As you kick back with a local brew and some Portobello steaks on the grill, ponder reimaging work, where all our actions for each other and the planet are counted and compensated.