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(DV) Patton: Fundamental Workers' Rights





Fundamental Workersí Rights
by Eric Patton
March 26, 2007

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Feminists say, correctly in my opinion, that if one doesnít support womenís reproductive rights, then one isnít really a supporter of womenís rights. That is, someone could say, for example, that, ďI support equal pay for equal work. I support an end to sexual harassment in the workplace. I support national childcare programs. I support an end to objectification of women in the media. I support all these things, but I just donít believe abortion should be legal.Ē But a person saying that would not be considered by feminists to be a supporter of womenís rights. And I agree with feminists that such a person really isnít a supporter of womenís rights.


Now, suppose a feminist from today were time-warped four decades into the past. Suppose she were then to say to lefties of that time that support for womenís reproductive rights was a necessary condition for anyone who wished to be considered a supporter of womenís rights. Would she be believed? Would she even be understood? Many ideas taken for granted today were at some time in the past not only not believed, they werenít even understood. It is in this sense that I am going to share a new idea with you now that you may not even believe, much less understand -- but that in 40 years will, I hope, be taken for granted by serious lefties.


Anyone who supports workersí rights must support the idea of balanced job complexes, and must be willing to work a balanced job complex himself or herself.


Is the above idea widely supported by the currently-existing left? Is it even very well understood?  Perhaps, though I confess to not seeing it. But this idea is as fundamental to the issue or workersí rights as the issue of womenís reproductive freedom is to the idea of womenís rights. Why is this so? What is it about a balanced job complex that makes me say it is so fundamental to all who claim to support workersí rights? 


Every workplace is just a set of tasks. Tasks are bundled to create jobs. Currently, tasks are bundled according to their relative desirability and empowerment effects to create jobs that are quite disparate from one another. So today, we have jobs like nurse aide and doctor, secretary and manager, or assembly line worker and CEO. A relatively small percentage of people, whom I call the coordinator class, primarily do work that increases their self-confidence and gives them a fair amount of control over their own work lives. The majority of people, the working class, do work that is deadening, disempowering, and sometimes even dangerous -- not to mention commonly smashing their self-confidence, and essentially never increasing it. 


Thatís actually one of the biggest things about being a member of the working class, and one of the least well-understood, in my opinion, even by the most adamant supporters of workersí rights -- even those who already enthusiastically support balanced job complexes. Yes, being working class is sometimes physically damaging and even dangerous. But working-class work is very nearly always unhealthy for oneís soul. Even if being a member of the working class doesnít actually harm you emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and/or intellectually (which is unlikely, as it usually does harm you), it never builds you up in any of these ways.


Why is that? Itís not the physical nature of the work, not really. Maybe 20% of it is that. The majority of it is simply the nature of the working-class role itself. Youíre treated like a tool, in fact worse than a tool, because itís impossible to in any way abuse, say, a hammer. But people can be very much abused, and the working class is -- not just routinely, but systematically.


To the capitalists who own the workplaces and the coordinators who run them, itís important never to let the workers be more than they are. They must be chopped down and set against one another at every opportunity, lest control of the workplace be eventually lost to them. This has a horrible effect on workersí psyches. And what does the emotionally abused worker do when she or he goes home? Alcoholism, substance abuse, child abuse, spousal abuse, even abuse of pets -- all these issues intersect with issues of workersí rights.


The only way one can truly understand this is to be trapped, or feel trapped, in oneís working-class station. Just as I cannot truly and fully understand what itís like to be a woman in a male-dominated society, unless youíre really and truly a member of the working class, you canít really know what itís like. I donít mean to suggest the working class is a monolithic group. Itís better to work in a cubicle than it is to stand on a fast-moving assembly line screwing sprayers on bottles of glass cleaner for eight hours with two 10-minute breaks and one 20-minute lunch, and sometimes no other opportunities to pee.


But why should anyone be stuck with a job which consists of only screwing sprayers, or only sitting in a cubicle, while others primarily get to do work which increases their energy and confidence? Why canít workplace tasks be apportioned more fairly, so that everyone has to do their fair share of less-desirable labor?


It is precisely this which makes a balanced job complex what it is: Everyone gets to do some tasks that are desirable or empowering, and everyone has to do his or her fair share of shit work. It doesnít mean everyone performs every task. That would literally be impossible. It just means that everyoneís work circumstances are comparable to everyone elseís.


At some point in the future, this idea is going to be accepted as such blatant common sense that people will find it truly sad that things were ever any other way -- much like we in the West do now when we look back on chattel slavery, child labor, and the mass disenfranchisement of women. It is an absolutely unquestionable and undeniable fact that womenís rights must include womenís control over their own bodies. So too is it an absolutely unquestionable and undeniable fact that full workersí rights can never be attained until everyone in the workplace labors in a balanced job complex. The challenge is first coming to understand this, and then coming to believe it ... and finally, actively working for it!


Eric Patton lives and works in Cincinnati, Ohio. He can be reached via e-mail at: For more information on balanced job complexes, please see Michael Albertís Parecon: Life After Capitalism (Verso Press, 2003).

Other Articles by Eric Patton

* Assessing Economic Options
* The Coordinator Class
* My Ex-Girlfriend Responds To Robert Jensen
* Thoughts on Sex and Pornography