Work … an introduction – DRAFT

libcom.org’s brief introduction to work, what we think is wrong with it and what we, as workers, can do about it. This is a draft version for comments so please let us know what you think in the thread linked to below – Published on libcom.org, Feb 3, 2012.

What is wrong with work?

For the majority of us, most of our lives are dominated by work. Even when we are not actually at work, we are travelling to or from work, worrying about work, trying to recover from work in order to get back to work tomorrow, or trying to forget about work.  

Or even worse, we don’t have work and then our main worry is trying to find it. Or we are one of the people – mostly women – whose household and caring work does not count as paid work at all.

For many of us, we don’t care about the work we do, we just need money to get by and at the end of the month, our bank balances are barely any different from the month before. We spend our days checking our watches, counting down the minutes till we can go home, the days till the weekend, the months till our next holiday…

Even those of us who have jobs in areas we enjoy, we do not control our work. It controls us, we experience it as an alien force. Most of us do not control what time we get to work or what time we leave. We do not control the pace or volume of our work, what products we make or what services we provide, or how we do it.

For example, nurses may love helping people. But may still be frustrated by bed shortages, insufficient staffing, punishing shift patterns and arbitrary management targets. And designers may enjoy being creative, however their creativity is restrained: they are not given free rein to innovate in the way they may want, they will often have to effectively copy existing products which bosses know will sell.

Paradoxically, while millions of people are overworked, barely able to cope with high workloads and long working hours, millions of other people are jobless and desperate to work.

Globally, millions of people every year are killed by their work, while scores of millions are made ill and hundreds of millions are injured.

And then much work, which may be extremely difficult, boring and dangerous for workers and destructive for the environment, is not even socially useful. From built-in obsolescence causing products to break down making people buy new ones, to entire industries like sales and marketing existing only to persuade people to buy more products and work more to buy them.

And much other useful work is squandered in supporting socially useless industries, like energy generation being used to power telemarketing call centres.

And while automation, mechanisation and productivity continually increases, working hours and working lives don’t fall. In fact, in most places they are rising, as retirement ages are put up and working hours are increased.

Why is work like this? … //

… What can we do about it?

Even though the nature of work is determined overall by the economic system we live under, there are things we can – and do – do as workers here and now to improve our situation.

If our work is the basis of the economy, and the basis of growth and profits, then ultimately we possess the power to disrupt it, not to mention ultimately take it over for ourselves.

Every day we resist the imposition of work. Often in small, individualised and invisible ways. We sometimes get in late, leave early, steal moments to talk to colleagues and friends, take our time, pull sickies…

And sometimes we resist in bigger, collective and more confrontational ways.

By taking direct action like stopping work – striking – we stop the gears of production, and prevent profits from being made. In this way we can defend our conditions and leverage improvements from our bosses.

The working class together, including the unemployed and unpaid, can fight to improve other conditions, like for better state benefits or against high prices or regressive taxes.

In the 1800s in Western countries, working hours averaged 12-14 hours per day, six or seven days a week under appalling conditions with no holidays or pensions.

Facing off massive repression from employers and governments, workers organised themselves and struggled for decades, using strikes, occupations, go slows and even armed uprisings and attempted revolutions. And eventually won the far better conditions most of us have today: the weekend, paid holiday, shorter working hours…

Of course outside of the West many workers still experience these Victorian conditions today, and are currently fighting against them

If we organise to assert our needs on the economy, we can improve our conditions further. And if we do not they will be eroded back to the level of the 1800s.

Conclusion:

By organising together we do not only improve our lives now but we can lay the foundations for a new type of society.

A society where we don’t just work for the sake of making profits we will never see or building a ‘healthy’ economy but to fulfill human needs. Where we organise ourselves collectively to produce necessary goods and services – as as workers did albeit briefly in Russia in 1917, Italy in 1920, Spain 1936 and elsewhere. Where we get rid of unnecessary work and make all necessary tasks as easy, enjoyable and interesting as possible. A libertarian communist society.

More information:

Work – reading guide - libcom.org’s reading guide about work, wage labour and the struggle against it.

(full text and hyperlinks).

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