Work, “Precarity,” and Employee Ownership

“The debilitating aspects of contemporary work are a summons to deepen involvement and commitment…to the work of reorganizing and repatterning the structures of work.”    

–Sister Madonna Kolbenschlag, Sisters of the Humility of Mary

“Hard work” is an historic American value, and many of us still operate under the Ben Franklin-approved notion that with hard work, we can get ahead.   

And then there’s Linda. Linda is a sixty-year-old administrative assistant in a midsize commercial bank, explains sociologist Benjamin J Snyder. When Linda’s bank hires a new CEO, they decide to move Linda’s department online. Linda has roughly three months until her job is eliminated. She can’t tell her colleagues what’s about to happen, and she doesn’t know an exact termination date. What she does know is that she is responsible for establishing the online system that will replace her.

Linda is incredibly vulnerable, with the one stipulation of pretending she’s not. Snyder calls this “planned, unpredictable impermanence.” Her experience is not unlike Wile E. Coyote’s, who can run horizontally off a cliff so long as he never looks down. And she isn’t the only one in disavowal.

What is at stake?

A recent edition of the Hedgehog Review shows how Linda’s experience is part of the “precarious economy.” Precarious refers to the rise of temp agencies, day labor, flexible scheduling, “disruption” and freelancers. Today’s workers have little or no benefits packages, no paid sick or lunch time, no paid vacations, no social security, no state or private benefits, no labor solidarity, and no secure future.

As digital humanities scholar Brant Cebul describes it, “Precarious workers cobble together a handful of assignments or contracts, working from home, coffee shops, or their car.” Hustling might initially seem like a fun challenge. Each of us is learning how to “make it work,” but the longterm effects aren’t as enjoyable.      

Precarity, says British economist Guy Standing, generates the “four A’s: anger, anomie, anxiety, and alienation,” a brew of resentful emotions that Standing belives leads to “populist neo-fascism.” Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and outsourcing place greater constraints on nearly all workers and industries. When work is devalued, workers lose economic power, as well as the pride and dignity from contributing their skills and labor to society.

Lessons from the Past

In contrast, employee ownership places a high value on work. Workers are not “human resources” to be used, nor are they simply replacable. Instead, employees constitute the core of the economic value that the enterprise creates. Rather than “innovation” eliminating the need for employees, employee-owners innovate together. Further, they keep their companies competitive by adapting to changing market needs and evolving industries.

Employee ownership is not just a tool for today’s economic constraints. The U.S. founders saw work and ownership as an integral part of a democratic economy. Economist and employee-ownership advocate Joseph Blasi argues, “The founders largely agreed that the nation required a strong and expanding middle class and a broad-based—although not equal—distribution of wealth in order to survive as a republic.”

Similarly, historian Gordon Wood explains that “All [founding mothers and fathers] took for granted that a society could not long remain republican if a tiny minority controlled most of the wealth and the bulk of the population remained dependent servants or poor landless laborers.”

Inarguably, the early U.S. economy was far from equal. At the same time, today’s concentration of wealth, in which approximately 80% of the wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population, diverges from the designs of the U.S. founders and exceeds the inequalities of that era, including slavery. 

Another Way Forward

Given our present and past, RMEOC’s mission to advance employee ownership is urgent. While it’s certain that we can’t turn back time on the gig economy, we can work toward alternative solutions now. Employee ownership is a pragmatic approach to changing the economic trajectory, expanding the middle-class, and securing the future of the U.S. economy. As Marjorie Kelly explains, “Employee-ownership is a valuable tool of economic democracy…. It retains the principle that economic sovereignty rests in property and that with property ownership comes a right to have one’s interests considered paramount.” Today, gig workers and freelancers are joining forces to start cooperatives. Legacy businesses are converting to ESOPs, Worker Cooperatives, or employee-owned hybrids to create more secure futures for their hard-working employees. Tomorrow may not be certain, but today does not have to be precarious. 

–Bill Kirton, RMEOC Board Member

Help RMEOC advocate for inclusive ownership by sharing with others how to become employee owned or attending one of our upcoming events.


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