Arguments against balancing jobs between workplaces

November 9, 2022

In a participatory economy, jobs are recommended to be balanced for empowerment and desirability. A workplace is expected to combine tasks into jobs, so that everyone in the workplace has a job which is roughly comparable in terms of empowerment and desirability as others whom they work with. Every worker council is responsible for balancing jobs to the extent it is possible, and the way they approach this will vary greatly between different workplaces, depending on different practical, technological, and individual considerations. 

Some advocates of a participatory economy argue that it is not enough to balance jobs within workplaces and that it is necessary to also balance jobs between workplaces in order to avoid monopolisation or at least a strong concentration of empowering and desirable jobs by certain worker councils in certain industries. 

Balancing jobs between workplaces is definitely more difficult and problematic than balancing jobs within workplaces and there are several tricky issues to consider. It could theoretically be achieved in a number of different ways, all of which entail considerable additional administration and cost. Of course, this could very well be justified if the resulting benefits in terms of a more just and equal distribution of empowering and desirable jobs among workers would be higher than the costs of doing so. 

An economy wide job balancing committee?

One possible way of organising job balancing between workplaces that, in my view, should be strongly rejected from the very start is for an economy wide job balancing committee to reallocate workers – members of self-managed worker councils – between different workplaces after an annual plan has been agreed, based on the committee’s assessments of desirability and empowerment of jobs in different worker councils. This would not only be a blatant departure from worker council self-management, but it would also make it almost impossible for worker councils to plan production activities for the next year in the annual planning in a serious and efficient way. The actual supply of different categories of labour after the reallocation of workers would be very difficult to anticipate. 

Furthermore, if members of existing worker councils cannot be sure where and with what they will work in the year ahead and will be reassigned more or less against their will to other worker councils and replaced with new workers that the worker council has not been given an opportunity to accept or reject, worker councils cannot be expected to prepare and submit a production proposal for the year ahead since there is no way for them to know the rules of the game, new assigned members will mean new routines, additional training costs and so on.

A job balancing committee deciding on rules?

A somewhat more realistic but definitely not unproblematic approach would be for a job balancing committee to decide on a set of rules regarding a required mix of jobs with an average similar level of desirability and empowering tasks that workers would have to adhere to when they apply for jobs during a certain specified time period. 

One important and big problem with any approach to job balancing between workplaces, including rules regarding a mix of jobs, is that any rules about job balancing would have to be applied and implemented regionally since different regions will have different mixes of available jobs with different average empowerment and desirability. 

This, in turn, would mean that worker councils in different regions would face different circumstances and costs. Worker councils in regions with jobs that show a similar average level of desirability and empowerment between workplaces will be able to rely on a more stable membership with fewer necessary new recruits and interruptions, and lower training costs, while worker councils in other regions with jobs that show differences in average desirability and empowerment will have to plan for their membership being required to apply for other jobs more frequently and spend more time recruiting and training new members leading to more costs for administration, onboarding, and training etc. 

Since more costs mean a lower SB/SC ratio, which in turn leads to lower compensation for work, members of worker councils in regions with jobs with more differences in desirability and empowerment will be “punished” for something that they really cannot affect in the short run.

Enforcing rules regarding a required mix of jobs also risks affecting the supply of different categories of labour in both expected and unforeseen ways. First, the supply of labour categories performing tasks that are undesirable and have a low level of empowerment will be increased by balancing rules and thus the corresponding labour category prices will be lower, and the supply of labour categories performing tasks that are desirable and have a high level of empowerment will be decreased and the corresponding labour category prices will thus be higher if job balancing rules are enforced. This means that worker councils will increase their demand of the first type of labour categories and decrease their demand of the second type and they will likely tend to focus less on making job tasks more desirable and empowering since the price of labour categories performing undesirable tasks are low. 

Secondly, effects of job balancing rules on the demand of different categories of labour will not be straightforward and they will definitely add another layer of uncertainty to the planning situation. For example, the introduction of job balancing rules for a region may in itself affect the availability or demand of different jobs in the region and thus affect the required mix of jobs to reach a target balance. And even though different categories of jobs may be similar in terms of desirability and empowerment, they may have very different costs in terms of training requirements, learning curves, etc. and furthermore, workers’ job preferences may change over time, and all this would have to be anticipated and considered by the balancing committee to enforce fair and efficient balancing rules. 

Further problems

Another important potential issue with job balancing between workplaces would be the practical problems of having responsibilities and obligations in more than one workplace simultaneously. If a worker is asked to balance her mix of jobs for desirability and empowerment in a short time period such as a year, a number of problems will arise. 

First, it is not realistic to expect a worker to be able to divide her attention equally between two or more jobs running parallel and especially not during the annual planning process. It would very likely mean that she would prioritise one workplace over the other and classify one job her primary job and the other job being a secondary or complementary job, which would then lead to a situation where workplaces would have two different groups of workers, one primary workplace group participating actively and engaged in planning and decision making in annual planning and during the year as part of priority jobs and another group of workers mostly showing up for their secondary job implementing decisions and taking orders from the first group. 

However, this problem could be reduced by extending the time period for which a worker is asked to balance her job mix, i.e.,10 years instead of one year. But by doing so the balancing rules would become much less effective if the goal is for every worker to be equally empowered and prepared to participate in decision making in society. With a long and extended period for balancing, at every point in time some workers will still be more empowered than others. 

Summary

To sum up, I have given arguments for why enforcing extensive job balancing between workplaces is not compatible with justice, self-management, and an efficient annual planning process. Instead, an alternative and possible way to deal with differences in job desirability and empowerment could be to compensate undesirable and low empowerment jobs with a higher compensation per hour and in addition to put time limits on service periods for especially empowering jobs and jobs that entail influence over other workers. 

When planning the future structure of industry and production in the economy one of the goals could be to try to avoid the concentration of empowering tasks in separate worker councils that sell their services to other worker councils and instead, to the extent possible, aim to include these tasks in the internal production process of worker councils.

Notable Replies

  1. I think Anders makes a number of very valid arguments w.r.t. attempts to balance jobs for desirability and empowerment among different worker councils, and worker councils in different industries. In short, I agree with Anders, and believe he has done a very useful job of explaining the various issues that should be considered.

  2. I agree, important question regarding workplace self-management and Anders has done stellar job in making the argument concise.

  3. Very seldom people offer a concrete solution to the problem of disempowering economic tasks and the corresponding problem of hierarchy. Anders showed that the balancing of jobs to avoid that some people got the “fine” coordinater jobs and the rest has to do the disempowering tasks faces some major problems but what now? Giving up balancing economic tasks because they are difficult to balance? Do we have to start anew, thinking about it in completely different categories to find a just solution? Could David Graebers conception of avoiding the concept of depth help? What could? “The gift” of Marel Mauss? Another way of calculating? Rotating principles for economic tasks within a workplace?

  4. It’s a good article and a necessary step in the ‘theory’ of balanced jobs, namely systematically analysing the balancing of jobs between enterprises, how it could be organised, and the consequences.

    Let me add: I believe strongly that analysis of job balancing - in general, not just between enterprises - won’t advance much without considering concrete examples. There’s only so much we can glean by thinking in generalities. By concrete example I mean picking an enterprise and thinking through, step-by-step, how job balancing might happen. For example, a restaurant, a bank, a print factory, an electrical utility company.

    There are questions which arise in the practical details. For example, the difference between balancing jobs within a workplace and within an enterprise. Consider a Shell petrol station. Very little scope for balancing jobs in that workplace. But there is more scope within Shell the enterprise (ignoring issues of franchising here).

    By considering concrete examples we get a sense of how things could work in practice. Insufficiencies become much more apparent, prompting us to consider solutions in a more targeted way.

    While I’m here, I’ll also add: we should be thinking about balancing jobs in two ways. Static job balancing & dynamic job balancing. Static (one point in time) is what Parecon proposes. Given a fixed stock of tasks, distribute them among workers this year. Dynamic (through time) is what Pat Devine proposes in Democracy and Economic Planning. Each person has several jobs throughout their lifetime, passing through different categories of work (p. 171: planning & running, creative, nurturing, skilled, unskilled & repetitive). Anders touches on this in his article.

    In general I think we need to be carefully identify the goals of balancing jobs and keep them separate. For example, pleasantness and empowerment can overlap but they are different. Unpleasantness can be compensated with higher personal consumption, but empowerment can’t (no greater consumption will make someone a confident and competent citizen). Also ‘empowering for what?’. Someone could work on an assembly line (unskilled repetitive) but volunteer as a youth worker in their off-hours (planning & running, nurturing, skilled; leadership, meaningful, etc). Is that sort of thing an acceptable substitute? If so, what are the implications for the system? If not, why not? And so on.

  5. Thank you all for commenting on the article.

    I want to add another (personal) comment about job balancing within workplaces that I hope is appropriate in the context of some of the issues raised by Thomas and Aftertheoligarchy.

    In my view, job balancing can never be more than a (strong) recommendation. It cannot be codified into some kind of law, with punishments when not adhered to. It is thus a bit different from the institutions of self-managed councils (one person - one vote) and participatory planning with a defined planning procedure. And furthermore, there is a potential contradiction between self-management and job balancing where self-management in my view must take precedence. If a workplace does a bad job of balancing their jobs or even democratically ignores the recommendation altogether I don’t see how that can have any consequences in terms of punishment.

    With this in mind, I have personally always felt content by leaving the issue of job balancing in workplaces to future workplaces and, with reference to the arguments in the article, even disregarding job balancing between workplaces. It is not that I don’t understand the importance of job balancing. I DO believe it should be a strong recommendation and it should be strongly advocated but the actual and practical implementation will by necessity be up to the workplaces to decide, with their different focuses and preferences and they should be self-managed.

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