Work, Good Work, and Counterfeits

Sometimes what gets called 'work' does not promote human flourishing


Justice Politics

California is a mixed bag, and here’s an example of just how mixed. We have a new Employee Ownership office, a government hub to help companies explore worker-owned models. The American Solidarity Party would applaud this effort. Indeed, its new party platform says: “We support regulatory and tax support to transition workers to share in the ownership and management of their production, such as trade guilds, cooperatives, and employee stock ownership programs.”

It makes sense, then, for Solidarians to reach out to the Worker Owned Recovery California Coalition (WORC), which promotes broad-based worker ownership through legislative advocacy and education. So, I did just that in some recent Zoom sessions.

In the last meeting, the discussion was especially instructive on organizing in the agricultural sector. Then the conversation turned to, well, “less explored” venues. Strippers, it seems, would benefit from owning their own strip clubs. Right. But why not think big? “Sex workers” should take charge of their own labor.

At this point, I suggested a pause for reflection. The coordinator noted that there wouldn’t be time to do so. Again, at the close of the discussion, I expressed the hope that we do some serious thinking about work, real work, and counterfeit work.

The next day I wrote the lead coordinator the following letter.


Good to join in today’s meeting. And we need to “re-group” to have you speak at an American Solidarity Party (California) Committee meeting.

My larger point today is simply that while process is, of course, crucial, we can’t forget about the larger good that the (organizing) process serves. The good at issue, for us, is work. And work is itself good because it is a core dimension of human flourishing.

Sometimes what gets called “work” does not promote human flourishing. An egregious case: lots of incarcerated people and their contacts on “the outside” work under the direction of the Mexican Mafia. Extortion is a favorite sort of “work” for the MM. (See recent articles in the L.A. Times.) What gets called “sex work” is in fact linked with human trafficking. Red flags here, what?

All the best…

Not hearing back, a few days later I sent a postscript: “Please see (Nicholas) Kristof’s “When Children are Bought and Sold” in today’s N.Y. Times, 7/21/23, A23. Comments welcome.”

Still no word. I’m wondering if I’ll be invited to the next WORC meeting. But if I’m not shut out, maybe there will be time to offer an argument. I’ve been thinking about what I’ll (try to) say.

A metaphor comes to mind. Work, I’ll submit, becomes very good work, the best kind of work, when we become part-owners of the “workbench” on which we are working with everyone else. Labor and capital can then join with a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social, and cultural purposes. These groups would enjoy real autonomy, join in honest collaboration, and look to the common good. Authentic communities would emerge, and their members would be treated as persons and encouraged to take an active part in the life of the whole. In saying this much, I would be paraphrasing St. John Paul II’s encyclical On Human Work.

But we know full well that what’s called “work” can in reality be a dismal and degrading counterfeit.

How so? Let me hazard a brief and imagined “downhome” exchange to explain. (I leave it to the reader to complete.)

Uncle Ned: “How’s everything with your son Bubba? Any luck with the job search?”

Aunt Sally: “Yes, at last! And he’s bringing in a decent salary.”

Uncle Ned: “So what’s his new line?”

Aunt Sally: “Well, he’s full time now in…

a strip joint, or

a brothel, or

poppy production, or

manufacturing cluster-bombs.

Uncle Ned: “And you’re OK with that?”

Aunt Sally: “At first I wasn’t so sure. But, hey, he’s a co-owner, don’t you see? It’s a cooperative thing! So it’s really dignified.”

Having eyes, they see not. As Virgil wrote, “sunt lacrimae rerum.” That is, the world is a world of tears. Not just California.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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