In the months leading up to my old workplace being shutdown to bring in yet another fast food store in the name of profit, I joked with a few colleagues about the idea of a ‘revolution’, where we would take over the store and collectively own it without corporate control. (I feel I should disclose that there are no hard feelings over this, and that I’m not attacking the move to change franchise). After a few months since the shutdown, however, reflection has led me to acknowledge that the idea, while light-hearted at the time, may have made sense.
I am in no way suggesting that my colleagues and I should have ‘taken over’, but more focus on our approach to the job, the nature of working itself, and why it would not have been surprising if such events were to occur. Let’s start off by mentioning the old saying “those who work the factories ought to own them too”. That was the mindset one of my friends had after, of course, reading none other than the Communist Manifesto and agreeing with Marxist ideas. It is also a view I hold, with my usual examples of Amazon, Apple, or Nike. The conditions that these companies’ workers endure, especially in third world companies making the products, is horrific just from a human rights perspective. But take it a step further and consider worker autonomy, and if those workers actually owned their own labour, and the conditions and their general quality of life will dramatically improve.
I’ll use my previous workplace as an example, bypassing the more drastic abuses of other corporate giants that can be discussed elsewhere. Considering the only ‘abuse’ I can recall is the federal minimum wage not being reached until 20 years of age (as opposed to 18, as it should be), I have absolutely no complaint against the company I worked for in any respect – this is simply an evolution to how work is approached by workers that has been discussed for hundreds of years.
On Motivations to Work
If you asked most people today why they worked, the most likely answer would be financial security. In a hospitality job like mine, where the majority of workers were under 18 and dependent, security can probably be interpreted as savings. But while money (or fear of a lack of money) may compel some to maintain a job, the morale of a worker forced to work simply to survive or for material value will be consistently low. While the conditions of work may be fair, and the pay reasonable, it does not allow for the enjoyment of work.
The joy of work, in my view (as expressed by many before me in one way or another), is in ownership of your own labour and in the product produced. Therefore, whatever is produced by you is owned by you and you receive the fruits of that labour, e.g. you serve customers a meal in a restaurant owned by those who work there, and the profits belong, collectively, to those workers. When your labour is sold for a wage or salary for the benefit of someone ‘above’ you, there is a disconnect between you and the work you are completing. When money is the ‘motivation’, but most of the money is siphoned away, whether consciously or not a worker knows they are the victim of injustice.
So if money is not a compelling enough reason to work on its own merits in a capitalist system, why then did I, and others, enjoy working and doing so with pride? Pride has a role, of course, on par with ownership, where one is invested in the betterment of the workplace for both personal and collective reasons. As a team, we were invested in making the store as successful as possible, not only because of our attachment to it but so that all of us benefitted and shared in the labour and gains from it. When one section needed assistance, others took on the required role so the process ran smoothly. When I started in 2013, this did not exist, and with a change of management got progressively better over time. Looking back, it is fascinating to see the growth.
In the same vein, friendships between staff and management were high. Sure, all workplaces have the occasional drama, but overall the atmosphere and bond between everyone was amiable. Many people, myself included, even if we felt no real connection to the store, greatly appreciated the work environment we created for each other. This social cohesion, if coupled with collective ownership of the store and our own labour, would have been the ideal situation for everyone.
Without disclosing figures, our store was making a decent profit; the reason for our shutting down was that the replacement franchise would make high profits at a lower cost. A common and logical conclusion to reach from the business perspective, but this is where such corporate oversight is a hindrance. If the staff owned the store as an individual entity, without ties or obligations to stakeholders or ‘higher’ management and bureaucracy, we would have been incredibly successful with the profit margin we had.
A fantasy? Perhaps. I prefer to see it as the next evolution in labour from what’s called ‘wage slavery’. Money is but one aspect of a person’s drive to work, and as my own experience (even in so short a working life) has shown me, it is by no means the deciding factor. Since the store shutdown, I have begun writing on this site, not getting or expecting money to do so. I do it out of enjoyment and a sense of achievement and impact. On a personal level, I am content with what I have done and want to do; on a broader level, time will tell where this leads. Best of all – I am not bound to or constrained by any outside influences.
The old store was never somewhere that I’d have stayed at much longer than the almost 5 years I was there, but the memories and reflections I’ve taken from that time have been enlightening. Even within a capitalist frame, the natural collective atmosphere that touched everything we did was profound. Jokes about a Marxist revolution aside, I would not have hesitated to take up such proposed ownership with my former colleagues if the chance had arisen.
Maybe one day we will reach that next stage of work evolution, but for now it is comforting to know that our natural inclination towards such an idea has not been drowned out.