Liberating labor to heal the world

Thomas Coutrot

(Español/Français) Every morning, millions of workers wake up and go to work to produce, use or sell something contributing to destroying life on earth, and this work makes them ill. Whether in the automobile or ship-building industries, or the electrical, chemical, oil and food ones, finance, agriculture, computer science, civil engineering, advertising or research, capital needs the active engagement of employees in all of these largely deadly activities. However, the neo-taylorist model – which expanded to ensure more control over the work of employees – is destroying both their commitment and their health. However, this contradiction lays at the heart of a possible emancipatory strategy based on the interweaving of the social and ecological crises.

We know that the logics of accumulation and profit maximization required under capitalism are not compatible with the transition towards a more sustainable way of life. In order to establish a society based on the good life, labor needs to take care of life instead of collaborating in its destruction. In this chapter, I seek to demonstrate that this is entirely possible insofar as social movements succeed in mobilizing the power of living labor and care against financial abstraction, like in the case of many initiatives. This supposes to reconnect with a worker and popular tradition buried under more than one century of productivism.

Suffering at work and loss of sense

Globalization pits workers of the entire world against each other. Management deploys electronic surveillance to discipline and intensify work. Social rights are diminished by neoliberal “reforms” and increasingly precarious jobs revived insecurity and fear. Everywhere, work makes one sick.

The capitalist pseudo-rationalization of labor has deepened, including in public services, based on the eternal taylorist principles now coupled with digital technologies: cutting work in elementary tasks, standardizing it, controlling it, before eventually being able to automate it. Everywhere, the obsession with financial returns (or the reduction of public spending) and control has imposed quantified individual objectives and permanent reporting that make work lose all its meaning. The neo-taylorist organization of labor causes epidemics of musculoskeletal disorders, generalized anxiety, burnout and depression, whether for “bullshit jobs”[1] in the North or industrial prisons in the South.

The only compensation offered for such suffering at work is the promise of indulgement in consumption: the hope of buying, even on credit, the latest Iphone, the new Nintendo console, or for those earning more, the latest BMW. The consumerist imaginary thrives while working conditions are deteriorating, while the hyper-consumption of junk food, drugs and other euphoriants are causing sanitary disasters.

Well beyond workers and consumers, it is nature in its entirety which is victim of this mad race: the contamination of water, air and soil, the extinction of species and climate change are none other than pathologies of productivism.

The gear of production

Worsening inequalities and environmental destruction do not point towards a viable future. Countless dystopian blockbusters describe a future world devastated by hyper-violence, fascism and contamination. And yet workers, citizens do not revolt, or too often entrust their hopes to national-populist leaders who exacerbate these tensions. Is this unavoidable?

Unions have lost strength with the increasing casualization of wage labor, but they retain millions of members and remain by far the main organized force of civil society. Considering how rooted they are in the production process, they could challenge this mortifying organization of work and its purposes. The first trade unionists – those of the associationalist movement of the first half of the nineteenth century – refused “wage slavery” and sought the free association of workers. Today, attacks on the health of employees and life on the planet could encourage their successors to claim control over the conditions of work and production, and to form alliances with scientists, consumers, health professionals and environmental associations…

However, this is rarely the case. Wage earners remain in a relationship of subordination in which the employers have the monopoly of decision-making regarding what is produced and how. The unions are struggling to break free from the classic agenda of social negotiations, which only focus on the quantitative aspects of work such as employment, salary and duration… To ensure their salary at the end of the month, workers are recruited reluctantly inside the so-called “the gear of production”[2]: to always produce more, anything actually, always cheaper and to favor the interests of capital which would otherwise flow elsewhere.

Historically, the workers movement accepted this kind of subordination in exchange of purchasing power and social security. However, the consequences for the environment have been catastrophic, especially with the raging use of fossil fuels. It has also been heavy for democracy, with an increasing resignation to authority in the workplace and therefor – by an inevitable contamination – in the cities[3]. However, this fordist compromise was rejected by employers since the neoliberal shift in the 1980s, and returning to it would be neither desirable nor sustainable today.

The search for shareholder value at all costs is indifferent to the impacts of labor on the world: as Marx might have said, abstract work crushes concrete work. As for the so-called green growth promised by some, it is but a mere illusion: there is no growth without increased consumption of energy and materials, without CO2 emissions and additional pollution. The Internet, flagship of the so-called immaterial economy, already consumes nearly 10% of the world’s electricity. We must aim for the decline in material and energy consumption in order to stop the production cycle and shift towards a society based on the good life and frugality – something completely incompatible with the capitalist obsession of accumulation.

Can trade unionism take this turn? It seems more than necessary considering that “without the defection of one of the central actors of the gear [of production], the hope of seriously shaking the status quo is weak”[4]. However, at first glance, things might seem off to a bad start.

Trade unionism and ecology: a prevailingly shy convergence

It must be admitted that in most cases, trade unions have little interest in the quality and usefulness of work. They sometimes even defend work at all costs, against citizens’ aspirations for clean production and a healthy environment. In France, trade unions in the nuclear industry – in particular the CGT[5] Energy – are at the forefront of the fight against plans to close down obsolete and dangerous nuclear plants. In the United States, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)[6] supports the shale gas industry and the construction of pipelines for the transportation of fossil fuels, while German and European unions in the chemical industry have worked with employers to limit the application of the REACH regulation over the use of chemicals in Europe.

Nevertheless, things are still moving about. Numerous initiatives are flourishing, thereby renewing aspirations to reclaim control on how and why we work and to bring freedom and democracy to the workplace. The AFL-CIO itself has always been ambivalent. For example, it has supported “the creation of federal laws for the protection and preservation of wilderness […] The AFL-CIO supported the defenders of the most emblematic environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts […]. After several decades of job losses in the industry, some union leaders have come to recognize that it is the employers, not the environmentalists, who are destroying jobs”[7]. The Blue Green Alliance brings together the main trade union federations and environmental organizations to fight global warming. At the international level, trade unionism is strongly committed to establishing alliances for a “just transition” and “climate jobs”. This is the case of the International Transport Federation (ITF) which advocates for the priority of public transports in order to reduce CO2 emissions[8].

In Belgium, the two major trade unions centers, the Christian Trade Union Confederation and the General Federation of Belgian Labor (also called the FGTB) run the Inter-Trade Union Network for Environmental Awareness (( The Trades Union Congress (TUC) of Great Britain encourages the creation of “environmental delegates” to reduce the environmental impact of production and lead campaigns to “green workplaces”[9]. In France, the CGT claims the enlargement of the “Committee for Health, Safety and Working Conditions” (CHSCT) to “Committees for Health, Safety, Working Conditions and the Environment” (CHSCTE)[10]. The trade union Solidaires is very attentive to these questions and regularly publishes a bulletin of “Solidarity Ecology” which shows the concrete links between work and ecology.

While many national and international union leaders have understood the importance of expanding these themes of struggle, it is much less the case at the local or sectorial level. This is evidently not the case for peasant unions because of their direct relationship to nature. A few examples include Chico Mendes and the fight of the seringueiros (rubber harvesters) for a sustainable exploitation of the Amazon resources, or the Kerala artisanal fishermen’s union, the KSMTF, which fought against industrial trawlers to preserve the sea and fish[11]. Peasant unions, like those united in La Via Campesina, also fight to protect nature against the predatory agro-industry. However, it is more difficult to find such examples in industry or services.

In the case of France, we can name the intervention of the CGT of the Vinci group against the construction of the airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Management, other figures and several local unions supported the airport project in the name of regional development and employment for twenty years, against the peasants threatened with expropriation and the autonomous environmental activists of the ZAD. Breaking with the productivist consensus in a remarkable text entitled “we are not mercenaries”, the CGT-Vinci joined forces with the anti-airport struggle: “our compass remains the social utility of production, the development of our territories, the well-being of the employees who sustain them and the stability of our jobs: the true meaning of the word “progress”. A few months later, the government announced the abandonment of the project.

However, such examples often remain too isolated. The trade unionist movement cannot only cultivate alliances in order to put health and ecology – the stakes of concrete labor – at the heart of its strategy. It must find the political resources that will revitalize its action in the activity of labor itself, as demonstrated by new union practices that are striving to achieve more balanced power relations around issues of quality of labor.

To work is to disobey!

Everything stems from the well-known fact in the science of work (ergonomics, psychology, sociology …), that to work is to disobey. Faced with the variability and uncertainty of changing weather, the heavy bag of cement, the restive animal, the broken machinery, the irritated customer, the complicated problem etc. official instructions offer some guidance, but these are never enough. Indeed, to get the job done, one has to adapt these instructions, to circumvent them, to invent other rules. Nothing good comes out of strictly following the instructions. Quite the contrary, following them can even lead to blocking the entire production process, like during industrial actions known as “work-to-rule”. Ergonomists have long shown that even in the seemingly most physical work – that of handlers for example – “the essence of their work is their thinking”[12].

The systematic and irreducible gap between prescribed work and actual work has two major effects. On one hand, it must be filled by the indispensable creativity of the individual in his work, which we can qualify – using Marxist terms – as his/her/their “living labor”[13]. Faced with unforeseen circumstances that constantly arise, improvisation – based on experience – is always required. A fully routinized task eventually ends up being automated. On the other hand, it makes the collective creation of working rules – resulting from the experience and exchanges between colleagues, transmitted and reworked over time – something indispensable. These rules, often clandestine, support and contribute to the capacity to improvise.

Living labor is the real activity of the person working: this is what he/she/they deploy(s) with sensitivity, affect, intelligence, inventiveness, empathy, to overcome obstacles and achieve not only the goals assigned by the organization, but also his/her/their own goals. As Marx would say: “the reversal of these obstacles constitutes an affirmation of freedom in itself […] the self-realization, objectification of the subject, hence real freedom, whose action is, precisely, labor”.

By circumventing instructions and orders, employees clandestinely exercise their freedom to defend their own conception of “working well”. While the boss wants “quality for the market” – i.e. quality maximizing profits – workers seek to make a beautiful object, to satisfy the real needs of the customer, to take care not only of other people but increasingly to take care of endangered nature. By working, each one is inspired by his/her/their personal and professional ethics, the need to feel useful and recognized as well as the concern of others and of life: to do quality work, from the point of view of the workers, very often implies to struggle against the numerical objectives and the logics of financial abstraction.

Struggle to work well

At Volkswagen, engineers had to lie and rig to invent a software concealing the true level of CO2 emissions from their diesel engines. We know the financial consequences that this scandal had on the firm, but we do not know what the psychological cost was for the workers involved in this fraud: “this affair reveals the civic significance of the work for the whole of humanity, when the quality of manufactured products and services poisons the existence of all “[14].

Workers usually experience these conflicts in very solidarity, isolated ways, which lead them to frustration, boredom, anger, and often suffering or even depression. However, if trade unions were dedicated to taking care of them, this would not have to be the case. For example, from 2008 to 2010, the CGT, with the help of researchers, conducted a remarkable action research at Renault, particularly at the factory in Le Mans. First, they developed an investigative study to survey the employees, which helped them understand precisely how their work was being hindered. Then, they brought them together through debates, which helped them assert their own standards of quality and to obtain very concrete adjustments, not only of working conditions but of production methods. After which, they rapidly even challenged the very purposes of production.

Fabien Gache, the main representative of CGT Renault, summarizes the conclusions of this experiment: “the more we look at real labor in detail, the more we discover the interest that is brought to it by employees, and the more the question of the meaning of what we do, what we produce is posed individually and collectively (…) The emancipation of the employee at work appears as the constituent element of his/her/their own health, capacity to act on the surroundings and therefore to fully be a citizen in society”[15]. Incidentally, the union has recruited a large number of new members.

It is by taking charge during these conflicts – which most mobilize the employees – that trade unionism can both rebuild its power to act in workplaces and forge links with external actors concerned by concrete issues of labor. It is by contrasting their conception of working well with the one promoted by capital that employees can integrate ethical dimensions into their struggles such as the dignity of peoples and the defense of the health of humans and nature against the greed of the ruling classes.

The new practices of living labor

Even without the interference of trade unions, new practices of work orientated towards taking care of others and taking care of the world are asserting themselves everywhere, often outside the workforce. Many examples include renewable energy co-operatives, collaborative co-operatives, help for the elderly or home care, amongst others.

In Germany and Denmark, the energy transition was largely based on a citizen and communal movement of renewable energy cooperatives, supported by a public development bank; these cooperatives now produce 30 to 40% of electricity. In France, Atelier Paysan (Peasant Workshop) is a collaborative cooperative, a “farm lab”, which advises and helps farmers to design and build equipment and machinery adapted to the technical and cultural practices of organic farming. The employment cooperative Coopaname organizes hundreds of self-employed workers who pool their resources to finance their own employee status and benefit from its protection. In Catalonia, collaborative cooperatives are booming, especially with the support of the city of Barcelona. The collaborative telecommunication network ensures access to broadband in remote areas of Spain for more than 50,000 users, through radio waves or optical fiber.

With the increasing aging of populations, the professions of care for the dependent elderly have been developing but according to very different models. Most often, like in France, bureaucratized associations or capitalist groups like Orpéa are the ones managing large, very expensive and often inhuman institutions because of the pseudo-rationalization of care. In Japan, on the other hand, the long-term care insurance scheme, created by the government in 2000, has funded the development of thousands of local eldercare associations, where caregiving work can be deployed in a real logic of care[16].

The commons at the service of care

These experiences illustrate the extraordinary potential of hybridization between the commons and care. The logic of commons is not limited to certain categories of resources, whether they are natural or digital: it irrigates any project that makes participation, responsibility and co-decision inseparable. In the same way, the ethics of care has a validity that goes far beyond personal care activities. The beautiful definition proposed by Joan Tronto makes it clear: care is “the generic activity that includes everything we do to maintain, perpetuate and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live there as well as we can. This world includes our body, ourselves and our environment, all the elements we seek to connect in a complex network, in support of life”[17]. This opens up perspectives for all labor activities where our bodies, ourselves and our environment are always involved.

The renewal of the commons and the affirmation of the ethics of care are also observed in the new forms of collaborative and self-governing work that some managerial sectors promote – which should not be neglected. When consultants invent models of work organization where individual autonomy and collective intelligence replace obedience and subordination, and where the mission of the enterprise is not profit but a societal goal, something undoubtedly new is happening[18].

These models dispute the conception of profit as an end in itself, even if it is necessary for the survival of the company. They are inspired by the functioning of living systems, where the nested levels of organization operate according to the principle of subsidiarity: the lower levels solve all the problems that do not require an overview themselves. They question the postulate, hitherto undisputed (including in the Left!), of the indispensable character of hierarchy. By reorganizing work according to principles of equality and autonomy, its productive efficiency is not diminished but increased. According to Jean Gadrey’s formula, collaborative work of care allows to “go from productivity to quality”. Quality work requires being attentive to the consequences of different production choices and deliberating together to decide, and it requires companies to have an organization and governance capable of producing this deliberation and attention.

Of course, these principles are not compatible with the dictatorship of shareholders. Even if the self-government of labor allows for better quality at the same or even lower cost, it forces capital to give up power to the employees and to risk losing control. This is why the experiments of “agile work” or “liberated enterprise” are always deeply disappointing or even depressing for those who believed in it. The logic of capital is much more that of power than of profit: if one has to choose between more profit but less power, or the opposite, the leaders almost always prefer power. However, this contradiction between freedom and employee initiative, which is essential to production, and the obsession with shareholder and bureaucratic control, forces management to try innovating while being unable to really let go. This is a particularly challenging field of struggle to rebuild more equal power relationships by making the quality of work a truly political issue.

While forces which today seem all-powerful would fiercely resist it, pursuing this agenda would be in the interests of a great deal of social actors. By posing the political requirement of quality work, trade unionism could, of course, benefit from an immense legitimacy. Alongside researchers in the sciences of work, it could multiply experiments in companies and demonstrate the political power of the freedom of labor. It will have to deepen its alliances with citizen movements that defend health, ecology and real democracy, organizations of patients, consumers, local communities in transition, health professionals, researchers for citizen science, ecological organizations, actors involved in the solidarity and collaborative economy, hackers and activists, movements of alternative pedagogies, indignant citizens and activists advocating direct democracy, but also humanist managers… there is a long list of social actors potentially interested in policies promoting living labor, which would undoubtedly be a powerful lever for reviving democracy, as it is impossible to envisage real democracy in the city without democracy in the workplace.

The two key players are, of course, trade unions and environmental movement. The former could play a leading role, as long as it gives up its relationship with dead labor – “parity principles” between “social partners” – to move towards the construction of an alliance for the sustainability of life. The latter could also play an important role, insofar as it would firmly commit itself against social inequalities and the unlimited accumulation of capital. As Laurent Vogel of the European Trade Union Confederation – an expert on the difficult relations between trade unions and ecology – claims, a double cultural revolution is necessary: ​​”in the trade union movement, a critical vision of the productivist ideology, of the belief that the growth measured by traditional indicators is the condition of social progress; in the ecological movement, the abandonment of naive conceptions on the possible emergence of green capitalism without upsetting relations of domination”[19].

Building these alliances for labor, nature and democracy is a difficult task. It would be easier if unions succeeded in experimenting and constructing strategies advocating quality work, away from shareholder requirements, to begin pursuing other objectives than unreasonable and short-term financial profitability. At the same time, this recovery of work by employees would be easier if it relied on the expectations of stakeholders outside the company, on the aspirations of citizens for an autonomous, quality work, i.e. the only guarantors of the preservation of the environment and democracy. “This is the bottom of the ecological question: we cannot pretend to save the planet by trampling on labor”[20]: it is, by and large, through work and inside the workplace that the possibility of a decent human life will be preserved, or will eventually be destroyed faster than we imagine.

[1] David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, A theory, Simon and Schuster, 2018

[2] Brian Obach, « New Labor : Slowing the Treadmill of Production ? » Organization & Environment, Vol 17, Issue 3, 2004 ;  « Un nouveau syndicalisme : ralentir l’engrenage de la production », Mouvements, n°4, 2014.

[3] Thomas Coutrot, Libérer le travail, Seuil, 2018, chapitre 9.

[4] B. Obach, op. cit.

[5] The General Confederation of Labour (or Confédération générale du travail in French) is one of the largest French confederations of trade unions.

[6] The largest federation of unions in the United States

[7] B. Obach, op. cit.


[9] Half of UK carbon emissions are produced by work activity. Workplaces burn energy, consume resources and generate waste and travel”, Greening the Workplace, TUC Workplace Manual, 2012.

[10] However, the government of Macron eliminated the CHSCT in 2018…

[11] Rohan D. Mathews, « Fishworkers Movement in Kerala, India », 2011,

[12] As claimed Alain Wisner, in L. Leal Ferreira, J. Foret, « Un entretien avec Wisner au Brésil », Travailler, n° 15, 2006.

[13] Christophe Dejours, Travail vivant. Tome 2 : Travail et émancipation, Payot, 2009

[14] Yves Clot, « Clinique, travail et politique », in A. Cukier (dir.), Travail vivant et théorie critique, PUF, 2017.

[15] Fabien Gache,

[16] Chizuko Ueno, The Modern Family in Japan. Melbourne: Transpacific Press,  2009.

[17] Joan Tronto, Un monde vulnérable. Pour une politique du care, La Découverte, 2009, p. 143.

[18] Like the model of holocracy (Brian J. Robertson, La révolution Holacracy, Alisio) or the self-managed enterprise (Frédéric Laloux, Reinventing organizations, Diateino, 2014).

[19] Laurent Vogel, « Enjeux et incertitudes de la politique européenne en santé au travail », Mouvements, 2 / 58, 2009

[20] Yves Clot , « Le travail souffre, c’est lui qu’il faut soigner ! », Septembre 2010,