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Precarious work and the organisation of workers

by Maurizio Atzeni on June 3, 2016

The issue of precarious work and of the organisation of precarious workers is becoming one of the core themes of research not just within the sociology of work and labour but also across the whole social sciences’ spectrum. Conditions of precariousness or precarity at work are in fact directly connected with discussions on the models of global capital accumulation, on life conditions in urbanised environments, on the emergence of new subjectivities and the politics of representation, on the reconfiguration of the working class and its organisations, on social justice and civil rights and on migrations and borders’ regulations. Discussions on precarity are thus profoundly interdisciplinary, transnational in their reach and critical of the status quo, interrogating the present in search of a more equal future.

Workers and labour bookIn this sense, research on precarity, both as a work and material life condition, is highly political almost by its own nature and this is a fundamental point to stress for research aiming to social change. In the context of the worldwide crisis of the traditional labour movement and the erosion of workers’ rights, two open questions directly interrogate the political dimension of precarity. Can precarity be seen as the new common ground, the new common condition around which different and newly emerging subjectivities can mobilise? Is precarity reconfiguring the organisational and political forms of working class representation?

Many have rightly questioned that precarity is something new. Developing countries have always had and continue to have informal, low paid, insecure and thus precarious workforces. Similarly, Western countries’ early industrial development has been based on the exploitation of a mass of poorly paid workers, often living in appalling conditions, something similar to what is experienced today by Chinese workers. Despite ameliorations and protective legislation gained through decades of worldwide working class struggles for political representation, 2.8 billion people, the majority of the working people in the world, still live with less than two dollars a day, an income for their work sufficient enough just to live in barely sustainable conditions. Moreover, two centuries after the formal abolition of slavery, millions of workers, continue to be victims of various forms of forced and bonded labour, particularly in the apparel and food industries serving the world consumers’ market. Thus, when we take this broader historical and geographical perspective, not just precarious work appears as the norm within capitalism, following Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter, and, on the contrary, Fordism the exception but also the same idea of the ideal-typical, formal, protected, Fordist industrial worker. The latter has for more than a century been the epitome of the working class but it clearly becomes partial and one-sided. As Michael Denning rightly argued in his attempt to ‘decentre wage labour’, it is not necessarily the wage as formal contract of exchange that creates proletarians but ‘the imperative to earn a living’.

Precarity is not new. Differences of conditions in different parts of the world and economic sectors make precarity as a general mobilising concept difficult to use. Organising workers to struggle against precarious working conditions is further complicated by the autonomy and geographical dispersion that characterise many precarious jobs today. But a series of technological, organisational  and socio-economical changes, simultaneously affecting the world system, have led to new reconfigurations of work and labour centred one way or another on conditions of precarity. Western urban labour markets have been transformed into post-industrial, service oriented precarious environments inhabited by a growing mass of unprotected migrant workers;  the consolidation of cities across the globe as centres of value creation and realisation, led by financial and real estate speculation, has produced an increase in the global urban population, with profound inequalities both in terms of living and working conditions and access to consumption goods;  the development of distribution, logistics, transport and services provision across the global value chain has allowed corporations to extract value across the whole chain using existing countries differentials;  the spread of information technology, the lowering costs of sea and land transportation and the speed of capital’s mobility have facilitated processes of delocalisation and a ‘race to the bottom’, in terms of salaries and working conditions. Services based on digital platforms such as the one provided by Uber or Amazon’s Mechanical Turks further flexibilise and deregulate work, penalising particularly women and young people that remain trapped by the possibility of an easy economic return with flexible work hours.

Differences among the various forms of precariousness exist and theoretically a ‘multiplication of labour’, made up by a variegated range of ‘subaltern’ workers’ is enlarging the concept of the working class beyond the model industrial workers of the twentieth-century. However, all these technological, organisational and socio-political changes are creating to a certain extent, especially in urbanised areas of the world, common conditions of precarious work and life for many. Precarity as a material condition is today crossing the divide between previously clear demarcations: the formal/informal; citizens/no citizens; North/South; workplace/community. Similarly, the creation of new geographical spaces of capital accumulation such as special economic zones, land and maritime industrial and commercial corridors, logistic hubs, or border industrial zones, produce a potentially critical mass of precarious, mainly migrant, workers located often at strategic points of global capitalism’s productive chains.

From a political point of view, the sharing of similar working and living conditions and of experiences of struggle against precarity can open the room for a new common language of dispossession and oppression of a new working class in the making. However, the passage from an understanding of the common materialities and differences composing today’s living labour to the composition of a political subject promoting the interests of the working class majority, as Marxist autonomists would probably phrase it, is constantly obstructed by ideological and material conditions.

As social scientists committed to the production of socially relevant research there is much we can do in the ideological sphere to raise social awareness and produce a counter-hegemonic knowledge. We can establish connections between specific models of accumulations/institutional frameworks and workers’ material conditions and show how these models are actively produced and reproduced, creating simultaneously solidarity and fragmentation among workers and thus explaining the difficulties experienced by these in terms of organisation.  We can produce new knowledge on unexplored and invisible sections of the working class or map capital and living labour composition in geographically defined and strategic areas, such as cities or logistic hubs. We can study precarious workers and their political alliances, their organisational forms and their links with state institutions and power. We can investigate how new class identities and organisations are increasingly built across space, in the workplace, in the community, in the household, connecting the spheres of work and life. We should, following David Harvey, understand consumerism and the lifestyles dictated by the form that urbanisation takes and how they are important in creating new needs, new demands and new interests on the part of workers and thus how ‘to get around with forms of organising that actually recognise this change in the dynamics of class struggle’.

All these are existing and potential lines of research that can help to link the issue of precarious work to a broader political economic dimension and to ground debates on the perspectives of precarious workers’ organisation within the context of currently and locally existing capitalist relations, rather than in more abstracted trade unions’ strategies and responses. In fact, the mayor problem that the ‘rediscovery’ of precarious work as an area of research within the field of labour studies has created is that it has not been accompanied, in general, by a serious reflection on the problem of organisation. Studies have generally focused on top-down, trade union-centred experiences and strategies of organising precarious workers and even when other configurations and alliances have been considered, as with the case of community unionism, this has always been done from a trade unions’ point of view. This narrow approach does not allow us to delve deep into the complexity and richness of the social processes and mediations conducive to collective organisations and to identify the contextual structural factors, material circumstances and concrete possibilities affecting precarious workers’ daily reality.

SassenThe issue of precarity and precarious work is central to any emancipatory discussions within current capitalist dynamics.  But we have to be able to move from a still dominant trade union-centred approach to a truly working class analysis and do this by reconnecting the precarity affecting the sphere of work with that affecting the other spheres of life. This can be done, for instance, by looking at how the precaritisation of work and life has been supported by the unpaid work women have continued to supply within the sphere of social reproduction and how this has created different strategies of resistance and survival beyond the workplaces. Similarly, we can look at the experiences of self-management and the solidarity economy in neighbourhoods as forms of people resistance to the precaritisation of work and life that simultaneously prefigure alternatives to working arrangements and economics.

In a recent intervention on building working class power, David Harvey argued that organising territories around the difficulties of everyday life is what would help the leftists to get out of the ‘symbiotic relationship’ of organising ‘themselves in the same way capital accumulation is reorganised’. Footprints of labour studies’ ‘symbiotic relationship’ with a trade union-represented working class continue to be dominant across social sciences disciplines.  Trade unions can still play a powerful role in organising workers worldwide, but an analysis of today’s work through the lens of precarious work and the forms of organisation that converge around this can emerge, to offer a ‘tipping point’, in Saskia Sassen’s definition, through which we understand broader changes in working class conditions and issues, opening up new hope and possibilities for emancipation from capitalist work. This is important for critical social sciences.

Maurizio Atzeni
Maurizio Atzeni is a researcher based in Buenos Aires at the Center for Labour Relations, National Research Council of Argentina. He has written extensively on work and labour issues in articles and books published internationally. Among his recent publications is the book Workers and Labour in a Globalised Capitalism: theoretical themes and contemporary issues (Palgrave, 2013), in which work is analysed from the broader perspective of political economy.

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