August 2013        

The precarious working class

Increasing numbers of workers are being condemned to jobs that offer no security of employment, no fixed hours of work, and very little prospect of achieving a decent standard of living.
     This is nothing new, as anyone who has read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists knows; but the number is increasing significantly in Ireland, and indeed globally, and it is now clear that the debt socialised by the state is being used as the context for a restructuring of the economy as a low-wage, low-security economy, undoing a century of hard-won gains by trade union and socialist activists.
     In Ireland, Greece and Portugal, as well as countries that have applied for membership of the EU, unelected bureaucrats and central bankers impose not only debt and privatisation but labour “reforms” and industrial relations reforms that are restructuring society to meet the needs of highly mobile and aggressive capital. In other EU counties, including Germany, “partnership” arrangements are used to implement similar structural changes that protect older permanent employees while facilitating the restructuring towards precarious work.
     These are significant changes that, a hundred years after the 1913 Lock-out, are undoing a century of labour victories and progress for working people, shocking (in the sense of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine) society backwards. This crisis is being used to transform society even further towards the needs of capital and towards the very basic level of pay required to reproduce just enough of labour globally to maintain the working class for the needs of capital. Subsistence living and poverty are a reality for many workers, never mind the plight of the billions of unemployed.
     An insight provided by Marxist political economy (and bourgeois political economists, including Adam Smith) is the labour theory of value, which sees the price of a commodity fluctuate above or below the amount of labour involved in producing it. Viewing labour itself as a commodity suggests that its value (translated into wages on the market) is what is required to sustain itself and reproduce itself for capital’s exploitation. So, in essence, all capital wants to pay a worker is enough to train them, keep them going while at the optimum working age, and have children so that future labour exists. Capital has no interest in what happens outside your working hours or in your older years.
     This was the reality for most workers a hundred years ago, and now we are returning to the same.
     The generally accepted definition of precarious work is instability, lack of protection, insecurity, and social and economic vulnerability. Its features are low pay, 0-hour contracts, agency work, fixed-term contracts, part-time work and underemployment, low skill with few opportunities for training or career advancement, easy hiring and firing and quick turnover, and a lack of social welfare once unemployed. In Ireland we’ve also seen the dismantling of joint labour committees and pressure on the minimum wage.
     The right wing present precarious work as positive flexibility, giving workers more control and “ownership” of their lives; as one business commentator, Peter Shawn Taylor, put it, “the trend marks an advantage for workers as well, who gain more control over their work-life relationships.”
     We know that the reality is in fact the opposite. Precarious work makes it impossible for workers and their families to budget, plan, or save sufficiently. It complicates child-care arrangements. It can have a serious effect on social welfare claims, in particular lone parent’s allowance. It divides workers between longer-serving permanent employees and newer employees. It creates divisions within unions and ultimately weakens labour, to the benefit of capital.
     0-hour contracts, in particular, leave workers at the mercy of their employers in getting enough hours and appropriate hours. This puts them at the mercy of their managers and prevents union activism or any dissension in the work-place. It is used as a tool for disciplining and controlling workers.
     In the EU 15 temporary employment has risen from 8 per cent of the work force in the late 1980s to its present level of 15 per cent. In Germany, the so-called employment miracle, 7¾ million people were in atypical employment; over a period of ten years this figure has increased by 46 per cent. Contrary to the popular image, about a fifth of all workers in Germany are in low-paid work—a significant increase over previous decades.
     4.9 million workers in Germany qualify for state support. In the metal industries, since the beginning of the crisis only 5 per cent of new employees have been permanent, the rest agency workers or contract workers. In one BMW plant 30 per cent of the workers are on temporary contracts.
     A tenth of Mexico’s work force are employed by temporary agencies. There are an estimated 1.4 million agency workers in Britain. Nokia in China employs 30 per cent of its work force through agencies. More than half of all electronics workers in Thailand are agency workers.
     In Ireland a fifth of all workers are now in low-paid work. Part-time work has grown from 16 per cent of the work force in 2006 to 24 per cent. 56 per cent of workers surveyed in the retail industry had part-time contracts, and 45 per cent reported that their hours change at least monthly, preventing any possible budgeting and greatly restricting access to credit, loans, or mortgages.
     Young workers and women workers are far more likely to be in precarious work. And the Government, through the “Job Bridge” scheme, has in effect given the green light to all private-sector employers to embrace precarious work as the model employment contract of the future.
     As we can see, the growth in precarious work is not unique to Ireland: it is truly part of the global economic system. It is a growing feature of capitalism in the twenty-first century. Employers are actively using precarious work to shift the cost of declining profit and stagnation onto workers. It comes as a consequence of the weakness of the labour movement but also significantly weakens labour in the process.
     Unions will testify that organising 0-hour contract workers is extremely difficult, as the ability to increase or reduce hours of work is used to “discipline” workers and prevent union leaders emerging from the shop floor. The European Union is actively promoting this in what it calls its “flexicurity” model—though it is significantly lacking in security for workers—in its aggressive attempts to regain lost competitiveness against India, Russia, China, the United States, and elsewhere.
     The challenge this presents to socialists and the labour movement is real. Not only is it hurting our class, it is weakening our ability to mobilise our class for progressive change. The Turkish sociologist Fatma Ülkü Selçuk presents the challenge thus:
If the unions cannot succeed in introducing effective measures against growing unemployment and precarious work, the workers’ movement will suffer a serious defeat. Just as capitalists undermine unionized workers in the formal sector with the threat of giving their jobs to the unorganized in the informal sector, they discipline all workers by threatening to replace them with the unemployed. It is clear that unless unions develop effective forms of struggle, they will sooner or later vanish from the scene of history. Yet, there is hope and it is growing stronger. If unions organize the unemployed and the informal sector workers, they can present a serious challenge to the anti-union current and start healing the wounds of the labor movement.
     As a class-conscious movement and party, how do we confront this challenge? There is increasing grass-roots mobilisation within unions, but it is disorganised and apolitical. There is also increasing talk of restructuring at the top, but this appears to be for placing the movement even further under the thumb of the Labour Party and stripping it of its own independent vision of society. Restructuring without the radical political change required to organise the unemployed and precarious work force will do nothing to reverse the decline in membership or help us to find again our industrial leverage.
     James Connolly recognised this and warned of the folly of mergers and restructuring without revolutionary politics:
Recently I have been complaining in this column and elsewhere of the tendency in the Labour movement to mistake mere concentration upon the industrial field for essentially revolutionary advance. My point was that the amalgamation or federation of unions, unless carried out by men and women with the proper revolutionary spirit, was as likely to create new obstacles in the way of effective warfare, as to make that warfare possible. The argument was reinforced by citations of what is taking place in the ranks of the railwaymen and in the transport industry. There we find that the amalgamations and federations are rapidly becoming engines for steam-rollering or suppressing all manifestations of revolutionary activity, or effective demonstrations of brotherhood. Every appeal to take industrial action on behalf of a union in distress is blocked by insisting upon the necessity of “first obtaining the sanction of the Executive,” and in practice it is found that the process of obtaining that sanction is so long, so cumbrous, and surrounded with so many rules and regulations that the union in distress is certain to be either disrupted or bankrupted before the Executive can be moved. The Greater Unionism is found in short to be forging greater fetters for the working class; to bear to the real revolutionary industrial unionism the same relation as the servile State would bear to the Co-operative Commonwealth of our dreams.

     We need a movement committed to all working people, not just sectoral interests, with a vision of society for all working people; a movement that does not believe there is only the one way within the narrow constraints of what EU monopoly capital allows us; a movement that promotes its political goals and does not leave it to the Labour Party; and, most importantly, a movement not afraid to pursue its class interests, as the men and women of 1913 did.

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