Security for a Precarious Workforce

AP Photo/David Goldman

A worker carries a bucket to clean windows outside a Burger King restaurant before it opens as protestors demonstrate outside, Thursday, September 4, 2014, in Atlanta. 

This book review appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens
By Guy Standing
440 pp. Bloombury Publishing $27.95
Under the Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over
By Caroline Fredrickson
256 pp. The New Press $25.95
Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement
By Thomas Geoghegan
272 pp. The New Press $25.95

In recent years, the labor market has been marked by a shift from standard employment to new forms of contingent work. While Silicon Valley has painted a picture of opportunity, informality, ingenuity, self-reliance, and a sharing economy, for most people this new world turns out to offer mainly insecurity. The “fissuring” of workplaces, in David Weil’s term, has meant that workers have lost their status as employees, including legal protections and eligibility for social insurance. New scheduling software saves costs for managers but makes daily life insupportably unpredictable; digital supervision and surveillance intensify managerial control; 24-7 email messages impose workplace priorities on life at home.

Employers, meanwhile, have discovered they could circumvent 20th-century labor protections by contracting with workers rather than employing them; they could franchise their businesses and disclaim responsibility for workers hired by franchisees; they could construct global value chains so that contracted suppliers would do the actual employing of workers. As all these changes were going on, unionism declined. By 2015, union members comprised only 6.6 percent of the private workforce in the U.S., down from a postwar high of 34 percent.

Guy Standing terms this new workforce “the precariat.” Standing began this work as a researcher for the International Labour Organization and shifted to academia in 2006. He is currently at the University of London. In The Precariat (2011) and A Precariat Charter (2014), Standing depicts a new kind of working class. Unlike the old proletariat, which was based on employment in long-term jobs (“the standard employment relationship”), the precariat has no security, and scant prospect of gaining any. These workers have short-term jobs, often without an employer and almost always without a union, and have little bargaining leverage. They may labor on behalf of a staffing agency, or put in part-time hours, work as an “independent” contractor, or get paid under the table. Even if they are in a “skilled” position, they are responsible for obtaining and maintaining their skills. They receive few or no benefits from the enterprise, and no health coverage, pension contribution, or stock option.

Not only do such workers lack career ladders, they lack careers. Their resumes show a succession of jobs with painful gaps. Working for no remuneration—interning, looking for jobs, networking, writing resumés, receiving job counseling, training, retraining, returning to school, professional development—these are all the responsibility of workers trapped in the precariat, and they eat up a lot of time. Many workers in the precariat are women or immigrants, and a large portion are young.

Standing holds that the precariat has different interests, outlooks, and social relations than the traditional working class. They don’t look to unions because unions don’t provide what they need, and the unions seldom look to them as potential recruits because labor law makes them almost impossible to organize. Nor does the precariat look to social democratic parties to represent their interests.  Those parties see the old working class as their constituency, and increasingly their base is the educated middle class. Beginning in the 1990s, many European social democrats bought into the neoliberal ideal of labor flexibility.

Without political or union representation, Standing warns, the precariat is a “dangerous” class. Its members have so few social ties that they are drawn to populist and even fascist appeals. Syriza may appeal to them, but so does Golden Dawn. Standing asserts in The Precariat, without evidence, that the Tea Party draws much of its strength from the precariat, but, he adds, so did the Occupy movement, in which young radicals played the leading role. 

While Standing’s analysis is brilliant in its evocation of the isolation of workers in precarious jobs, he overstates the claim that “the precariat” is a new, emerging social class. Clearly, Chicago teachers are in more precarious situations today than they were a generation ago. Their pensions are threatened, their job tenure insecure, their work supervised intensively by business-minded superiors—but they are still members of a labor union, which mobilizes them politically and represents them in collective bargaining. Michigan autoworkers are still members of the UAW, but they are divided into two tiers and watch helplessly as jobs and investments are sent to Mexico.  A better argument is that labor as a whole is becoming more precarious; the new world of work is a “gray zone” in which the rules are changing, ambiguous, and often contradictory, where old standards linger but no longer fit changing workplaces.

Standing is convinced that work will never be made decent unless all people enjoy basic security. To Standing, insecure people make bad choices, can’t plan and prepare for the future, relate badly to each other, and suffer poor physical and mental health. 

Based on his analysis of the new world of work, Standing composed A Precariat Charter as a manifesto. Before labor markets and workplaces can be made decent, he contends, everyone must be guaranteed a basic income. Standing rejects what he terms the “labourist” bias of previous generations of progressives, who saw guaranteed employment, not guaranteed income, as the necessary basis for social security. Standing invokes ancient Greece and its distinction between necessary but undesirable labor and citizen-enhancing work. Much labor, he argues, is inherently degrading, isolating, or meaningless. Providing everyone with such jobs should not be our goal. Rather, he insists, our aim should be to ensure that everyone can participate in rewarding work, and to de-link basic income from employment. He has in mind both participating in the life of the community, and helping to reproduce the basis for human existence. Not all work need be remunerated, and not everyone should work for wages. 

With these principles in mind, A Precariat Charter lays out a series of steps to construct a new system of work and labor. He calls for the elimination of unpaid internships, the regulation of employment agencies and brokers, and standard contracts for informal labor. Regulatory boards, enforcement agencies, and licensing authorities should include workers from the precariat in governance as mechanisms of worker voice, a proposal that will seem more novel in the U.S. than in Europe. All workers need time to take care of family issues, to participate in their associations and neighborhood institutions, to engage in leisure pursuits, to prepare for new jobs, careers, or creative endeavors. Popular struggles to control working time, such as the campaigns for stable schedules, paid sick leave and family leave, and payment for overtime, are all important harbingers of the needed change.

These ideals are compelling, but politics is not a strong point of Standing’s analysis. Since he mostly dismisses labor unions and social democratic parties, Standing can only point to worker centers, May Day rallies, community-based cooperatives, immigrant-rights groups, and mostly small, left-wing European parties as groups that could stand together to give voice to and organize for the demands of the precariat. But it’s far from clear that a movement based on these groups could produce the reforms that Standing eloquently proposes.


POLITICS IS ALSO a challenge for Thomas Geoghegan’s wonderful new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us. A heroic labor lawyer and an author who reaches a general audience, Geoghegan largely shares Standing’s analysis that the New Deal/Social Democratic system of labor regulation has been overtaken by events. Based on his long experience representing workers who wanted a union and a collective-bargaining contract and were often disappointed when legal remedies proved futile, Geoghegan argues that “Old Labor,” based on the National Labor Relations Act, no longer serves to empower workers.

Yet Geohegan is passionately pro-union. Organized labor is “the only thing that can save us”—but the next labor movement will have to adapt to the economic changes of the past 40 years, including the resurgence of the corporate right in politics, and the increasing individualism in American culture. It will have to base workers’ power more on their individual rights and the efficacy of the legal system, and less on collective action and principles of solidarity. 

His core idea is that the right to join a union must become a civil right, protected by the whole legal apparatus erected by Congress in the past 50 years to protect civil rights through the courts. Geoghegan recounts how Martin Luther King Jr. not only joined with the labor movement to press for “Jobs and Justice,” but he insisted that the right to join a union was an important civil right. Geoghegan argues convincingly that once joining a union becomes a civil right under the Civil Rights Act of 1965, it will be far easier for a worker fired for union sympathies or union-organizing efforts to go to court to demand remedies. 

Paradoxically, in Geohegan’s vision, unions would lose their role as the agents who represent workers dismissed illegally, but labor lawyers would be in a far stronger position to gain real justice for their clients. Yet the politics of persuading Congress to define the right to join a union as a civil right will surely be as difficult as the politics of traditional labor reform.

Politically mobilized women could transform blocked politics, according to Caroline Fredrickson’s Under the Bus. Fredrickson suggests that women are providing leadership and impetus to the counter-movement for decent work in America. Fredrickson, a former staffer for Senator Tom Daschle and now president of the American Constitution Society, shows how women, along with people of color, poor people, and immigrants, have been systematically marginalized by American labor laws and denied equal opportunities and equal pay in the workplace.  

She aims her sharpest critiques at the National Labor Relations Act, which denied coverage to domestic workers, agricultural workers, and temporary workers, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which not only embodied these exclusions but added a disastrously vague definition of employment. But according to Fredrickson, even recent legislative efforts have failed to empower women, by neglecting the changing realities of the household.

The result, she argues, has been disastrous for American families, where children are forced into “self-care” because day care is so expensive. The American economy has also suffered as women’s workforce-participation rates flattened, after having risen in the 1980s and 1990s—and then declined. Their high rates of turnover imposed costs on employers; likewise, women’s productivity was limited by discriminatory job assignments and meager advancement opportunities.

As Fredrickson notes, the flip side of this story is that most of the new labor campaigns disproportionately would help women. She points to campaigns for stable schedules, paid sick leave, expanded family leave, and expanded overtime regulations, as well as higher wages and the unionization of domestic workers, fast-food workers, and other retail employees. These, she argues, are indications that women are rebelling against a labor regime that doesn’t match their needs and values. 

Fredrickson’s evidence of women’s mobilization to enhance workplace regulation challenges Standing’s and Geoghegan’s conclusions that the New Deal order has broken down to such an extent that progressive movements need an entirely new paradigm. While Standing’s portrait of precarious workplaces is accurate, and Geoghegan’s discouragement with the inefficacy of labor-law enforcement is entirely understandable, there is growing evidence of hopeful change. 

Ever since SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign demonstrated that unions could organize immigrant workers who possessed limited bargaining power and few marketable skills, union organizing in the U.S. has been on an upswing. At first, it seemed this was an isolated instance, overshadowed by de-unionization, but after the Great Recession weakened the neoliberal consensus and Occupy created a new discourse about inequality, it has become clear that campaigns for a higher minimum wage, a domestic workers’ bill of rights, and paid sick leave are not marginal. Meanwhile, the Obama administration, many municipal and state governments, and even state and federal courts have responded with enhanced enforcement against wage theft and misclassification, new regulations on overtime and joint employment, and higher wage standards.  

 It remains to be seen whether the current upsurge can grow into a durable movement. Even if it does, precarious labor income is likely to persist. Standing is correct to urge us to revisit and embrace the concept of a basic income guarantee. 

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