Thursday, December 26, 2013

Meet the Precariat

I learned a new word today. The need for it is so obvious I can't believe I haven't come across it before.


It was coined by British economist Guy Standing, combining precarious and proletariat, and it describes the growing number of people whose jobs and lives are based on low-wage, temporary, freelance, contracted, or part-time work. This is the future of labor without unionization or a societal commitment to even a gesture toward income equality.

This 10-minute Guardian video, which intersperses interviews with Standing and UK low-wage workers, has a lot to say about it.

Once I got past the heavy Welsh accents in a few parts of the video, I came away with phrases like Hilton Hotels' "the dynamic nature of our business" and the need for "flexible labor market systems," which lead to on-call workers and depressed wages. Not to mention subcontracting to agencies for core business needs so that responsibility for wage levels can be avoided. Think of the cleaners threatening to strike against Target in Minneapolis -- think of protesting workers at franchised fast food stores, who are told their pay levels are not the responsibility of McDonalds or Burger King, but of their franchisee employers.

Or think of the retail workers who have to be on-call for part-time hours. Not only do their employers pay them low wages, they don't even give them a steady schedule, making it impossible to work a second job or commit to child care. (This change in approach to scheduling is enabled by software like Ceridian's Dayforce, which lets companies treat workers as 15-minute units to be juggled up until the last minute.)

Noam Chomsky, writing in 2012, traces the beginnings of the precariat to the 1970s, with the financialization of the economy, plus the globalization of manufacturing. This led to an overt turn to a bifurcated view of the world on the part of the rich, to an economy based on plutonomy:

Alan Greenspan…was testifying to Congress in the Clinton years, and he explained the wonders of the great economy that he was supervising. He said a lot of its success was based substantially on what he called “growing worker insecurity.” If working people are insecure, if they’re part of the precariat…they’re not going to make demands, they’re not going to try to get better wages, they won’t get improved benefits. We can kick ’em out, if we don’t need ’em. And that’s what’s called a “healthy” economy, technically speaking.
Chomsky's proposed solution is sit-down strikes: literally taking over the means of production. It's interesting to picture hotel maids sitting down on their jobs, blocking the use of hotel rooms. They'd be arrested so fast their heads would spin, I imagine. Or Amazon warehouse workers. Or deep fry cooks. But with enough organizing and enough arrests, it might begin to make a difference.

Another idea Chomsky lists is worker co-ops as described by Gar Alperovitz and Marjorie Kelly, or further as participatory economics as described by Michael Alpert. Chomsky didn't mention the idea of a minimum income, which is being debated in Switzerland now.

The precariat. Such a big problem for so many people, but now at last I have a word for it.


A few other articles that touch on the nature of the precariat:

It's a Wonderful Life, for a Few of Us

The Exceptionalism of Our Two Americas

1 comment:

Gina said...

I am a member of the precariat.