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Are we all members of the Precariat?

Fri, Jun 13, 2014

International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, is an annual holiday that celebrates the international labor movement on May 1. Originally inspired by the events connected with Chicago’s Haymarket Riot on May 4, 1886, the holiday is observed by socialists, trade unionists and workers in many nations throughout the world. In New York City, some of the nation’s largest May Day parades were held during the Great Depression of the 1930s when hundreds of thousands of workers marched in Union Square. Two years ago on May Day 2012 in New York City, led by Occupy Wall Street and trade unions, tens of thousands celebrated the holiday by protesting the miserable condition of the economy and the nation’s growing income inequality.

One aspect of the dismal economy that remains this May Day is the current position occupied by the precariat in the United States.

The precariat, a term formed by combining the words “precarious” and “proletariat,” is defined as the increasing number of insecure workers who lack sufficient wages and working conditions to achieve economic stability.

First used by the French scholar Pierre Bourdieu in 1998, the word precariat was popularized in the 2011 book, The Precariat: The Dangerous New Class by Guy Standing, who is currently Professor of Development Studies at the University of London. One major characteristic of precarious employment is its temporary nature. Included as precarious workers are temporary workers, day laborers, freelancers, independent contractors, seasonal laborers, self-employed workers and interns.

Precarious work has existed in various forms for millennia. In the United States, for example, during the long shore industry’s early years, workers were hired on a daily basis through a procedure known as the shapeup. It was not until after World War II that standard employment became the norm for large percentages of the industrial nations’ working classes, particularly for male workers, due to unprecedented economic growth and the expansion of social legislation.

Standing dates the precariat’s emergence to the 1980s when economic liberalization occurred in many well-off countries, which opened their economies to competition from developing market economies. The thinking of United States and European political leaders was that good jobs would remain in their economies through high levels of productivity, technological advancement and investment, which happened to be a fallacy as capital relocated to areas with the lowest costs. This resulted in a dramatic increase of 1.5 billion workers from low-income nations entering the global work force who were willing to labor for a fraction of the wages earned by those in the United States and Europe. Moreover, Standing argues that in the early 21st century the precariat is in the process of becoming a new class, which might align itself with the far right if its employment insecurities are not sufficiently addressed.

Although the categories of precarious workers overlap, it is clear that unstable employment is increasing throughout the United States. Figures from the Department of Labor in June 2013 indicate that there are nearly 2.7 million temporary workers, which is 50 percent more than in 2009 when the Great Recession officially ended. This is the highest level since 1990 when the government started keeping such records. The American Staffing Association, however, states that the government undercounts the number of temporary workers, claiming that one out of every 10 workers becomes employed annually through temporary agencies. The Freelancers Union estimates that 42 million workers, or approximately one-third of the nation’s work force, are independent workers. As of 2013, 10.6 million workers are considered to be self-employed, or 7.1 percent of all U.S. workers, a 14.4 percent increase since 2001. By 2020, it is anticipated that 40 percent of all workers will be freelancers.

Due to the rise of the number of precarious workers, it is imperative that the U.S. labor movement continue to organize the precariat and provide them with employment representation through worker centers and groups such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

Such a strategy is crucial because I believe, along with other theorists, contra Standing, that the precariat is a segment of the working class, not an embryonic class of its own. This organizing will help to bolster U.S. labor while undercutting Standing’s fear that the precariat will turn to the far right for resolving its problems.

So, are we all members of the precariat? In the U.S. economy, 80.8 percent of workers were in standard employment relationships as of May 2013, which is down from 83 percent in January 2000. These figures indicate that we are not all members of the precariat although many employees are afraid of losing their jobs and becoming precarious workers. According to a recent American Psychological Association survey, 45 percent of workers state that job insecurity greatly increases their stress levels. As the precariat’s size continues to grow, this is likely to continue to fuel the anxieties of more secure workers as well.

Dr. Victor G. Devinatz is Distinguished Professor of Management, specializing in labor relations, and the Hobart and Marian Gardner Hinderliter Endowed Professor (2014-2015) at Illinois State University. He can be contacted at vgdevin@ilstu.edu.

Victor Devinatz
StreetWise Contributor

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