The teacher who most influenced me was Raphael Samuel, one of the leading social historians of his time – though I didn’t know that when I studied with him. Raph, as we came to know him, had chosen to work at Ruskin College instead of a more elite institution. At Ruskin, he taught people like me, who had no qualifications except for the fact that they had worked in industry, during a time in the late 1980s when many students were the victims of corporate layoffs, downsizing, or deindustrialisation. Raph always held a pencil or pen poised over a notebook ready to record the insights of his class. Most of us were flattered to think that what we had to say mattered to him. And it taught me an important lesson: we can always learn something from the experience of others if only we will listen.
I’ve tried to replicate Raph’s willingness to listen and learn in my career as an educator and researcher. It’s especially important in the course I teach every year on the sociology of work. It has at its heart the idea that my students have experience of the very thing they are studying, and that gives them expertise. I’ve drawn on that by asking them to write about their experiences, and they’ve produced some wonderfully rich autobiographical accounts of work offering insight into joy, boredom, power inequality, class, and respect.
This year, I decided to include a session on precarity at work, but I wasn’t sure how to get them talking in the seminar. To introduce ideas about order and predictability at work, I usually show a film from the 1960s, which provides a historical perspective, but I wanted to get at the contemporary experience of precarity. With some trepidation I threw down the gauntlet, asking my students to find a short clip on ‘precarity at work’. I had hoped they’d find a couple of clips which would stimulate discussion, but I was overwhelmed by a glorious mixture of material that turned up.
The first submission came from Tracey, a mature student with a long work history, who had found a high quality cartoon Precarity Monster made for the Toronto Public Library workers from 2016. The video explains the links between quality of working life and wider civic life, illustrating how the hollowing out of good jobs damages us all. I showed that first in class, and it got us off to a great start.
Next up were two videos about workers protesting insecure employment conditions due to tendering out labor previously carried out by people working for the company or organisation itself and zero hours contracts, where workers have no guaranteed fixed hours. I was pleasantly surprised when we started to watch Low pay, long hours, which looks at the experiences of outsourced workers such as custodians and security guards at the University of London. This film showed students how the very institutions they were attending were squeezing the pay and conditions of their most marginalised and exploited workers, often people from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is at a time when the students themselves were feeling the effect of a raise in annual tuition fees to £9,250 and university heads are awarding themselves eye-watering remuneration packages. Another student showed a clip of a crowd invasion of a Sports Direct Store, a company with a reputation for poor working conditions and the use of zero hours contracts. The film highlights the link between work and our consumption habits. Many of my students work part-time in similar retail environments and know the arguments only too well.
Both of these employment strategies undermine workers’ ability to organise collectively, and Low pay, long hours projects a positive message about unions, collective action, and the power ordinary workers have to embarrass their employers to begin to do the right thing. Very few of my students have any experience of unions. Indeed, when I asked for a show of hands, it turns out that I was the only person who had been in a union. This partly reflects their age but also speaks to the kind of workplaces where they are currently employed and expect to be in the future. We discussed at length why this was as well as what I had gained from being unionised and what they would potentially lose over their working life.
I also prepared a new lecture this session on the gig economy, and one of the students brought in a film that linked this type of work and precarity. In Uber Drivers Aren’t Living The American Dream, we follow the story of African-American Uber driver Abraham, a former taxi driver lured into the gig economy by the company’s seductive promises. This film also stimulated lots of discussion about students’ experiences as workers but also as consumers who use these convenient services.
The international makeup of my students also emphasised that precarity takes on different but recognisable forms across the globe. A student from Singapore brought in a story from home about 85-year-old Ng Teak Boon, an ice-cream-seller peddling his wares on the streets of the city. The clip made clear how precarity falls hardest on the most vulnerable, including those who can’t rely on a social safety net and whose work can be wiped out by bad weather.
My students uncovered a wide variety of films showing the range of precarity and gig economy work, and their films also raised the complex relationship between work, family, community, and wider civic society. Better yet, the film clips stimulated debate and reflection on the contemporary workplace.
This assignment reminded me that many of my students already have more experience of precarity and the gig economy than hopefully I will ever directly have, but it also reaffirmed the lesson that listening to our students, and to young people more generally, matters. They are the ones living with and confronting the reality of working-class work on a daily basis, and their perspectives provide important insight – especially for those of us who are older – into the study of class and work.