Category Archives: The Working Class and the Economy

The power of stupid ideas: ‘three generations that have never worked’

This month I ran a workshop with a group of first year undergraduate sociology students at Teesside University (in the North East of England). Our students tend to be from working-class or lower-middle class backgrounds and often the first in their families to go to university. I’d been invited to give an insight into a ‘real life’ research project, and I began by asking for responses and thoughts about some quotations:

‘Behind the statistics lie households where three generations have never had a job’ (ex-British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, 1997).

‘…on some deprived estates…often three generations of the same family have never worked’ (Iain Duncan Smith, 2009; now British government Minister for Work and Pensions).

‘To reintroduce the culture of work in households where it may have been absent for generations’ (Universal Credit, Department of Work and Pensions, 2010; this is a document that introduces a very major overhaul of UK welfare payments).

‘…there are four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job’ (Chris Grayling, ex-Minister for Work and Pensions, 2011).

The idea that there are families in the UK with three (or four, or five and even six have been claimed) generations where no one has ever had a job is a particularly powerful orthodoxy. It is often repeated, rarely questioned, becoming part of a taken for granted vernacular. I was struck by the students’ comments. One said, ‘well, it must be true if all these [people] are saying it’. Another felt the same because ‘they wouldn’t say it unless there was loads of data to back it up’. Simple ideas boldly spoken (and repeated) by people in authority can carry real weight.

But is this idea true?

One of the most avid propagators of this claim is Iain Duncan Smith, Minister of State for Work and Pensions. Although students imagined that ‘there must be loads of data to back it up’, his response to a Freedom of Information Request enquiring about the evidence for his (and others’) assertions about this was that ‘statistical information on the number of UK families that never work is not available.’ Rather, he explained, his views were based on ‘personal observations’.

But my colleagues and I are social scientists, so instead of relying on ‘personal observations’, Tracy Shildrick, Andy Furlong, Johann Roden, Rob Crow, and I began rigorous research to see if there really were families like this. We have continued thinking, analysing, writing about, and presenting the complexities of the research material that we gathered since then. The research generated other questions, but, unusually for a sociological study, we found a clear and unequivocal answer to this first question: the existence of families where ‘no one had worked for three generations’ is highly unlikely.

We searched very hard to find such families. We chose two extremely deprived working-class neighbourhoods – in Glasgow and Middlesbrough, because we assumed that they were the sorts of places most likely to reveal this phenomenon. Despite deploying all the strategies and tactics we could think of (including financial inducements), we were unable to find any. This does not mean that they do not exist. Some people believe in fairies or Yetis, and one cannot prove they do not exist. We can say, however, that it is highly improbable that they do. Or, if they do, their numbers are infinitesimally small. Other research drew upon the best available secondary statistics and concluded that less than half of one per cent of all workless households in the UK might have two generations where no one had ever had a job. Households with three generations that have never worked are, logically, going to be far, far fewer in number than even this tiny fraction.

This was, actually, a quite predictable conclusion. A little socio-economic history helps. How long is ‘three generations’? Maybe sixty years, so back to the 1950s, or earlier. The proposition is that there are families where no one has had a job since the 1950s. The UK welfare state has become tougher and tougher over this period, particularly in the last few years. We have very tight ‘conditionality rules’ and ‘activation tests’; recipients of unemployment benefits must provide evidence of their worthiness for these on a weekly basis. It is difficult to imagine a person being able to defraud the state for the whole of his/ her working life – and then his/ her son or daughter doing the same and then his/ her son or daughter after them, for sixty years.

We also need to think about what has happened in working-class communities over this period. Certainly the neighbourhoods we studied were impoverished and had high unemployment rates, but they have not always been so. In the 1960s, Middlesbrough was a very successful, prosperous local economy with full employment. During the 19th and 20th centuries it became world famous for its prowess in industrial production (being the source of the Sydney Harbour and Golden Gate Bridges, and the Indian Railway network). Glasgow’s importance was so profound that it became known as ‘the second city of the British Empire’. Middlesbrough had ‘full employment’ in the 1950s and ‘60s; jobs (for working-class men, at least) were in good supply during the exact periods in which this plague of intergenerational worklessness was said to be taking grip. If we are to properly understand the stories of these families and how they became distanced from the labour market, we need to locate family biographies in place and history and, following CW Mills, to trace the connections between ‘private troubles of individual milieu’ and ‘public issues of social structure’. These localities have experienced radical disinvestment and the wrecking of their economic bases. To use Alice Mah’s phrase, they have undergone ‘ruination’, with Middlesbrough now having the reputation of ‘the most deindustrialised locale in the UK’. In hearing the stories of these families we were not hearing tales of ‘welfare dependency’ stretching across the generations but about how, through massive deindustrialisation, many of the working-class families that live in these places have been stripped of the possibility of making a decent life through decent employment.

Debunking welfare myths is an important job for social scientists but so is trying to understand what purpose these myths serve – and why they retain their power. By the end of the workshop, students were getting quite angry and raising questions about the power of the myth: ‘so how can they say this? It’s ridiculous. It’s just daft!’. They were able to understand these simple messages about deindustrialisation and the wrecking of regions, so why can’t clever and powerful people – the Prime Ministers and Ministers of State in the UK (from different political parties) that continue to espouse stupid ideas?

I think there are lots of answers to such questions. One is that myths about a lazy, work-shy underclass serve a clear ideological function: they help ‘sell’ the sweeping cuts to social security spending that have been enacted by the UK government under their austerity programme. Social security budgets have received some of the deepest cuts – and these have tended to be viewed very favourably by the general public, working-class and unemployed people included. Conditions of widespread employment insecurity and falling wages breed mistrust, fear, and anger. ‘Others’ are blamed. These are fertile conditions for stupid ideas about ‘shirkers’ who see ‘unemployment as a life-style choice’ and who ‘sleep their days away on benefits’ in families where ‘no-one has worked for three generations’ (all terms used by government ministers). In other words, we are witnessing the resurrection of the age-old phantom of the ‘undeserving poor’, trotted out to ease the way for further welfare cuts that, in fact, hurt some of the already most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our society.

Robert MacDonald

Robert MacDonald is Professor of Sociology at Teesside University, UK. He has researched and written widely about social exclusion, work and youth.

 

Guilt by Association: Hillary and the Working Class

As the 2016 Presidential campaign revs up, we’re seeing a political version of guilt by association as Hillary Clinton tries to position herself in relation to the cornerstones of her husband’s legislative agenda: the Violent Crime and Enforcement Act (VCEA, 1994), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA, 1996), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994). Liberals and progressives widely recognize that these policies had an immediate and devastating impact on people of color, the white working class, and organized labor. They also had continuing influence, at once contributing to and mirroring current issues and debates involving poverty, incarceration, and trade agreements.

A brief historical summary might be helpful. The VCEA, based on the idea that increased incarceration would lower the crime rate, was part of President Clinton’s attempt to capture the “get tough on crime” zeitgeist. As criminologist Jeremy Travis suggested, the federal government promised increased funding to states that increased punishment for drug offenses, and 28 states and the District of Columbia “followed the money and enacted stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses.” As a result, the number of prisons and the rate of incarceration of the poor, blacks, and Latinos have increased. That may have helped the growing prison industry, but later studies show there was little correspondence between incarcerations and lower crime rates.

The PRWOA was central to President Clinton’s and the Republicans’ goals of trimming the federal deficit but also weaning the poor off of government assistance by cutting welfare benefits for the unemployed. The legislation reduced the amount of time that individuals and families could receive benefits and established work requirements. It also reduced federal funding and required states to decrease welfare caseloads and closely monitor the work activities of welfare recipients. Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program was replaced with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which included requirements for job training, GED programs, and subsidized employment opportunities. While the new policy may have decreased the cost of government assistance, it did not reduce poverty. In fact, the poverty rate has grown.

NAFTA aimed to eliminate tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers, protect intellectual property, and established a dispute resolution procedure between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Proponents argued that these changes would reduce poverty and immigration. NAFTA did contribute to increasing trade, which has roughly tripled in the last 20 years, but the trade gap also widened to $181 billion with Mexico and Canada as over 1 million manufacturing jobs moved largely to the Mexican border areas. NAFTA contributed to deindustrialization and the declining standard of living of workers and their families. It was especially hard on residents in rustbelt states, including Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. It also undermined small-scale agriculture in Mexico and exacerbated the current immigration crisis. As former President Clinton acknowledged during Congressional testimony in 2010, his trade policy “has not worked” to alleviate poverty. He called the policy “a mistake.” On NAFTA’s 20th anniversary, even Forbes was forced to grudgingly admit that, at best, “the trade deal was a mixed bag, a generally positive yet disappointing economic experiment.”

Twenty years later, Hillary Clinton faces the prospect of running against President Clinton’s political legacy. At the same time, the same legislative concerns that gave rise to his legacy are in play again – trade, poverty, and criminalization. Like anyone tainted with guilt by association, Hillary is in the tricky position of distancing herself from a family member without being either disloyal or disingenuous.

In a recent speech, she called for criminal justice reform, including changes in sentencing and social services, increased use of body cameras for police accountability and transparency, and addressing the fundamental unfairness and injustice of the “war on drugs” for African-Americans. Despite all hoopla about speech, it largely repeated the current mainstream debate about the flaws in the criminal justice system. Nor did Hillary acknowledge that the VCEA had contributed to the problem. Republican Rand Paul noted the contradiction, saying her ideas would “undo some of Bill Clinton’s work,” which she had supported. He also noted “the number of prisoners under federal jurisdiction doubled” during the Clinton years.

 

In recent years, we’ve heard increasing concerns about increased levels unemployment, wage stagnation, and poverty. While Hillary has expressed a clear interest in wealth and wage inequality, she has not articulated a legislative agenda to address it, not has she suggested increasing social spending or rolling back any of the cuts from PROWA.

The same is true of trade. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) provides an excellent opportunity to oppose free trade in favor of fair trade. But this would require political tacking given her past support for NAFTA and other trade agreements. As Robert Kuttner has suggested, though, Senators Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and even Charles Schumer have opposed the TPP, providing Hillary with plenty of political cover, and she could increase her populist appeal by opposing it.

Yet Hillary might have an even more difficult hurdle. Even if she repudiates her husband’s political legacy and advances a progressive agenda, will Americans believe her? A recent Quinnipiac University survey of registered voters shows that while most think she had strong leadership qualities (62%), 54% do not view Hillary Clinton as honest or trustworthy. The question of character will be especially important to the working class and African Americans who haven’t forgotten how they were deceived by “slick Willy.”

John Russo

Former Co-Director, Center for Working-Class Studies

 

 

 

 

 

Putnam’s Poignant Folly: Empathetic Blaming

Robert Putnam graduated from high school in 1959 in the small Lake Erie town of Port Clinton, Ohio, and for his widely-praised book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis he revisits some members of his high school class to illustrate what life was like for those who grew up and started careers and families in the years 1945 to 1975 – what Putnam calls the “postwar boom” and in France is known more spectacularly as “the Glorious 30.” He very poignantly contrasts those glory years with grim portraits of life in Port Clinton today. What was once a supportive small-town warmth where standards of living were improving and opportunities were expanding for almost everybody has become a town divided between gated communities in a narrow strip along the lake and an excluded and much larger working-class community that ranges from destitution to quiet desperation.

I grew up during the same period as Putnam in a similar, if much larger, town that has experienced pretty much the same fate, though rather worse and without a lake from which to be excluded. It’s hard for folks of my generation to avoid experiencing what some contemptuously call “smokestack nostalgia,” as if what we are nostalgic for is the smokestacks and the “solid particulate matter” they emitted onto our homes, cars, and bodies.

More than a little nostalgia is justified, however, for those three decades if you focus on the right things, which Putnam usually does not. When Putnam graduated from high school in 1959, for example, real median family incomes in the U.S. had increased by more than 40% in the previous ten years and would increase by another 40% in the next ten years. Poverty was decreasing from 32% of the population in 1949 to 11% by the end of the Glorious 30 in the early 1970s. Real wages for production and nonsupervisory workers nearly doubled during the period, and the income gap between black and white families narrowed by 10 percentage points.

In contrast, by all these measures nothing has substantially improved since 1975, and much has gotten worse, much worse. “Back in the day,” for example, the top 10% got only about 1/3rd of all income, but they get one-half now, and the famous 1% got about 10% of income then, while today their share is 22%. Income taxes were steeply progressive (with top marginal rates ranging from 70% to 90% through the 1970s), and because unions were strong, the benefits of productivity growth were shared with workers, sharing that ended in the mid-1970s.

Putnam is aware of most of these numbers, and of their impact on people’s lives, as he details the disastrous decline in “upward mobility” that has put “the American Dream in crisis.” He is also aware that there are two kinds of upward mobility – the “rags-to-riches” kind that he calls relative upward mobility and the “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” kind that he calls absolute upward mobility. Both kinds are desirable and both are declining. Putnam’s folly is to focus exclusively on relative upward mobility, which leads him into discussions of working-class family forms and parenting styles as root causes of the crisis in the American Dream.

Relative upward mobility occurs when over a lifetime some people move up from a lower to a higher income class – usually measured in quintiles; because there are always five quintiles by definition, in order for some to move up, others must move down. Relative mobility is about “careers open to talent” and equal opportunities for everybody to get to the top. It is key if you want to have a meritocracy. Absolute upward mobility, on the other hand, occurs when real incomes and standards of living increase across the board for everybody (or almost everybody).

Think of the common phrase “getting ahead.” It can mean getting ahead of others (relative upward mobility) or it can mean getting ahead of where you were before regardless of whether you passed anybody in the process (absolute upward mobility). Putnam’s exclusive focus on the former leads him astray because, as he more or less inadvertently shows, absolute upward mobility is very probably a necessary condition for increasing relative upward mobility – as that’s what happened during the Glorious 30 and is not happening any longer.

By contrasting well-crafted and moving portraits of upper-middle-class and poor working-class families in Oregon, Georgia, California, and Pennsylvania, as well as in his native Ohio, Putnam is able to show the overwhelming range of disadvantages children in these poor families face.   And he is able to make a strong case for the need for public institutions (especially schools) to provide “compensatory funding” to improve these children’s chances of getting ahead. But in doing so, he not only gives up on the working-class adults he portrays (most of them in mid-life), he gently and empathetically blames them for their children’s fate.

If they would just get married before they have children, stay married, and then raise their children with the “concerted cultivation” approach middle-class parents use, they could improve their children’s chances of success. There may be a case to be made for this point of view, but Putnam undermines it by getting carried away with his middle-class paternalism, suggesting at various points that hugging their children more, having dinner together, and using time-outs instead of spanking would help to equalize poor and working-class kids’ opportunities.

By focusing on equalizing opportunities without equalizing incomes, Putnam hopes to improve poor and working-class kids’ chances of succeeding in our “knowledge economy” – which for Putnam means getting a college education and a job that requires that education. Problem is he seems to have no idea that when today’s 12-year-olds graduate from college, only 1 out of 4 jobs at best will require a bachelor’s degree. What about the other 75% who do work that needs to be done but who are paid increasingly low wages and whose jobs are more and more precarious in every way you can think of? Putnam gives them an empathetic literary hug, but otherwise is silent.

Putnam’s folly is to think that we can achieve greater equality of opportunity without addressing our runaway inequality of income and wealth – that is, without drastically reforming our tax system so that investors are no longer privileged over people who work for a living, and without dramatically raising wages, especially at the lower end, regardless of how much education workers have and whether they are good, bad or mediocre parents.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Taskers in the Precariat: Part 2 – Essential Reforms

In “Taskers: The Precariat in the On-Demand Economy: Part 1,” I defined three types of taskers — on-demand, crowd labour, and zero hours employees – and highlighted the problems associated with these new forms of work: insecurity, low and fluctuating incomes, chronic uncertainty, lack of control over time, and the dismantling of occupational communities. I now want to propose policies that could improve taskers’ economic status and work conditions.

The on-demand economy and the precariat are here to stay, and we must fight for new forms of regulation, redistribution, and social protection to redress growing inequities. Real wages for the precariat – including taskers and others — will continue to stagnate. Income redistribution will have to come by other means. Forging a new system will not be easy, but is vital. As even intelligent conservative economic interests recognise, growing inequality threatens economic, social, and political stability.

However, the specifics of tasking also demand remedial policies. Let us start by considering policies for society, then policies directed at labour brokers, and then policies for protecting and enhancing the position of taskers themselves.

At society level, we should stop trying to compress taskers into the category of employee. Labour statistics define workers as either “employees” or “self-employed.” Neither of these terms, nor “freelancers”, is appropriate for describing the status of most people doing tasking, since they lack freedoms associated with being an independent seller of services, and they not employees in the old sense of mutuality of obligations. We should designate “tasker” as a separate category.

In the US, several class action cases are being heard to determine whether taskers in certain sectors should be classified as employees. While we might debate the specific conditions under which taskers could be identified as employees, we would do better to overhaul old labourist rules that privilege employees. It would be better if legislation dealt with the issues more generically. And in any case, why should only “employees” be covered by the protections built up in the 20th century? All forms of work should have the same rights and entitlements. The term ‘labour rights’ is a contradiction, since it is people who have rights, and these should apply to everybody, regardless of their specific labour or work status.

The emergence of taskers has intensified the frictions and divergent interests of different groups of worker. Anybody who thinks there is a unified working class in current circumstances is hallucinating. This is why we need a new system of collaborative bargaining between complementary and substituting occupational groups. The collective bargaining capacities of taskers must also be strengthened. On the one side are employers and labour brokers; on the other are employees, taskers, and freelancers.

Another social concern arises from the fact that the labour brokers are rentiers, earning vast amounts for doing very little if we accept their claim that all they do is provide technology to put clients in touch with ‘independent contractors’ of services. Thus, Uber and its rival Lyft say they are technology, not transport, companies.

By treating taskers as ‘independent contractors’, brokers avoid paying contributions that would entitle taskers to state benefits, and they avoid paying non-wage benefits that employees should receive. In return for their intermediary role, brokers typically take 20% of earnings. But they are free-riding on the public, since if taskers fall on hard times, they will need benefits from the state. Normal employers have to make a contribution to pay for benefits; brokers currently avoid doing so.

Accordingly, the authorities should establish a tasker levy (tax) of, say, 20% of labour brokers’ earnings or for each tasker they contract. Similarly, if they require taskers to use their own equipment, such as a car or machine tools, brokers should pay part of insurance costs. If this is meant to be a “sharing economy”, as its apostles claim, then costs as well as benefits should be shared.

As for the brokers, if we accept that they represent an emerging ‘profession’, they should be pushed to establish stronger professional associations whose members develop and subscribe to formal Codes of Ethics. All brokers should be registered and required to join an association that could monitor conduct of members.

As for the taskers, occupational licensing must be rolled back. Licensing is the form of state regulation promoted in the neo-liberal era in place of guild regulation. In the US, over 1,000 occupations are now subject to licensing, mostly unnecessarily. Licensing often operates as a barrier to the right to practise. The insurance industry and commercial interests dominate licensing, transferring risks, uncertainty, and costs onto workers, and often enabling licensing boards to block or punish someone without due process. Labour brokers and the precariat in general should be united in wishing to see less licensing.

Licensing should be limited to occupations that involve real dangers, as in the case of surgeons, architects, and builders. Otherwise, occupational self-regulation should be revived. And there should be more reliance on accreditation, that is, membership in an association that testifies to competence or experience. For all professions, an international accreditation system should be constructed, with standardised rules. This would allow anybody to practise a particular form of work, but it would ensure that they were competent and met set standards. For example, Uber drivers should be required to display signs indicating whether they are licensed, accredited to a drivers’ association, or neither. They should also be required to show they are insured. Failure to inform a client in advance should be sanctionable.

On wages and prices, in the case of crowd labour, all taskers involved in Dutch auctions should have the right to know what rates are paid to successful bidders and what conditions have been applied. Those on zero-hours contracts should be compensated for inconvenience and insecurity based on hours. Such “stand-by bonuses” are required in Germany and could be set as a base salary. They should also be allowed to do other work without exclusivity clauses in their contracts. Both zero-hours employees and crowd-labour taskers should have the right to decline on-demand tasks without loss of pay or opportunity unless given at least 24 hours’ notice, so that they can gain more control of their lives.

All forms of on-demand labour should involve written contracts (signed and scanned), drawn up and agreed before tasks are allocated or performed, with at least one witness to each party in broker-tasker agreements. Taskers should also be compensated if the broker obliges them to undergo more than one round of consideration before a decision is made to contract them.

Taskers must have a right to know what information brokers share about them and to have false information withdrawn from electronic circulation. To protect taskers, no company should be allowed to inform other firms that a tasker has brought a complaint or sued for compensation, unless a conviction for fraud by the tasker has been obtained. In other words, blacklisting must be banned.

Similarly, customer rating of individual taskers should be curbed. Some brokers dismiss taskers if they receive several poor ratings (made feasible by the app). That might sound reasonable, but it could lead to crude discriminatory practices, and it lacks due process. Prejudiced customers could use the app to grade taskers from ethnic minorites negatively solely because they do not like such people. There should, at least, be demonstrable evidence and opportunities for taskers to defend themselves before actions are taken.

One exploitative aspect of crowd labour requires a special response. Some corporations, such as the Los Angeles-based Business Talent Group, Fox Mobile Entertainers, and Tongal, pay modest prizes to taskers who submit commercially viable ideas. The firms buy ideas at a fraction of their commercial value, since they can patent them, creating a monopoly income stream lasting for twenty years. This is one of the most exploitative tricks in labour history. Regulations should stipulate that taskers should receive at least 50% of the income stream of any of their ideas that is patented.

Finally, taskers should have a right to publicly-funded legal advice, subsidised by contributions from labour broker corporations. Taskers should be required to make a partial payment, to discourage frivolous actions. But having access to legal advice would encourage both sides to make agreements transparent and standardised as much as possible.

Achieving these reforms will require social struggle by and for the precariat. We must realise that the precariat’s vulnerability today is a threat to all of us tomorrow. When sweating spreads to taskers, the threat to wages and working conditions for those outside the precariat grows. We must wake up to that threat.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London.

The Fissured (Working-Class) Workplace

One of my favourite exercises when teaching the sociology of work is to ask my students about the concept of a ‘job for life’. I started doing this a decade and a half ago at the beginning of my lecturing career. I asked the eighty odd twenty-somethings in the class in front of me ‘who’s heard of the phrase “a job for life” ’? When I first did this, maybe half the hands went up. I then asked, ‘Who here expects one’? That first time, and in subsequent trials, no hand went up. One guy did shout out, ‘But who would want one’? Over the years I’ve often tried this experiment with different classes, even asking it during open-day presentations for prospective students where the presence of their parents give an intergenerational frisson and a knowing look from the greyer heads in the audience. The receding knowledge of the term and the expectations that went with it speaks volumes about what has happened to our contemporary ideas about work.

I was thinking about that experience reading David Weil’s book The Fissured Workplace, a thoughtful and thought provoking reflection on the contemporary US workplace. By ‘fissured’ Weil means the wide range of ways in which work has been desiccated. Where traditional work was stable and intelligible, increasingly one is never sure who is responsible for the product supplied or service purchased. Weil outlines a number of types of fissuring, from subcontracting to outsourcing to franchising. Weil persuasively groups together a range of diverse strategies through which ownership and control are exercised through layer upon layer of intermediaries. The book offers a litany of corporate attempts to squeeze more profit from the bottom-line by laying-off risk and responsibility, citing examples from industries as diverse as cell phones, hotels, and coalmining. Fissuring is about saving money and restricting liability, ideally removing it all together.

Many of the instances of fissuring that Weil gives are not new for working-class people. Many working-class and trade union struggles have been over the attempt to secure at least some kind of work stability. The interesting thing about Weil’s metaphor is that it transcends blue-collar work, where poor conditions are more common, and increasingly affects traditionally middle-class white-collar environments such as journalism and publishing. This idea of fissuring adds to the emerging lexicon describing the contemporary and potential future nature of work. Like the idea of precarity that Guy Standing has talked about, fissuring makes sense of the common features and patterns that cross industries, sectors, and whole labour markets. The concept describes the splitting apart and the simultaneous corrosion or erosion of workplace sociability and culture. Fissuring gets to the heart of how contemporary work offers workers, their families, and whole communities even less of the limited stability that they enjoyed in the past.

For working-class people on both sides of the Atlantic, the ability to access good work is important for a number of obvious and perhaps less obvious reasons. Ask anyone why they work, and as like as not they will say ‘money’ and give you a look as if to say ‘are you crazy’? But dig deeper and it becomes apparent that while the cash is vital, so too are a whole range of other features of work that Studs Terkel described as things that ‘make the day go faster’. To some extent, all work socialises us, and that, in turn, allows us to play our part in socialising others. When I interview workers, the older ones especially, they often reflect on the significant people who have marked out times of transitions in their life — the most obvious moment being the initial move from school or college to their first place of employment. It often takes a whole lifetime of work before the subtlety of what they enjoyed becomes apparent to them, the way people and places helped to shape them as humans. It is only in the reminiscence that they see the value of workplace culture, even though their younger self may have ignored or hated the experience at the time. In various ways it moulded them, and they in turn help to cultivate and mature others. I am not saying that all work in the past was great, nor that ‘good work’ was accessed by all. Rather, I think a critical mass of working-class people experienced a level of stability that made a difference to their lives inside and outside the workplace. I’d go further and say that critical mass made a difference to the quality of work elsewhere, too. It afforded some working-class people the space to think and grow through employment.

When I read the David Weil’s book, I thought of the effect this fissuring has on working-class employment. The patterns of workplace culture have been undermined and changed hugely over the last three decades, but the shifts explored in The Fissured Workplace add a new and urgent dimension. What Weil describes is nothing less than the breaking down of any sort of medium or long term stability for workers. In the fissured workplace, relationships are contractual rather than social. The ability of people to join together, to socialise and be socialised, becomes increasingly limited.

For the young people I teach, The Fissured Workplace probably reads like a description of their experience of the world of work rather than as a critical analysis. We should not to romanticise the work of the past, indulge in ‘smokestack nostalgia’, but equally we need to acknowledge a world we may be losing. While the ‘job for life’ may have been a fleeting experience for a few, the social patterns that that stability engendered were profound for generations of workers and can still be seen working their way through the contemporary workplace. As for my student’s question about who would want a job for life, I would probably answer now that many working-class people would at least like the option of one.

Tim Strangleman

Getting By: The Fight for Community

Over the years, I have been involved in many community projects and campaigns, but not since the 1980s have I experienced the militancy and anxiety among working-class people that I see today. At first glance, you may miss it, or misinterpret their anger and rising class-consciousness as the way members of an underclass exclude themselves from British society. But these are the simplistic, stigmatizing, and cruel critiques that the mainstream media, and mainstream politicians, choose to deliver about the poorest members of our society.

In Getting By, my book about the council estate in Nottingham where I lived and raised my family for more than 20 years, I map my life from very poor housing close to the mines where my family worked, to the city centre of Nottingham, where I lived in public housing as a single mother with my mixed-race son, to finding myself at the University of Nottingham as a thirty-something working-class, mature student. I spent eight years researching the neighborhood where I lived for 25 years and writing about the consequences of de-valuing people and communities. I map how working-class people in the United Kingdom have become de-valued by successive governments and policies in the last thirty years. I show and explain how people who live in social housing have become problematized in the public psyche, stigmatized, and reduced to figures of ridicule, and hate. In particular I examine what it means to be a working-class woman, and how you learn at a very young age that shame will be part of your life – and that your respectability has to be sacrificed in order to ‘get by.’ The book is set within one neighborhood within the United Kingdom, although stigmatization and the de-valuing of working-class people is embedded throughout the country. For the last 18 months, I have lived in east London, continuing my academic research and also becoming involved in campaigns in London, where the de-valuing process of working-class people is stark, particularly around issues of housing. Rents within the capital are so high it is becoming impossible for poor families to stay in London.

unnamedWe can see one vivid example in the Focus E15 mothers, a group of young women with small children who, in 2013, were forcibly evicted from a homeless hostel that sits in the shadow of the billion pound developments of the Olympic Park and the Westfield Shopping Centre. Their evictions were treated with a complete lack of empathy for their welfare by the local authority and Mayor (both Labour Party). They were told that the only social housing available was in other cities around the UK where they have no connections or family — a crude form of class cleansing.

The Focus E15 mothers have gone on to support other families being made homeless in their neighborhood, leading to the group being labelled ‘agitators’ and ‘band wagon jumpers.’ This is what happens when powerless and de-valued women fight back — refuse to ‘know their place’ — without deference to an organized top-down political party.

Meanwhile, multi-million pound housing developments in London are segregating less well-off tenants from wealthy home-buyers by forcing them to use separate entrances. A Guardian newspaper investigation discovered that in upmarket apartment blocks, which are required to include affordable homes in order to win planning permission, poorer residents are increasingly being forced to use alternative access, which some have dubbed “poor doors.” Even bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities, and postal deliveries are being separated to avoid class mixing. When I first read about one of these buildings, ‘One Commercial Street,’ I immediately knew that this was wrong. I didn’t need to consider whether de-valuing a person and making them walk round the back was better than providing no home at all, an argument levelled at those of us who spent 20 weeks protesting outside this symbolic monument to capitalism. But this sort of social Apartheid is wrong and needs to be called out for what it is.

It seems that social cleansing, social apartheid, and social inequality have been accepted as ‘common sense’ by the political elites, whether that means social cleansing the poor out of London altogether, providing different entrances to buildings to ensure that the rich don’t need to meet the poor, or de-humanizing people through ridiculing the places where they live, their culture, and their lives.

Perhaps ironically, this kind of hard-line neo-liberal thinking can generate class consciousness born out of a sense of unfairness . Grass-roots activism is thriving among groups united in their experience of being treated harshly and having very little or no power. They are fighting for their lives and the futures of their children as we fought in 1984 against pit closures. Many think the fight in 1984/5 was about coal and the closure of mines, and to some extent it was. In truth, our struggle as a striking family was much greater than coal and mines. It was about safeguarding our community, our way of life, and our culture — everything that made us proud working-class men, women, and children. We lost that fight, the mines were closed, 193,000 miners lost their livelihoods, and thousands more local jobs connected to the industry also disappeared. We lost our communities, we lost our families as each generation had to move out of the mining towns to find work elsewhere, and we lost our collective politics and our strong proud culture. This is what happens when thriving and tight knit communities are destroyed and de-valued.

The fight in London is also about saving working-class communities, and this fight has become especially apparent among mothers in the UK who were not politically active, perhaps, until they faced eviction, like the Focus E15 women. Recently, I have met women with their children on protests who have never been involved in politics before, who are now organizing solely by their class and their experiences.

Getting By shows how important community, family, and neighborhood still are to working-class people. Although there is an absence- a void left by professional politicians in how working class people ‘do politics,’ the book shows that there is a collective and a political identity emerging out of the concept of ‘belonging and community’. I feel confident that energy and class consciousness are rising among people who even a year ago had little interest in politics. Working-class people are becoming angry at the levels of inequality they see and the unfairness and injustice they are experiencing. I am hopeful because the discontent and change in working-class politics are coming from the grass roots, from mothers with babies on their hips, connected to no organized political party, shouting ‘shame on you’ at the police protecting the buildings and the power of the elites. The energy and the fight-back in the capital has both overwhelmed and inspired me to the point where even I — a very cynical working-class academic — believe that change is not only coming, but is happening.

Lisa Mckenzie

Lisa Mckenzie is a research fellow in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, working on issues of social inequality and class stratification through ethnographic research.

 

Taskers: The Precariat in the On-Demand Economy (Part One)

Revolutionary changes are taking place in the global labor process, creating new labor relations while expanding the ranks of the precariat. Informed observers predict that within the next decade, one in every three labor transactions will be done online as part of the “on-demand,” “sharing,” “gig,” or “crowd labor” economy.

New words are creating a new vocabulary of work and labor, often meaning something quite different from what they might imply. As I have explained elsewhere, whereas labour has exchange value and is usually remunerated, work consists of many activities that are productive or reproductive that mostly have use value, although many are done out of necessity because we are obliged to do them. We will overcome the confusion, but it may take time.

Essentially, the emerging labor process revolves around three entities: (1) Rentier corporations (labor brokers), which control the technological apparatus, the apps; (2) Labor “requesters”, the middlemen; and (3) Taskers, those who do the jobs. The apps and smartphones are the equivalent of the old labor hall, without the bustle that at least indicated the bargaining position of brokers and laborers. Taskers are basically piece-rate workers, but they should be distinguished both from employees, who are covered by labor law and collective bargaining, and the self-employed. Taskers come in three forms, each posing challenges to those concerned with the world of work.

First, in the on-demand – or, more cruelly, ‘concierge’ – economy, labor-broking corporations are bypassing old forms of market transaction, connecting final customers with taskers who supply services, such as taxi driving, bed-sharing, food delivery, shopping, legal advice, or medical care. These service providers (or errand boys or “task-rabbits”) should be distinguished from workers, since the broker treats them as self-employed, thereby excluding them from entitlements or protections that the state supposedly grants employees.

On-demand taskers must be available at most times of day and night or risk losing income or future opportunities. Unlike the classic proletarian employee, they own the means of production, in the form of a car, apartment, bicycle, machine tools, or whatever. And they do not have fixed or even known hours of labor. They must do a lot of work-for-labor, work neither compensated nor even recognized as work. They must wait around, unable to devote themselves to other activities in case the iPhone calls them to do a task.

On-demand taskers are usually isolated, without bargaining power. They are in a buyer’s market, having to accept a price set by the buyer. While many may feel “grateful” for the opportunity to earn a little, they must bear all the risks – accidents, ill-health from stress, loss of friendships, non-payment, repairs to vehicles or tools, replacement of stained carpets, health insurance, and so on. They face constant uncertainty — of income, tasks, costs, and personal comforts. And they are in constant competition with other unknown taskers.

A second type of tasker is part of the crowd-labor pool, an expanding phenomenon already involving over 12 million people, a third in the USA. Here, labor intermediaries are pivotal. Direct producers contract with a brokering corporation, such as Amazon Turk, ODesk, or eLance, which in turn utilize requesters to sub-contract tasks to successful bidders — taskers — from a potentially global crowd-labor pool. This involves a Dutch auction, in which requesters announce on line that so many such-and-such tasks are up for bid, to be completed within a stipulated period, and that bidding will close within, say, five days. Often the requester announces at the outset a maximum price or piece-rate, and taskers then bid each other down. Taskers can bid to undertake as many tasks as they think feasible at a price they think is right for them. At the end, requesters select from the lowest bids. So, somebody in Boston can be bidding against someone from Bangalore, Dakar, or Manchester. This is invidious, because the most insecure will tend to bid the lowest.

Because crowd-labor taskers do not know how many people are bidding or where they are, they may easily believe competition is more intense than it is. For the broker, that is ideal. But tasks may turn out to be more complex or time-consuming than taskers had been led to believe, resulting in even more self-exploitation. Many worry about their ability to finish tasks on time or satisfy the quality demanded, especially when they have no means of seeing what others are achieving. And in practice they have no means of redress should the broker decide not to pay or to delay payment on some pretext.

The larger the global crowd-labor pool, the easier it will be for brokers to impose demands and penalties on individual taskers. For instance, if a requester in New York unilaterally decides that a tasker in Dakar did not do something well enough and refuses to pay, the solitary tasker probably will not be able, or be confident enough, to try to recover her money. The scope for scams is enormous.

A third type of tasker is someone hired as a nominal full-time employee but who is on a zero-hours contract. This growing ruse involves paying only for the hours they are actually required to labor. They must be on stand-by at all times and travel to and from workplaces without compensation, often not knowing if they will get work or for how long. Over 1.4 million people in the UK are on such contracts.

All these taskers face insecurity, low and fluctuating incomes, chronic uncertainty, and lack of control over time. They have no fixed hours or workplaces. Unlike workers in the industrial time regime, where life could be measured in blocks of time, they live in a tertiary time regime, in which labor and work blur into each other, without payment for downtime, waiting, retraining, networking, and so on. They have illusion of freedom while also feeling that they are under incessant control. This is debilitating, with psychological consequences that we have only begun to explore.

The process depresses wage rates, whether taskers are paid on a piece-rate or time-rate basis. The decline is greater than is measured, since much of the tasker’s work is unrecorded, including time for rest, preparing, and waiting. The process also increases the precariat’s volatility of earnings, leaving them without non-wage or state benefits.

Driving down wages in general creates even more profits for the broker corporations. In this respect, Uber has set the bar for ruthless opportunism, and in spite of protests by licensed taxi drivers, it is operating in over 200 cities in 51 countries. It is decimating the ranks of licensed taxis, and depressing the earnings of taxi drivers. Critics fear that once Uber has succeeded in marginalizing taxis, it will raise its rates, especially in surge periods.

The process also accentuates the dismantling of occupational communities. Occupational guilds defined working life for hundreds of years, setting standards, codes of ethics, means of training, and sources of social protection. They stood against the market. The neo-liberal agenda hinges on dismantling them, and the on-demand economy is both a consequence and an accelerator of that. The costs include loss of occupational ethics and routes of social mobility through professions and crafts

The on-demand economy also reverses a capitalist mantra. Instead of capitalists, or firms, owning the means of production, they are ‘owned’ by the precariat. The former maximize profits through patents and other forms of intellectual property. They draw investment from venture capital, which thrives on short-lived, high rates of profit.

The precariat in this zone is isolated, in permanent competition with each other. The atomization drives down wages and transfers risks, hazards, shocks, and uncertainty onto the precariat. Taskers have minimal means or opportunities to coalesce.

Dangers for taskers include under-insurance, due partly to the difficulty of working out the risks with any insurer, especially where the potential insurer could not presume that the supplier would be properly qualified or be able to take due care.

The “sharing economy” has a cultural dimension, as well. When someone “shares” for money a car, apartment, or utensils, they convert zones of privacy and use value into alienated commodities with exchange value. It is an instance of the “Lauderdale Paradox,” in which the act of commodification is one of privatization that contrives scarcity of space or time.

These forms of labor intensify the pressure to commodify one’s life. It is a sad way for the precariat to respond to adversity, intensifying self-exploitation. It is how those experiencing declining wages and living standards cover up the decline, for a while.

In the upcoming weeks in Working-Class Perspectives, I will consider what can be done to improve the long-term income and economic security of taskers and the precariat.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London.