Global Labor As Precariat

American streets were recently filled with fast food workers marching for a living wage. The Service Employees International Union launched the “Fight for $15” in 2012 to organize fast food workers.

Their claim? That the employees of places like McDonald’s and Burger King can’t survive on the wages they receive and that the fast food industry should adopt a minimum wage of 15 dollars an hour.

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Supporters of the “Fight for $15” gathered in New York City’s Union Square in December to bring the plight of fast food workers to light. Image by Michael Fleshman. (Flickr Creative Commons).

The fast food worker protests also took place in other countries as workers took part in a Global Fast Food strike. The various groups of workers kept track of one another via social media using the hashtag #fastfoodglobal.

There have been other protests  in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Brazil advocating for the rights of workers.

The plight of the world’s workers was the focus of a recent interdisciplinary workshop organized by Indiana University’s Department of History.

From Proletariat to Precariat: Changing Labor Relations in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries” was organized in a series of panels and explored the nature of precarious labor in the United States and the Global South.

Leon Fink of the University of Illinois at Chicago was one of the speakers. He said in the United States the labor movement had two choices when it came to interaction with government — the British road and the Statist option. The British road was focused more on keeping the state out of interactions between companies and labor; the Statist option favored state arbitration of labor disputes and, Fink says, guaranteed labor a “seat at the table” during negotiations.

The American labor movement chose the British road. Which worked for a time, as long as workers were covered by a standard labor contract, which guaranteed a certain level of protection for workers. However, fewer workers are covered by such a contract and Fink says the “precariat is the response to the disillusion to the standard employment contract.”

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Marchers during the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike in New Jersey. Image via the Library of Congress. (Flickr Creative Commons).

He notes that in the space of globalization fewer workers world wide are covered by such a contract, producing a global precarious labor force.

Precarious in that there are few protections and guarantees.

Indiana University’s Joe Varga, a professor in the Department of Labor Studies, has watched as the situation for workers in “the heartland” becomes increasingly precarious.

He links the rise of “the new precariaty” with the Great Recession of 2008. As cities and companies struggled to recover protections for workers eroded. Varga points out those protections are not just in labor contracts. In discussing one now closed Bloomington business, Varga notes that when venture capitalists moved in actual protections designed to guarantee workers’ physical safety became bargaining chips.

All of this, Varga says, leaves workers wondering, “Does anybody care?”

The nature of the mediated world in which we live is also creating a precarious situation for workers.

Ilana Gershon of IU’s Department of Communication and Culture has been studying job seekers in the San Francisco Bay area. She’s found that the relationship between worker and employer has become much more fraught as workers are increasingly expected to embody the companies they work for. From interactions in the office to the photos employees share on Instagram or Facebook, companies seek employees who will serve as extensions of company values and goals.

How are just labor practices changed by an expectation that an employee be always on?

Labor precarity, some argue, is always already new. At least that seemed to be the perspective of speakers featured in a panel on labor in the Global South.

The History Department’s Jeff Gould¬†discussed the ways in which both global and international politics created a precarious situation for fishermen and factory workers in El Salvador. Jennifer Hart of Wayne State University discussed the historic production of precarity among drivers in Ghana, showing how culture, society, and colonization shaped the work and perception of drivers there.

Later scholars discussed the nature of work and capitalism in a post-socialist world. The day-long workshop ended with a round table discussion of major issues and concepts.

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