By August 30, 2013

Neoliberalism, Precarious Work, and Class Struggle

Protesting Against Part-time JobsNeoliberalism’s purpose is to shift the balance of money and power away from the working class and to the rich and their corporations. One of the strategies to achieve that goal is the weakening of the bargaining power and the working conditions of working people. Alongside the rise of automation, outsourcing, downsizing, and clawbacks of workplace benefits a key component has been the increase in an insecure workforce.

Workers are made more insecure, and therefore in a weaker bargaining position, by employing them on a temporary basis, as part-timers, as sub-contractors, or with zero-hour contracts (there are now 1 million workers on these contracts in Britain). This insecure and vulnerable work force is less frequently covered by employment regulations. Often these insecure workers are employed alongside a section of workers with more secure and regular employment terms. This divides the workforce and can weaken worker solidarity. It makes it easier for the employers to fire or reduce the hours of workers. All of this increases profits. Increasingly, and especially for young people, work is becoming ‘non-standard’ and the majority of non-standard workers are flexible for capital while precarious to workers.

Non-standard and precarious work has grown enormously in Canada and now accounts for close to half of the active labour force. Part-time workers now are 19% of the workforce. This has grown from 13% in 1980, an increase of 1.3 million workers. A growing share of part-time work is involuntary according to Statistics Canada. In service sector industries (using the Canadian government’s wide definition), where over 75% of workers are now employed, the average work-week for a single job in 2013 is 28.8 hours (i.e., part-time).

The self-employed are another 15% of the labour force, often relying on tenuous contracts for income, and frequently holding multiple jobs. Often in the public’s mind self employment implies independence for the workers, yet many sectors are notorious for using it as a way for weakening the workforce. In construction over 26% of the workforce is self-employed, much of this is to avoid direct employment costs.

Temporary workers in casual/on-call, seasonal, contract, and agency jobs account for 13.6% of workers, and the temporary help industry has expanded rapidly in the last few decades, growing at a 325%  rate from 1993-2008. The growth in temporary foreign workers is a particular sharp form of exploitation as these workers have no rights and are paid lower wages than Canadian workers. The number of temporary workers in Canada has doubled in seven years to 340,000 in 2012.

Another part of the changes in the workforce has been the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, historically better paid and unionized. Nearly 500,000 manufacturing jobs have gone in the last decade.

Even for full-time ‘standard’ workers, nearly ¼ have to complete work at home on a regular basis. This means that, excluding overlap, close to half of all workers are vulnerable to various forms of precarious work.

The erosion of employment security and protection has made flexible and non-standard work arrangements precarious. Bad jobs have always existed, but labour markets are polarizing in new ways that make jobs and workplaces more insecure. For example, BC workers are still suffering from the massive gutting of the Employment Standards Act by Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government from 2001-5. During this period, 47% of Employment Standards Branches were closed, and 16% of ESB funding was cut. The onus has been on workers to report violations, even though this is more difficult to do in smaller workplaces with multiple employers, employees, and/or contractors.

Security is also threatened by stagnating wages and social income. In 2006, according to Andrew Jackson of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, roughly 25% of Canadian workers were low-paid, earning less than two-thirds of the national median wage of $11 per hour. While the wealth of Canada has soared, incomes have stagnated. In 1976 the GDP per person was $21,000, by 2009 it had increased 70% to $36,000 (both values in US $ at constant prices). Over the same period Canadian median income increased by only 5%, from $45,800 in 1976 to $48,300 in 2009. In a world where the average yearly increase of real wages has stagnated and been divorced from productivity, workers have piled up debt and are only a couple of pay cheques away from poverty. At the same time state benefits, the social safety net, has been torn across the country.

Of course, as is the aim of neo-liberalism, there have been winners from these attacks on the majority of Canadians. Wealth has flown to the rich minority in society. In 1980 the lowest 40% of workers received 14.3% of all earnings and the richest 20% recieived 41.3%, in 2009 the poorest 40% only received 8.7% and richest got 50.6% or earnings. The top 1% has done even better. Since the late 1970s, the richest 1% of Canadians has seen their share of total income double, the richest 0.1% has seen its share almost triple, and the richest 0.01% has seen its share more than quintuple. Corporations have also piled up a huge mountain of cash, over $500 billion in Canada plus foreign assets.

Unions have struggled to extend protection to precarious workers. This is party due to the changing working conditions with the growth of temporary, part-time and self employed workers, but also the unions are less determined in their organizing campaigns then when the unions were build.

Overall, only one in five non-standard workers is unionized. In the case of temp workers, some unions such as CUPW have been successful in organizing and advocating for collective bargaining rights for temps, yet at 3.4% the unionization rate for agency workers is abysmally low. Challenges such as these make the weaker bargaining position of precarious workers relative to their ‘standard’ co-workers that much more acute. Canada’s industrial relations system makes it easy for employers to exploit flexible labour, but hard for workers to organize and gain equal rights with those in more standard employment.

In the meantime, the gap left by unions has been partly filled by different community union efforts. For example, in Ontario in 2008, the Workers’ Action Centre (WAC) helped fight a human rights challenge on behalf of eight temp agency workers who faced religious discrimination from UPS for their hijabs and long skirts. And in 2009, the WAC led a campaign to strengthen protection of temp workers, leading to the creation of Bill 139. This law amended Ontario’s Employment Standards Act to prevent temp agencies from charging fees to their workers, making it mandatory for agencies to disclose the full conditions of termination and severance, along with full details of each job assignment. The WAC has provided multilingual fact sheets on temp worker rights and public holiday pay, in addition to exposing annual labour violations affecting precarious workers. Recent organizing efforts in this vein have been pioneered by the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA), with support from the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has established ten workers’ centres for seasonal migrant agricultural workers, adding to the six workers’ centres already established in Canada. Success in community organizing should not obscure the fact that workers’ centres are a form of out-reach by unions, and the centres are largely dependent on union funding, but these should be encouraged in order to advance solidarity among all workers.

However the biggest barrier to unionizing precarious workers is the reluctance of most Canadian unions to return to their radical roots. Unions largely operate within the various legal rules which, while giving some protection to unionized workers, do restrict determined organizing. The building of the major industrial unions had to overcome the precarious working conditions of the time. For example, before the successful strike of in San Francisco in 1934 many longshore workers were hired, sometimes only for a day, in non-union hiring halls; this continued in parts of BC until the 1940s. Some of the drivers in the successful Teamsters strikes in Minnesota between 1934 -37 were self-employed or hired on a causal basis. The unions overcame these obstacles with thorough preparations, determined action and picketing, and solidarity. Of course much of this would be considered illegal by today’s union laws.

To organize precarious workers will require both ‘community’ outreach and determined action. Union members would support those trying to organize by respecting picket lines, refusing to deal with scab labour, raising funds and if needed solidarity strike action. No doubt the employers would threaten legal action; but if a union stands solid the company’s courts are often ineffective. In 2005 the BC government passed legislation to extend the teachers’ contract and the Labour Relations Board declared any strike action would be illegal. The BC Teachers Federation won a strike vote with 90% support and 40,000 teachers were on illegal strike.  BC Supreme Court found the union in contempt of court, levied a fine of $500,000 to go to charities, and ordered teachers back to work. The teachers stayed on strike. Public support for teachers stayed high, around 60%; there were big rallies in support and some solidarity strikes; and threats of wider industrial action by other unions. A few days later the BC government, after stating it would never negotiate with striking teachers, brought in an arbitrator and the strike was settled. No teachers were imprisoned and, although the union lost $500,000, if anything it came out of the dispute strengthened.

A precarious work force is one of the aims of neoliberal attacks. This has several benefits for the employers as the precarious workers receive lower wages and worse conditions than workers on more standard conditions. In addition, in workplace with different conditions of employment unified action is more difficult. This vulnerable workforce also helps to hold down the wages and conditions of unionized workers. So by encouraging its growth, capitalists hope to create a fragmented labour force which they control and enhance their profits even further.

The working-class movement has to respond to this trend by finding ways to organize precarious workers into unions so they can defend themselves and fight for better conditions and more control over their working lives.

Many workers would welcome worker-friendly flexibility of employment that respected and responded to their needs. People may wish to work part-time, temporarily, as self-employed or at home – but this should be form choice not coercion and with equal pay and conditions to other workers.

Socialist Alternative advocates for the unions to fight for:

·      Full trade union, sickness and vacation rights for all from day one of employment.

·      Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, with no exemptions

·      A 35 hour working week without loss of pay

·      Paid parental leave, comprehensive child benefit and high-quality, affordable childcare.

·      Equal rights for all immigrants regardless of status

The key to having working conditions that respect human needs is for there to be workers’ control of the workplace as part of socialist society.

Michael was working on this article at the time of his death. Socialist Alternative finished the article. The quality of the article shows what the working class has lost.

Posted in: Canada, Economy, Work