#M2013: Kevin Doogan on the nature of work today

Dan Swain and Robin Burrett write:

Kevin Doogan introduced an important session on Satuday afternoon titled “Has the crisis changed the nature of work?” Kevin’s starting point was the gap between perceptions of the nature of work and the reality suggested by his research.

There is a widespread perception that work is becoming less secure, he said, indicated by the increasingly ubiquitous use of terms like “precarity” and “precariat”. This however, is not matched by evidence that most workers remain in relatively secure conditions of employment.

Kevin stressed that so far (with the exception of countries such as Spain, Greece and Ireland) the crisis has not played itself out primarily in terms of mass unemployment. Rather, it has involved attacks on wages, pensions, and things such as sick leave and holiday time.

However, a “downstream” consequence of this is that younger generations are blocked from entering certain more secure and skilled jobs. This is especially significant for graduates: Kevin highlighted with the startling statistic that 36% of graduates in Britain are not in graduate jobs.

It was important, he stressed, to see that the crisis is likely to be long and protracted. The recovery of the economy is extremely slow in comparison to previous recessions, and this shows no sign of changing. It would therefore to be wrong to make epochal claims that talked in terms of decisive defeats. There would be new attacks, and therefore new struggles and new forces moving into struggle. We had to see we were in this for the long haul.

Most importantly, Kevin insisted that we had to see precarity in political terms, as a mode of disciplining labour. It therefore had to be grasped not as an economic fact, but as a political and ideological project. It doesn’t matter how secure your job may formally be, the mood music of neoliberalism makes you feel precarious. Challenging this therefore had to be linked to a political project, and Kevin stressed the particular importance of an ideological defence of public services and public goods.

Speakers on the floor were generally in agreement that it is unhelpful to see precarious workers as a distinct new class. However, Robin Burrett pointed out that it was important to think about how we engage with people who feel precarious. Merely telling them they are not is unhelpful: we need to find ways of organising with them to make them see their strength.

There was some disagreement on the question of how much effort to put into organising private sector workers. Ray M reminded us that the overwhelming majority of the working class is in the private sector, and suggested that more attention needed to be given to organising them.

But Paul H countered that public sector workers remained the strongest and best organised sections of the working class, and that we should focus on them. He even suggested that we should encourage students to get public sector jobs when they graduate, in order that they can go where organisation is strongest.

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