Renovating the House of Labor
By C.M. Lewis
How we define the labor movement, how we interact with it, and what we want from it are questions to which we desperately need answers. Recent work on "the gig economy" offers a start to a discussion that needs to be had openly, involving both organized and unorganized workers: how does DSA, and the Left writ large, best revitalize a movement in retreat?
Chris Maisano’s piece for DSA Weekly, The Gig Ideology, tackles a familiar subject: contingent work and the precariat, those forced to cobble together jobs through “sharing economy” work or other multiple insecure jobs. (As full disclosure, for most of my adulthood I worked multiple adjuncting and part-time jobs to make ends meet.)
Maisano argues that emphasis on the “precariat” and “gig economy” is overblown. He correctly notes that economic instability has always forced moonlighting: working-class moonlighting has a history as long as the industrial era. However, Maisano takes this one step further and argues that the gig economy and the precariat is nothing new, and thus does not deserve attention.
Maisano singles out the “recently radicalized” (which describes a large share, and potentially the majority, of DSA’s membership) for criticism, observing that the narrative of the precariat dovetails with “skepticism toward more traditional forms of labor organizing and political mobilization that often crops up among the recently radicalized.” According to Maisano, talk of the precariat is used to dismiss the traditional tenets of social democracy: “if nobody is working a ‘normal’ job anymore then why bother with such fusty notions as trade unions, collective bargaining, or the welfare state?”
Who Maisano is talking about is unclear. The primary proponents of such thought are people like David Rolf or former SEIU president Andy Sterns, neither of whom count among the “recently radicalized.” For all the labor movement’s talk of organizing the gig economy it has not been the sole or even primary focus of labor organizing; if one expands discussion to include the precariat, adjunct organizing has been one of the lone bright spots of union expansion in an otherwise bleak landscape. Although Maisano suggests that “gig ideology” is commonplace, it is hard to identify those on the Left that lionize the precariat while attacking the idea of organized labor.
A cursory glance at the data suggests the picture is more complicated than Maisano presents. A recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures contingent workers as “persons who do not expect their jobs to last or who report that their jobs are temporary.” Based on their broadest estimation of contingency, they identify 5.9 million workers. According to the General Accounting Office report cited by Maisano, the “core contingent workforce” comprises 7.9% of the total workforce (which conceals moonlighting in contingent work.) Declining income and wages in traditional employment have led to an increasing reliance on “moonlighting,” “side hustles,” and other forms of supplemental income to make ends meet; in certain sectors (like higher education) income is cobbled together through precarious and stressful work arrangements. This reality has held across the majority of the industrial era, though it declined for many (mostly whites) in the post-War era of limited social democracy and union strength.
Although statistics cited by Maisano and others do suggest that Uber and its ilk are not primary employers for many workers, implying that new “gig” employers can be disregarded is misguided.
What Maisano doesn’t cite from the GAO report is important. The report found that “the size of the contingent workforce can range from less than 5 percent to more than a third of the total employed labor force, depending on widely-varying definitions of contingent work” (emphasis mine). It further observes that “contingent workers are more likely than standard workers to experience job instability,” and that contingent work “tends to lead to lower earnings, fewer benefits, and a greater reliance on public assistance than standard work.” It notes that “contingent employment remains an important concept for understanding the dynamics of the labor market,” and that “even the narrower estimates generated by BLS suggest that millions of contingent workers are in the labor force” (emphasis mine). The Department of Labor observed the “increasing prevalence of the ‘gig economy’” and that “the traditional relationship between an employer and employee is changing for many” in their addendum to the GAO report.
The reconfiguration of work to meet employer requirements isn’t surprising. Controlling the conditions and pace of work is at the core of workplace conflict, with workers attempting to expand control and employers demanding “flexibility” (represented today by the growth of “just-in-time” and “zero hour” scheduling). With each passing year the playing field tilts further toward management; Janus v. AFSCME may have up-ended the field altogether. The “newness” of precarious and gig work, as well as its prevalence, are far from settled questions. However, one measure – that of hours worked – suggests that employment is objectively, regardless of subjective assessments of satisfaction and security, getting worse. The median number of hours worked by Americans is at an all-time high by some measures, clocking in at 44.5.
Apostles of “gig ideology” are juxtaposed against Maisano’s strategic prescription: borrowing from the Trade Union Educational League/Communist Party strategy of “boring from within” and building a layer of socialist cadre within organized labor. In a working paper written in 2014, Maisano argued that “If only 1% of U.S. union members were turned into trained, disciplined activists with a class orientation and a long-term strategic vision, there would be about 140,000 of them. How different would this country look if we had that?” Unlike TUEL or the Communist Party (both of which strongly privileged organizing the unorganized, anti-racism, and anti-sexism as key short-term goals), Maisano limits the terrain of organizing to cadre-building within the already-existing 10% of workers who belong to unions, a terrain sure to shrink due to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME.
As of 2016, union density in New York was 23.6%. But the majority of the country does not have union density anywhere close to New York’s level. In fact, most states have less than 10% union density, to say nothing of Virginia (4.3%), Georgia (3.6%), North Carolina (3%), or South Carolina (1.6%): places where organized labor is faced with complete collapse or barely exists. In most parts of the country, the number of union members available to be developed into “trained, disciplined activists” is low and the union infrastructure is very weak, meaning Maisano’s program would require just as much institution-building as organizing the unorganized or choosing working class subjects beyond the unionized worker. As the union density numbers demonstrate, we cannot take union infrastructure for granted, particularly as employment conditions shift across the board and contingent work dominates the lives of so many poor people.
Strategy should adapt to what the context demands, and we must take into account unevenly spread union density, the role of the anti-union South in depressing wages, and the ever-more-urgent need to organize the unorganized. The latter task has been taken seriously with fresh and innovative approaches by many DSA chapters, particularly Seattle with their Workplace Organizing Collective and Los Angeles with their #HollywoodLabor project. Such initiatives should be held up as models, and we should welcome in workers (both union and non-union) to talk about the problems they face at work and to plan how to change them.
How we define the labor movement, how we interact with it, and what we want from it are questions to which we desperately need answers. Maisano offers a start to a discussion that needs to be had openly, involving both organized and unorganized workers: how does DSA, and the Left writ large, best revitalize a movement in retreat? How will we participate in the movement on the individual, local, and national level? Will that movement look the same as it has in the past? Should we want it to?
Now, more than ever, candidly discussing and creating a movement that embraces economic democracy and the well-being of all workers as matters of moral and political principle.
C.M. Lewis is a rank-and-file member of Centre County DSA.
(Photo: Former Docking Union Workhouse, Heacham Road. By Nigel Jones, via Wikimedia Commons.)