Living on the Breadline - A Return to the Subject of Precarious Labour.


In recent times, with the increasing influence of business interests on the state, and with the near destruction of social security, workers’ existence is becoming more and more insecure. Precarity is a term that has been developed alongside casualisation to describe the changes wrought by these and the form of working class existence that has developed because of them. Rather than the job-for-life and job security associated with such, workers’ are being coldly moulded into an acceptance of labour that rests on the whims and qualms of the bosses rather than an environment that it is within the workers‘ power to effect and change.For anti-capitalists the significance of these changes has been quite large. The mass trade union model of working class action does not seem fit to deal with this new situation. Every year, the number of strike days decreases along with the amount of national income spent on wages and pensions. The level of union membership in the working class is continuously on the decrease. This decrease in union membership isn’t being replaced with any new form of workplace organisation. And the two go hand in hand- the more precarious the labour, the less organised the workers, and this serves to play into the hands of the bosses. And rather than the protection these workers require, they are vastly overlooked and abandoned by the mass labour movement. The precarious workers are not faceless and nameless, they are the thousands nationwide and millions worldwide amongst the most vulnerable to workers rights abuses.

But precariousness now extends beyond the realm of unskilled and so called McJobs. With the economic downturn, many semi- skilled and industrial workers find their labour being casualised as demand for commodities decreases along with the confidence of the consumer. More and more workers are finding themselves out of work, or in some cases, having their hours cut so much so that to go on the minimal social welfare would be of more benefit. In these cases, the employers waive the employees right to redundancy or compensation as the worker has not technically been laid off; the company still holds the workers P45, and the promise of labour is there- however minimal it may be. The company now has the added benefit of a team of skilled, casual labourers, on a part- time wage. Fearing that taking redundancy causes them to lose them their jobs, these workers often continue to work on this basis with the promise of a return to fulltime labour if consumer confidence rises. This saturation of the market until it becomes unstable affecting said market is indicative of the modern nature of capitalism, and when labour is dependant on this mass demand for goods and services, workers are completely exposed to the fluctuations of the system.

The argument extends that precarious labour is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Work has always depended on demand, and fluctuations in the economy have always affected workers rights. The job for life is a limited demand, in that work was/is often mundane, boring and tedious. Throughout history, labour has at times been superfluous to the demands of the bosses, depending on profitability. Though capitalism may have evolved, the workers it served to exploit remain the same- the young, the poor, and the immigrant groups. With the mass worker came a rhetoric of rights and expectations, which even if it did not hold true for all, provided an important challenge to the power of capitalism. Many unions, or their leaders at least, now seem afraid of such rhetoric- afraid of militant action for fear of upsetting the cosy social partnership deals they have been working on for the last two decades or so, Now we have a new challenge. That capitalism has grown so much so as to render unions all but impotent and disperse and alienate the workforce to prevent organisation and retaliation.

This is not to say that unions, despite their passiveness are unimportant. Workers in union jobs generally tend to have higher pay and better working conditions than those in non-union ones. Though, as a revolutionary anarchist organisation we realise that ultimately, trade unions are not revolutionary organisations- They are there to improve the conditions of workers existence. But we also realise that there can be power in a union, in a fighting and campaigning union, not a union that serves to entangle the bosses’ interests with the workers’ interests. We realise the labour movement owes much of it’s existence to the industrial revolution, and it’s decrease in power to labour union’s continued insistence upon working with the state. And as has been seen throughout history, “Who eats by the state, dies by it,” and workers control diminishes along with their impulse to self help as unions continue to “Innoculate workers with the ruinous delusion that salvation always comes from above.” (AS T&P pg. 54) Thus the growth of partnership and decrease of power of the labour unions mirrors the decrease in independent thought and action by the workers themselves.

How do we fight against the insecurity of precarious labour? (This example is taken from an article on precarious labour in Red and Black # 11) In recent times, the successful Get Up, Stand Up campaign have shown there is a role to be played in organising both within and outside of the Union. In the summer of 2005 contact was made with a group of young Polish workers, who were facing into protests with management of a Tesco distribution centre in Greenhills. These workers took the initiative to use their own experiences as temps- used to undermine the security of the workforce in the first place- as a propaganda vehicle to highlight an increasingly common work experience. Tesco never breached a piece of employment legislation directly; the workers’ direct employer was an agency called Grafton Recruitment. To Tesco they were immediately disposable and the old rights we relied on in the Get Up, Stand Up Campaign were no longer relevant. Members of the WSM provided solidarity, by helping organise a protest outside a Tesco store on Baggot Street and in calling for solidarity elsewhere, which led to several demos across the UK and Poland co-ordinated by activists in the libertarian milieu and organisers in the T and G. The protests garnered a huge degree of media attention within the new Polish media in Ireland and back in Poland. Campaigns like the Irish Ferries dispute show that combatative trade unionism can have direct results; that when workers go on work stoppages or go out the streets rather than let union officials engage in polite lobbying with the bosses, workers can get results.

The question is to whether there is a truly combatative trade union in Ireland at the moment. With the IWU we have the basics of an openly transparent and directly democratic union. At the National Conference of 2005 we added to our trade union position paper that we recognise that the IWU openly declares itself as being anti-social partnership and that it actively works to recruit and organise low-paid workers. We also added that WSM members are encouraged to become either full or associate members of the Independent Workers Union with a view to working within and alongside the IWU to further the objectives the positions of the organisation-
That we in the WSM are opposed to the idea of partnership between state and union. We are opposed to the “natural wastage” of jobs and any productivity deals that involve job losses including the casualisation of labour, which serves to leave workers and their families on the breadline. We must put thought into action and seek to build a new campaign for workers rights. We must work to generate wider solidarity for workers in struggle, urging the formation of networks which bring together activist workers with the aim of discussing, formulating and implementing strategies that will help them to win these struggles. And, as the workers who need organisation most are those in precarious jobs, we must work towards building a labour movement that stands up for the rights of these workers, and one that stands independently of the influence of the state, of union careerists and bureaucrats.