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Just because the shoe fits doesn’t mean we have to put it on

By Frank Joyce
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Are you in the precariat? Probably. Most of us are. Or will be.

What is the precariat? It is the condition of being in a precarious relationship to employment.

In other words, you have only a part-time job. Or no job. Or three jobs. Or you have a job, but you are way overqualified. Why? Because you took out loans to get the degree you were told you needed, but your chosen field isn’t hiring. Or maybe your friend just got laid off and you didn’t. But you live in fear and dread because you know you could easily be next.

In his brilliant book “The Precariat,” British author Guy Standing connects the dots that show just how vulnerable workers have become in recent decades. This is a book that makes one light bulb after another go off in understanding why and how being in the precariat is the new normal all over the world.

“The Precariat” illustrates how even those who have a relatively stable job — one that provides you with a W-2 form and at least some benefits — are still in a high-risk situation. That’s because the voracious growth of even more precarious sectors of the global economy puts your wages, your working conditions, your health and your retirement at grave risk.

With the overwhelming majority of the workforce now in the precariat, the danger is that resentments between workers will grow. Racial and ethnic tensions intensify, hostility toward immigrants becomes a potent social and political force and antagonism toward unionized or other workers perceived as somehow privileged increases.

Indeed, understanding the extraordinary growth of the precariat goes a long way toward illuminating the decline of unions. When all workers are “expendable,” employers gain the upper hand in bargaining and in resisting union growth. Hence we see the decades-long pattern of falling wages and multi-tier wages, the growing percentage of “temporary” workers, shrinking pensions, higher costs for health care and the erosion of the previous protections that come with seniority.

As the economic power of employers grows, so does their political power. So, at the same time that employment is becoming precarious, so are social benefits that once served as “shock absorbers” for the built in limits of the job system.

And if employers want to make a once strong union state like Michigan a right-to-work-for-less state or abolish collective bargaining rights for public sector workers as in Indiana and Wisconsin — they have the capacity to do so. Even when unions win a fight here and there, the larger trend toward insecure employment grows unabated.

One of the reasons we aren’t able to act together is that we don’t yet realize we are together. A big fog machine makes us think we are in trouble because we made bad choices as individuals. The relentless message is that we don’t deserve a decent and secure standard of living, let alone meaningful work.

As Standing makes clear, it doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, remaining passive and continuing our descent into the “politics of the inferno” is an option. But, he says, we can also decide to recognize our condition and our challenges and fight for a “politics of paradise.”

In Detroit and all around the world, more and more of us precariats are coming together to build a New Work economy that is more fair, more secure, more rewarding and better for our communities.

That is a story for a future column.

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit-based political and labor activist and writer, a former news director at WDET and former communications director for the UAW. He contributes weekly to the Land of Hopes and Dreams radio program heard Sunday afternoon from 1-4 p.m. Eastern at SiriusXM Channel 127.

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