Skip navigation.

Unions and the precariat: Guy Standing replies to Elizabeth Cotton

Guy Standing, 27 March 2013

For more on the challenges facing unions, see:  

The editor of Public World kindly invited me to respond to Elizabeth Cotton’s criticism of my work on the precariat. Normally I do not respond to blog postings but her remarks about my alleged attitude to unions, in particular, prompted me to try to put the record straight, especially as she has reposted the piece elsewhere.

First, it may be useful to note a couple of conceptual points. In The Precariat, and in a related longer book, Work after Globalization, a crucial distinction is made between work and labour. The precariat is exploited and oppressed as much in work done outside remunerated labour as in labour. Cotton seems to mean labour when she uses the term work.

A second distinction in the books is between employment security (stable long-term contracts, protection against loss of employment) and job security (having a stable occupational niche). Cotton suggests that I define the precariat chiefly by reference to a lack of employment security (which she calls job security). She then encapsulates my argument as “precarious work = creation of a precariat”.

This is not the argument made in either book. There has always been insecure labour. The novel element is that the precariat lacks all the seven forms of labour security outlined in the books, while having distinctive relations of production and relations of distribution. It consists of denizens, lacking some or all of the rights of citizenship, and it is the first emerging class in which its modal members have qualifications greater than those they are expected to use in the jobs they are expected to perform. Those in the precariat have no occupational identity or narrative to give to their lives. Perhaps most importantly, they are essentially supplicants.

Cotton also claims I say the precariat is a “new underclass”. Yet on the first page of The Precariat, it is stated that it “is not ‘the squeezed middle’ or an ‘underclass’ or ‘the lower working class’. It has a distinctive bundle of insecurities and will have an equally distinctive set of demands.” This is elaborated through the book.

In Marxian terms, a lumpenised underclass is a drag on accumulation and does not contribute productively. By contrast, the precariat is wanted by firms and governments. And whereas the proletariat in the equivalent period of the Great Transformation was slowly habituated to a life of stable labour, the precariat is being habituated to a life of unstable labour and unstable living.

Now for the egregious assertion that “Standing grandly ‘airbrushes out’ trades unions describing them as old school labourists only interested in traditional membership.” The words “airbrush out” mean to make something disappear or to pretend it is not there. In fact, unions are discussed throughout The Precariat. There are also two long chapters, thinking through past and potential roles of trades unions, in Work after Globalization, which argue that unions must revive their guild role as protectors of occupational work. (To add a personal point, I have been working with a new type of union for many years, as indicated at the end of this response.)

Unions are essential. In the early twentieth century, they were a powerful progressive force. But what is argued in both books is that they became trapped in labourism. Labourism was based on – how to put this? – airbrushing out all work that is not labour, and then building up so-called labour rights that privileged those in jobs compared with those doing other, unremunerated work.

In the twenty-first century, somehow labour unions must transform themselves radically if they are to relate to the insecurities, needs and aspirations of those in the precariat. I have been invited to present the books at many union meetings and have found widespread agreement with this argument, especially among younger union members and organisers (often themselves in precarious jobs).

But it is not “catastrophising” to say that no one should underestimate the difficulties unions face in the global, flexible market system. The example of union “success” cited by Cotton involved bargaining with a single multinational employer – collective bargaining of the traditional “labourist” kind, intended to protect the “core” workforce from being undercut by cheaper temporary workers. It does not address the multiple insecurities of the precariat.

Unions must re-orient their approach and character. Progressive politics must be based on providing everybody with two meta-needs, basic socio-economic security and equal, strong Voice, meaning a combination of individual and collective capacity to bargain with power of all sorts.

The Precariat builds on Hannah Arendt’s idea of associational freedom, and tries to take this forward in identifying the sort of associations or unions suited to the precariat and the globalising market system taking shape in the twenty-first century. Let us all respond to the challenge of the Global Transformation and the inequities of the austerity era with innovative thinking around new forms of collective action.

• Guy Standing is Professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was formerly Director of the Socio-Economic Security Programme of the International Labour Organisation, and Director of Labour Market Policies. He is also a founder and co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). His books include Global Labour Flexibility (Macmillan, 1999), Work after Globalization: Building Occupational Citizenship (Elgar, 2009), and The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011). He is currently working with SEWA, the Indian union of women outworkers, on a large-scale basic income pilot scheme.

Bookmark and Share