Essay: Anti-precarity organizations in challenging dialogue with trade-unions

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“They want us precarious, we will be rebellious”

1. Introduction

The introduction should state explicitly:

The general relevance and importance of anti-precarity organisations, and/or the relevance and importance of the particular anti-precarity organization under review

The relation between anti-precarity organisations and attempts to develop and/or usher in alternative horizons, i.e., new and better futures

The specific contribution of the chapter to progressive social change, which might be the analysis of the strategies adopted by the anti-precarity movement, from which lessons may be learned for social movements more generally

2. The beginning of the anti-precarity movement in Portugal:

With the number of precarious workers steadily increasing and since trade unions have been slow to adapt to this transformation of working conditions, a group of activists responded by deploying the “Euro May Day” concept in Portugal in 2007. Until this point, precarity was not a concept that was widely understood in Portugal. Without a systematic analysis of how neoliberalism has undermined the historic gains of the labour movement, Portuguese workers saw difficulties at work as individual problems. Where any discourse around precarity did exist, it was largely framed as a problem affecting only young workers, partially as a result of their own failure to organise and fight for better working conditions. To a certain extent, this narrative of blaming young workers could be found inside the trade unions as well.

Set against this political background, the choice to organise around the Euro May Day model was a significant step towards revitalising a labour movement disoriented by the capitalist restructuring of the workplace. The Euro May Day movement contributed to a number of key political developments in Portugal:

1. At the conceptual level, the Euro May Day expanded the discourse around precarity, expanding (repeated) the term to describe an entire condition of life. More than just a set of flexible or uncertain working conditions, precarity became a way of describing transformations in how life is organised and experienced. By highlighting questions of independence, self-determination, life planning, discrimination and racism, the lens of precarity made it possible to establish connections with different social movements (feminist, LGBT, anti-racist…). As such, what might ordinarily have been a narrow labour movement was able to increase in breadth and thereby strength, through the incorporation of a wider range of socially disadvantaged groups united by a common grievance against ???

2. Because of the broad framing of the conflict and the novelty of a new creative movement led by young people, the movement (repeated) was able to change the public narrative on precarious conditions in the workplace. Operating from the premise that labour flexibilisation would continue to expand to affect the majority of the Portuguese working class, the Euro May Day movement rejected the notion that precarity was a young people’s problem. Following from this analysis, the Euro May Day demonstrations in Portugal were not organised in competition with the traditional trade union demonstrations (as was the case in several other countries), but instead sought to “add struggles to the struggle” by pursuing connections and joining and mobilising for the trade unions’ protests. This open orientation can be clearly seen in the fact that the Euro May Day participants always join the trade unions’ May Day demonstration.

The Portuguese labor movement is strongly influenced by the CGTP, the country’s largest trade union confederation, which has close ties to the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). Although the CGTP is a fairly militant organisation, the union bureaucracy is quite closed and is suspicious of political campaigns that originate from outside its ranks. It was this inflexibility that prevented the CGTP from taking meaningful action on precarity, leaving many young workers without a labour organisation capable of representing their concerns. Faced with intensifying conditions of precarity but lacking an organisational structure to fight for solutions, the movement had to find a way to organise outside of the trade unions. But with the trade unions firmly established in the workplace, there was little room for the movement of the precarious to operate. It was from this position of organisational weakness that the decision was made to organise away from the point of production in a cross-sector alliance of precarious workers.

The Euro May Day parade has been held in Lisbon since 2007 and in Porto since 2009. One of the key developments to emerge out of these demonstrations was the formation of a durable organizational structure called the Precários Inflexíveis (“Inflexible Precarious”). While still a part of the broader movement, Precários Inflexíveis continues to operate as a distinct organization, and received recognition as a legal association, providing a clear framework for lasting membership and a visible collective alternative to the isolation and atomization of precarious employment.

While many of the movement’s most committed activists remain active at the core of Precários Inflexíveis, the organization has experienced relatively little growth. This can be attributed to the group’s lack of clear connection to actual places of work or the communities where precarious workers live; in other words, the basic preconditions of a healthy and growing worker’s organization. Despite the slow growth in membership, Precários Inflexíveis has played an essential role in organizing many of the major demonstrations of the last years, including a massive protest that drew one and a half million people out onto the streets in a country of ten million. The group has also cultivated a dynamic online political presence, using websites and personal blogs to share the personal experiences of precarious workers. Maintaining websites with clear and accessible information has also provided the group with a means of connecting with traditional media, who draw on it in their coverage of the movement and related campaigns.

3. Conceptual frameworks for the movement in Portugal

3.1 Definition of precarity and relation with the unions

According to the conceptual framework on activist theorizing, both the Euro MayDay network and the Precários Inflexíveis have developed their own theoretical understanding of precarity. This has been influenced bythe specific Portuguese context and the people involved.. Within their perspective, precarity functions by putting workers in a state of constant uncertainty with diminished control over the direction of their own lives. While the condition of being precarious is rooted in transformations of work, it spreads outward to affect all aspects of life.

In Portugal, the economic dimensions of precarity reach beyond the expansion of temporary work. For example, the so-called “false green receipt” is a strategy used by the Portuguese state to avoid granting a legitimate contract to hundreds of thousands of workers. Another common issue is the preponderance of subcontracting companies who act as intermediaries in labor contracts, keeping around half of a worker’s wage for themselves. More difficult to quantify but equally widespread is the rise of informal work. Amongst the population of Portuguese people who are eligible and able to work, around 50% move between different forms of precarity, underemployment and unemployment. For the left, the fundamental problem of precarity is the obstacles it poses to collective organization. Without effective organizations, the threat of unemployment exerts a strong chilling effect on activism, as individuals see their working conditions as private problems, not as a public issue – an important mental step towards collective organization?. Precarity is on the rise across all sectors and affects workers of all age groups. At its root, precarity represents a massive transformation of social relations that seeks to ensure corporate profitability through the disciplinary effects of unemployment and the intensified exploitation of the workforce.

For all of these reasons, the Portuguese movement does not understand the growth of precarity as the emergence of a new class that stands in opposition to the traditional working class – here in disagreement with Standing when he defines the Precariat as a “new dangerous class” (Standing 2011). Instead, precarity should be understood as the deterioration of working conditions for all workers, accomplished through the rollback or destruction of the historic gains of the labor movement: the eight-hour workday, the right to leisure, the freedom of association and expression, the right to protection in sickness and unemployment, the right to paid holidays, the right to contracts with rights and guarantees, the right to collective bargaining and contracting, the construction of the welfare state that grants access to health and education to us all. Seen in this light, it becomes clear that precarity transforms the conditions of the working class rather than creating a new class. Precarity affects us all. Post also inserts this reality historically: “The notion that there’s the emergence of a new social class or a new layer in the working class is something that goes back to the beginning of the neoliberal offensive in the late 1970’s or early 80’s. The idea is that there’s a category of people whose conditions of life are marked by short-term, temporary, part-time work, generally at smaller workplaces at lower-wages without social protections or benefits. By the late 1980’s, there were a number of French sociologists who were talking about “precarious” work. In the English-speaking world, the book that’s attempted to make this argument most systematically is “The Precariat” by Guy Standing. What he’s arguing is that the precariat is a distinct social class, separate from the working class. He defines the working class as the 1950’s and 60’s unionized working class in the industrialized world: people who had full-time employment, job security, who stayed with their employer for 20 or 30 years, who could not be hired or fired at will and the like. (…) If you look at the condition of workers before the First World War, say in the 1890’s, the vast majority of working people lived an incredibly precarious existence. (…)You had some minor sections of the working class with what we think of as regular full-time work, but not many. The sense of what most people alive today thought was “the norm”, was actually the historical exception. The 1940’s through the early 1970’s was an exceptional period for working class people in the industrialized countries. It was because just before that they had posed a major political threat and forced capital to concede. Once that threat dissipates, once the push of competition and viability on capital moves in a different direction and they’re not meeting resistance then we go back to where we were in the 1880’s and 1890’s.” (Post). What both the movements in Portugal and Post highlight is that the deterioration of the labor relation comes hand-in-hand with the neoliberalization and the privatization of the welfare state. This is an important base-line for what the movement in Portugal defined as “precarity in life” and how it tried to bring together issues that seem, at first glance, to be disconnected from one another.

3.2 “Precarity in life”

The idea of “precarity in life” is an idea that was present in most experiences of anti-precarity organizations that took the form of the EuroMayDay demonstrations. The understanding of the MayDay organization about the meaning of precarity in life is, as I have written: the capacity to discuss and understand the consequences of precarity not only as a labor condition but also to understand how it relates to questions of independence, self-determination and life planning, as well as discrimination and racism. This framework will be explored from a gender perspective.

This idea, that seems simple and easy to perceive, has actually a complex theoretical bases that has to with women’s position in the labor market in particular, and their position in capitalism in general, as well as important outcomes to the capacity of organizing and activating women for labor struggles. As Federici puts it “another criticism I have against the [certain] precarious labor theory is that it presents itself as gender neutral. It assumes that the reorganization of production is doing away with the power relations and hierarchies that exist within the working class on the basis of race, gender and age, and therefore it is not concerned with addressing these power relations; it does not have the theoretical and political tools to think about how to tackle them. There is no discussion in Negri, Virno and Hardt of how the wage has been and continues to be used to organize these divisions and how therefore we must approach the wage struggle so that it does not become an instrument of further divisions, but instead can help us undermine them. To me this is one of the main issues we must address in the movement. The concept of the “Multitude” suggests that all divisions within the working class are gone or are no longer politically relevant. But this is obviously an illusion. Some feminists have pointed out that precarious labor is not a new phenomenon. Women always had a precarious relation to waged labor. But this critique goes far enough. My concern is that the Negrian theory of precarious labor ignores, bypasses, one of the most important contributions of feminist theory and struggle, which is the redefinition of work, and the recognition of women’s unpaid reproductive labor as a key source of capitalist accumulation.” (Federici 2006)

3.2.1 Women, reproductive labor and their relation to wage labor

In the book Girls, Wives, Factory Lives Anna Pollert describes how women “unskilled” factory workers make sense of their position both in the labor relation but also in the sphere of life (the life outside of work), how they build their identity both as workers and women, and make sense of the world through these double and oftentimes contradictory life experiences. “Class society is torn by contradictions. So is class consciousness. Here we see an aspect of what Gramsci called ‘common sense’, which ‘even in the brain of one individual is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential.” Working-class, working women face a double yet interconnecting set of contradictions: those of class and those of sex. (…). On the one hand they were class-conscious to the extent they knew they were at the bottom of the pile. Some wanted to ‘turn it upside down’. At times, this class concept of ‘them and us’ was closely fused with their sense of oppression as women workers: they, the working girls, told the men, the managers, how they felt. Yet at other times – most often immediately their oppression as women overshadowed class relations (…). Their concrete experience of work, their self-image and self-confidence as workers, was constantly confused and undermined by their awareness of being women and of their role in the family. This was the essence of their ‘common sense’ conceptions of their lives.” (Pollert, 1981, p. 87-88). But as Pollert, together with Gramsci, also notes, this ‘common sense’, their consciousness is not a given immutable ideological structure nor does it places women as simple victims of a false, contradictory or intertwined consciousness. As she puts it: “ ‘Common sense’, in Gramsci’s view, arises both from ‘received’ ideas and from practice: from ruling class ideology and from making sense of the world of everyday action. And for working-class working women this world is simultaneously that of social production and of human reproduction: the work-place and the family.” (Pollert 1981, p. 88)

It is fair to say that the women that Pollert interviewed are different from many of the women that joined the anti-precarity movements for several reasons: many of them are highly educated (not “unskilled” workers), many of them see work as a central part of their life (and not, as many of the Pollert’s women, as something “temporary”, that they would do until they marry – even if that was not the reality of many of the factory workers she interviewed) and at the discursive/ideological level, most of these women don’t see themselves exclusively as housewives (as Pollert’s women did). However, I believe Pollert’s analysis of the existence of a gendered consciousness that intertwines, feeds in and is fed by a worker’s consciousness is still of great importance if we are to understand the specific experience of working women today. In a country like Portugal, where the precarious labor relation is, as stated before, inter-generational (and not exclusively an experience of educated “middle-class” women, but of almost half of the working population) and that it targets women more than men (which has also to do with the precarization of the service and care sector, a mainly feminized working sector), the understanding of how these two levels of consciousness intertwine and build women’s identity today is of highly importance if we are to understand why and how women become politically active in labor struggles. Moreover, the gender pay gap between men and women is of 17% in Portugal, women around the world still do a big part of the so called “unskilled” work and, more importantly, women still do most of the reproductive labor (whether in its private, familiar form of domestic labor or in its socialized form of “care work”: nurses, teachers, kindergarten teachers, cleaners, cookers, etc).

3.2.2 Identity and class-struggle

The question of identity is central for the understanding of the class composition itself. We accept that workers have a dual existence: they are collective producers struggling against capital and at the same time workers compete against each other for jobs (economic competition). At the same time there are oppressive, discriminating ideas and practices that have their own dynamics but that come from and are driven by this economic competition. These are the so called “sectional interests”: divisions in the working class along the lines of race, citizenship, nationality, gender, sexuality, etc. “Equalization of female labor-force participation is a particular manifestation of the structural tendency in capitalist society toward free availability of all labor power. Like the tendency toward the reduction of domestic labor, this tendency embodies the forward drive of capitalist accumulation. (…) In principle then capitalist accumulation demands perfect mobility of labor power (…). Where barriers to mobility exist, the force of capitalist expansion attempts to push them aside. If certain obstacles remain in place, they may in part reflect the contradictory position of the capitalist class, caught within the conflicting pressures of of its long term economic demand for perfect mobility, its short term requirement for different categories of workers, and its need to maintain political and ideological hegemony over a divided working class. To the extent that women remain segregated within and without the labor force, such conflicting factors play an important role.” (Vogel 1983, pp. 160-161).

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