Work in post-industrial societies has been described as increasingly unstable, decentralized, and precarious. Some authors, most prominently Guy Standing, have argued that these conditions have constituted a new class?the ?precariat??historically distinct from the working class. Its members are said to include ?knowledge workers? who piece together freelance work, home-care workers who labor in isolation and obscurity, and migrant farm workers who travel across national boundaries, among many others.
The debate over this terminology has been fierce, and the stakes more than just intellectual. Has the character of work changed so much that old organizing techniques are passé? Should the goals of organizing precarious workers be different than the goals of past working-class movements? How can workers unionize under conditions of ?flexible? employment, or gain leverage against ever-changing bosses? How can we counter a social arrangement where the 1 percent reaps the rewards and the 99 percent shoulders the risk?
Two Dissent articles in the Winter 2012 issue?on the Freelancers Union and on Standing?s book The Precariat?sparked a response and a counter-response from Jacobin on the usefulness of ?precarity? and the ?precariat? in political thinking. Weeks later, the editors of the New Inquiry produced a digital magazine under the theme of ?precarity,? exploring its meaning for a generation growing up without stable jobs and up to their ears in debt and the culture of the internet.
Dissent and Verso Books will host a panel discussion at Left Forum at Pace University in NYC on Saturday, March 17 at noon with these recent debates in mind. These panelists will discuss how organizing is changing in the face of the changing nature of work.
Ross Perlin is the author of Intern Nation (Verso). He has written for the New York Times, Time magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, and Open Democracy.
Mary Nolan is co-editor of The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace. She is a professor of history at NYU and on the editorial boards of International Labor and Working-Class History and of Politics and Society.
Stephen Boykewich is communications director for the National Guestworker Alliance, a membership organization of guestworkers dedicated to winning dignified work, the right to organize, empowered migration, and a just economy for all workers. He has worked as a media and communications strategist with numerous community organizations and networks, and as a journalist and commentator on four continents.
Joyce Gill-Campbell is a Domestic Workers United organizer and activist.
Max Fraser is a journalist, doctoral student, and organizer who lives in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a member of the steering committee of GESO, the Graduate Employees and Student Organization, at Yale University, where he studies American labor history. His writing has appeared in the Nation, Dissent, New Labor Forum, and elsewhere. His most recent Dissent article documented his travels through American cities undergoing industrial decline.
Sarah Leonard (moderator) is associate editor at Dissent and co-editor of the New Inquiry Magazine?s ?Precarity? issue.