It started in the late 1950s but few people noticed because it just seemed to be happening to African Americans. Manufacturing jobs were moving out of cities, the tax base of the cities was weakening, automation was expanding, and a segment of the working class seemed to be growing that had little hope of permanent, full-time employment.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is the host of the Global African for Telesur-English, a Latin American-based telecommunications news network. He is an activist and writer on racial justice, labor, and global justice.
By the mid-1970s it became clear that something was under way that went beyond the condition of black workers or Chicano workers. There was an economic re-structuring at a global scale. We were witnessing the beginning of what came to be known as globalization, and, with it, a particular direction of the economy such that precariousness for workers was becoming much more common. In that sense, capitalism was reverting to its roots, ironically. There was the growth of subcontracting, part-time, temporary, and leased work. There was a decrease in benefits for workers. And, of course, there was a war that was initiated against labor unions, a war that began in the South and Southwest, then spread nationally.
In the second decade of the 21st century many of these tendencies have come to fruition. The living standard of the average worker has either stagnated or declined since the late 1970s. People are spending more time working and less relaxing. More members of families are working in order to keep going. And, as became very obvious during the Great Recession, the dependence on credit—both personal and house-based—was the disastrous recipe for sustaining a living standard when, in fact, the props had been kicked out from under the working class.
Unless there is a Great Turnaround, the future of the worker in the United States is nothing short of gloomy. What makes this scenario worse is that workers trying to unravel the sources of their dilemma are frequently coming up with misguided answers. An example, of course, can be found in the growth of right-wing populism whereby immigrants of color are targeted as the alleged source of the decline in living standards. Equally dangerous has been the tendency, quite apparent beginning in the 1980s, to blame Jews for the financial scandals that have periodically rocked Wall Street. Instead of an appreciation of the systemic nature of the crisis facing working people, there is a tendency toward bigoted scapegoating that will tear workers apart and promote irrationalism.
The polarization of wealth, along with changes in the manner in which capitalism works, means the growth of multiple Americas, for lack of a better term. We can see over the last 40 years the transformation of many of our major cities through gentrification, as FIRE (Finance, Insurance & Real Estate) has become the hegemonic segment of business in metropolitan areas. Workers, particularly low-income and workers of color, are increasingly being ‘‘cleansed’’ from our major cities and moved into more distant suburbs or into so-called dead cities, like Camden, New Jersey.
Work itself is changing in remarkable ways. The greater demand for education does not at all mean that the major jobs created by the economy require greater technical expertise. In fact, the economy has been very successful in creating low-wage, low-skill employment rather than the high-skilled, high-wage jobs that we have been promised.
There is also another America, which is that of the sub-citizen—people who either lack formal citizenship, due to immigration status; are imprisoned or formerly incarcerated; and/or are unemployed. These are the cast-offs, about whom little concern is expressed.
And, needless to say, there are those at the top, the so-called one percent—which is more like the 10 percent—whose lives are so radically different from the rest of ours. This is the segment that science fiction depicts in films such as Elysium, living in—quite literally—a different world. They seek protection from the rest of us. They seek to have the resources of society deployed in their interests alone. They seek to manipulate the political system to guarantee their hegemony, while the rest of us fight each other like caged rats.
In order to avoid a dystopian future, there must be a political transformation of the working class itself. Central to this will be the re-organization or re-construction of the labor movement. The existing labor union movement is stuck as a result of failing to appreciate the changes that global capitalism has undertaken. Too many leaders of organized labor continue to believe they can somehow convince political leaders and corporate leaders of the continued relevance of unions. They fail to appreciate that the transformation of global capitalism has eliminated the desire to partner with organized labor. Replacing that is a sort of Hobbesian scenario whereby there is to be opposition to an organized working class.
The worker of the 21st century must fight not just for jobs or better jobs, or, for that matter, for the right to unionization. There is also a need to fight for an economy that supports the environment, rather than the other way around. There is a need to fight for a humane re-distribution of wealth that moves us away from a situation whereby entire segments of the population face explicit or implicit genocide.
Without overstating the case, the re-engagement of the worker in the fight for social, economic, and political justice is a fight for the worker’s own future. And here is the punchline: We have no time to waste.
For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.