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Labour market reform

Who will represent the educated precariat?

The crisis in Spain and elsewhere has accelerated the emergence of a new social group , making it much more visible in the media and in social and political terms. But unions and the are failing to respond to their needs, argues Bruno Estrada*

The crisis in Spain has accelerated the emergence of a new social group, making it much more visible in the media and in social and political terms. It is a group that I dare to call the “educated precariat” (‘precariado illustrado’), although some authors use the term “white collar precariat”.

I am not referring to the “precariat” in a broad sense, a concept that began to be used in French sociology from the eighties to define a new class composed of those people for whom the main feature of work experience was a series of low-paying, low-skilled jobs. This continual change in employer and sectors stops a worker from building a professional identity, generating what Richard Sennett calls the “corrosion of character” . In any case, in my humble opinion, precariousness, or more broadly job insecurity is nothing new in the relationship between workers and the world of work. The regulation of labour relations, after the social implosion that resulted from the industrial revolution, is a relatively recent development in developed countries. It is the result of union struggles and progressive policies aimed at developing the welfare state. As we are reminded in the magnificent Ken Loach film “The Spirit of 45″ .

The “educated precariat’’ is now centre ground in the process of social change we are experiencing today and, therefore, analysing them is key to understanding them. First we must ask: What defines this new social group ? That is, what are its distinctive features over other existing social groups?

Status inconsistency

An unstable and discontinuous relationship with their employers is common to all the ” precariat” , so I think that the “educated precariat” is defined, in addition to this, by what Guy Standing (The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, 2011 )  calls “status inconsistency” . That is, people who have a relatively high formal education but are forced to accept jobs or income status well below those considered in accordance with their qualifications. A paradigmatic example, almost grotesque,  of that “status inconsistency” were the qualification requirements that an employer in Murcia recently demanded for a job delivering bread from four in the morning: They wanted a degree in Administration and Business Management!

The consequences of this “status inconsistency” is a genuine frustration, and even social resentment in many of these people. Keeping this in mind is very important when analysing the possible social and political behaviour of the ‘educated precariat’. In their view, they have met with society’s requirements, making a considerable effort to train and qualify and then society has failed them (from my point of view this is a key factor in understanding the massive following of the initial demonstrations linked to 15 -M) . It can be summarized, more colloquially, by the phrase that many children, graduates and unemployed or on precarious work contracts reproach their parents: ” You lied to me. I’ve studied, I’ve done everything you’ve told me and it has not served for anything.

The youth

It is true that the ‘educated precariat’ does not consist only of the young; immigrants and older Spanish workers too have been dismissed from their jobs and have been reintegrated into the labour market with a lower salary level and professional recognition. But it is very important that young people are the majority. Since we assume that, to the extent that in our country there is a slow exit from the crisis (which means high unemployment will persist for a long time), and there’s no change in the current trend of weakening labour laws and position of workers’ representatives in collective bargaining (which implies high volumes of indecent work), the ‘educated precariat’ will stabilise as a social group for a long period of time, with its own characteristics and demands, which we must start analysing. The gap between this social group and progressive political and social organizations (the refrain “they do not represent us “) shows the current inability of the former to provide a satisfactory answer to their aspirations.

In relation to social organizations, and particularly the unions, the first thing to consider is that their entry into the world of work does not only occur through wage labour. They move into a muddy zone in which  waged work, unemployment and self-employment follow one after another without any logical continuity, most of the time in activities that have nothing to do with their qualification. Therefore, they need the union to do different things for them than it does for the traditional waged worker. The most relevant is not information about, and defence (including by legal means) of regulated labour rights, but in many cases information and help in other very practical issues (not linked to a particular profession or trade), more in tune with what unions for freelancers. To integrate important part of this group I do not think it’s enough for unions to reiterate the need for greater regulation of labour relations. These people are in another universe, and you have to get closer to it.

Unions must change

In this sense, trade unions should also analyse which changes in the organisational structure are needed. In Spain, the current sectoral federations that originated from from a time dominated by the Fordist mode of production is absolutely dysfunctional for these workers as it is unresponsive to their constantly mutating employment. Perhaps the unions need a specific organizational structure to analyse in detail the needs of these workers and how to cover the union could offer them a continuous affiliation. Certainly, without a stable relationship with the union, the risk increases that the ‘educated precariat’, faced with sectoral and employment discontinuity become demobilized or choose their own organizational structures that are outside of the traditional trade union structures, as has been the case in Japan’s and its furita (casual workers), or, closer to home, in Spain among film and television technicians who have formed their own union. 

At the political level, so far, we have seen a clear dysfunction in the relationship between the “educated precariat” and the traditional parties of the left – Socialists, or PSOE, and United Left (Izquierda Unida) to a lesser extent. The gap with the 15 -M (indignados movement) is the most obvious example. And it is because in some respects traditional parties represent the system that has deceived them, and in others because the discourse of these parties remains focused primarily on the rights of employees of a regulated labour market. We should also keep in mind that the ossified internal structures of debate and decision-making of classic political organisations are not the best mechanism to integrate people, who in addition to high formal qualifications required within the labour market, also have high levels of general education and personal initiative .

New social demands

These left parties must make a significant effort to identify and integrate the new social demands of the educated precariat –  new priorities related to housing, minimum income and a strong public support for their initiatives self-employment.

Otherwise it is likely that a significant proportion of these young people opt for a growing identification with other existing political parties , but less identified with the system ( such as the UPyD, nationalist – separatist and even right-wing factions) or autonomous electoral platforms that have emerged from the collective imagination of 15-M , of which there are real doubts that they will secure institutional representation. If this hypothesis is confirmed the most likely result would be that the disconnect many of them feel with the institutional framework of our democracy will accelerate, with the risks that entails.

Nothing is set in stone – it will depend on the collective intelligence of the above mentioned organisations, and their leaders, whether they can form a solid progressive social majority able to offer alternatives to the suicidal policies of austerity and inequality generated by the Right in the near term. Otherwise we will be condemned to the curse of Sisyphus.

*Research Director of Fundacion 1º mayo, a union backed think tank


Translation/edit by Revolting Europe

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Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope


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