Robots, migration and the future of work (Briarpatch Magazine)

I have a longer read in the newest issue of Briarpatch Magazine, which is dedicated to the world of work. If you don’t know Briarpatch, be sure to check out the other articles in this issue and consider subscribing; this is one of Canada’s oldest independent left publications and definitely worth supporting. My piece has the rather grand title “Robots, Migration and the Future of Work” but it’s really about trying to see how we are often pitted against one another and encouraged to see external threats, like machines and migrants, to our well-being rather than working together in solidarity against systemic causes.

The past several decades have not been kind to workers, as most of us know only too well. Those making minimum wage are making a penny more in real terms than they were in 1976, union membership continues to fall, and wage growth for most has been anemic – far outstripped by rising productivity. And this is to say nothing about how unfulfilling the jobs that swallow the waking hours of our lives can be. Yet when workers speak out, whether about our own crappy working conditions or the absurd enrichment of those at the top, we’re greeted by a familiar chorus that is often loudest inside our own heads: just be happy that you have a job at all.

For some, the implied culprit in the background of this story is the much poorer worker in the Global South, whether at a maquiladora in Mexico, a sprawling electronics factory in China, or a call centre in India. As Canadian workers have been integrated into a globalized economy, the story goes, they can be kept in check by what happens halfway across the world. Labour discipline isn’t just – or perhaps even mostly – a function of globalization, however. There are many domestic pressures keeping workers in line and the economy unkind.

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Focus on China’s political economy

 

The focus of today’s podcast is China: its development over the past several years, the situation of workers and unions as well as future directions. To get some perspective second largest economy in the world and one still expanding at breakneck, albeit slower, pace, I spoke with two guests: Minqi Li and Cathy Walker.

My first guest is Minqi Li. Minqi is professor of economics at the University of Utah and specializes in China’s economy and offers. He previously taught at York University in Toronto and received his PhD from University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

My second conversation is with Cathy Walker. Cathy was for many years a health and safety officer with the Canadian Autoworkers Union and is now retired. Both while still at CAW, and now during her retirement, she has participated in a number of exchanges with Chinese unions and is able to offer a unique perspective on trade unionism in both countries.

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On the hunt for good jobs

There’s lots of talk about “good jobs” these days. At the same time, the expectations for what makes work not only “good” but even a “job” keep falling. It’s hard to fight for better (and less) work in light of decades of defeat for workers as an organized force, years of lingering post-crisis fallout and constant reminders that neighbours, robots, migrants…everyone is coming for whatever job you may have left (I have an article about this last bit in the upcoming issue of Briarpatch).

In a world of part-timers, permatemps, temporary migrants, contractors, sub-contractors, Uber “partners”, Taskrabbits and many others unemployed, the good job means something different than it did several decades ago. The white and male world of the “Golden Age” job is not yet gone but continues to be aggressively dismantled. We should be wary of misplaced nostalgia for the past or magic policy bullets that elide transformations.

Despite this, struggles over how work is organized remain central to how social life is organized. So even as the engine of job crapification makes its way through the world of work, we should be ready to demand more when the conditions are ripe. Progress in making jobs worse has been accompanied by continued technological change that could be making work shorter, easier, better-rewarded at the very least – at best, building conditions to transform social relations.

These scribblings are occasioned by a request to submit a micro (100 to 200-word) proposal for a local conference on the topic of creating good jobs in British Columbia. In truth we need thousands of words to assess our weaknesses, our strengths, our tactics and our strategies; in short, how to organize. I cannot pretend to know concrete demands that energies can coalesce around, whether locally or broadly. Demands are born out of organization. (more…)

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