The World Bank has just released a ‘concept note’ for its 2019 World Development Report (WDR), which is going to be about ‘The Changing Nature of Work’. The WDR is the Bank’s flagship research and policy publication. Every year it chooses some development-related topic and produces what’s intended to be a headline-grabbing report on it. This has been going on since 1978. Topics have included everything from conflict to climate change to education to finance. Work is one of the few subjects to have been a theme of the WDR more than once. Unfortunately, it’s also the subject about which the Bank is most frequently on the wrong side of the argument.

US-ECONOMY-FINANCE-WORLDBANK-IMF

World Bank President Jim Kim

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dialogThe paper below has been submitted for open discussion by members and friends of the New Unionism Network1. Our conclusions will be presented to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on or before 30th April 2018, in the run up to their centenary ‘Future of Work’ project. In order to join the discussion we suggest you look at this ILO paper first (download). In particular, we are concerned with Chapter 5: The Governance of Work. What do you think? We have a draft reply below and we invite you to share your feedback, thoughts and/or questions. Because many of you work directly with the ILO, at local or global level, our discussion will take place with in an anonymised meeting room here: safe.space/room22.

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Solidarity and the gig economy

by Peter Hall-Jones
for the New Unionism Network

Gig economyIt’s a credit to the tireless efforts of Professor Guy Standing that the word ‘precariat’ has made its way into most English dictionaries. In case you’re not up to speed (and who is these days?) it means: “the class of people who are poor and do not have secure jobs” (Cambridge Dictionary). Sure, there has been a bit of debate around whether this group really constitutes a separate ‘class’, but nobody disputes that the phenomenon itself is very real.

Almost 40% of young workers in the OECD are in non-standard work, such as contract or temporary work, or involuntary part-time employment (more). At global level more than 60% of workers, predominantly women, are in temporary, part-time or short-term jobs in which wages are falling (ILO 2015).  And of the top 20 global employers in 2017, five are outsourcing and ‘workforce solutions’ companies (more).

In the twenty-first century Dolly Parton’s ‘Nine to Five’ just doesn’t work as an anthem anymore.

Naturally, the English language being what it is, we have a range of apolitical synonyms for the word ‘precariat’. Workers who survive by performing a series of temporary jobs, and/or juggle bits and pieces of contract work, are called ‘casuals’ or ‘freelancers’ or even ‘micro-entrepreneurs’. Their stamping ground is ‘the gig economy’. It’s all very rock’n’roll. Being your own boss, meeting endless new people, wide horizons, flexible hours, maximum variety… what’s not to like? In fact, there is a lot of research to suggest that the majority of such independent workers – in the USA and Europe at least – have ‘chosen’ to work this way (eg McKinsey Global 2016).

At this point you might like to reflect for a moment upon the use of the word ‘choice’ in industrial relations. I was one of a generation who ‘chose’ to go on the dole in New Zealand in the 1980s. In reality, the employment market had collapsed around our ears. There were no jobs for us to go to. The only real choice we had was whether or not to interpret our situation in a cheerful light.

Anyway, choice or no choice, all this is about to change.

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safespace anonymous email and web forumsBestu oskir from Iceland — the Switzerland of data! That’s where you’ll find safeSpace, an anonymized communication tool created by volunteers from the New Unionism Network. It’s an online facility where workers can discuss issues without fear of being identified, and where they can meet securely with union organizers and/or colleagues from other countries. safeSpace also provides email addresses which have been stripped of any identifying information — a handy tool for whistleblowers and those who want to bring attention to crap they are witnessing. Unlike anything we’ve done before this is a user-pays service, but there wasn’t any way we could get the project off the ground otherwise. We’re sticking to our non-profit roots by offering free accounts to union organizers in a series of ultra-repressive regimes; initially Algeria, the Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Mali, North Korea, Paraguay and Somalia.

The safeSpace system is still in Beta, and we’ve got a few details to iron out, so we’re offering folks a 50% discount until the end of 2017. Financial members of the New Unionism Network will continue to get a discount after that. If you’d like to know more about the project check out the FAQ here.

signs“We want the mines, canals, railways handed over to democratically organized workers’ associations… We want these associations to be models for agriculture, industry and trade…”

So declared the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1848 election manifesto. Prior to this, demands for workplace democracy had been largely the preserve of liberal democrats such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey. Then, soon afterwards, this became a key platform for many socialists. Then syndicalists and trade unionists chimed in, supported by various left intellectuals. Endless variations were developed upon the basic theme, until: “Taken together, the socialist tradition of workers’ democracy was one of the driving forces of political developments in the nineteenth and twentieth century.” This is the view of network member Markus Pausch, a lecturer in Political Science and Sociology based in Austria, in his recent paper “Workplace Democracy: From a Democratic Ideal to a Managerial Tool and Back” (2014).

Then something kind of weird happened. As Pausch describes it: “In the 1990s, the idea was co-opted by organizational development and management studies and underwent a change: Workplace democracy, then mostly operationalized as limited participation, became a managerial tool that should help to increase employees’ motivation and efficiency and thereby contribute to entrepreneurial success”. (more…)

wdMembers of this network have been arguing that the union movement needs to become more involved in organizing for workplace democracy. Study after study, survey after survey, have shown that workers in post-industrial nations want more direct voice and influence in the workplace. However, by and large their aspirations are represented by a movement whose bargaining agenda has remained the same for decades.

Union organizers will be familiar with the tensions that result from this. What do you do when the members’ main concern seems to be about the boss making stupid decisions? Or the KPIs being out-of-synch with reality? Or a culture of nepotism generating widespread depression? Or a flash new I.T. system screwing up everybody’s workflow? How does all this fit into a program of achievable gains? Few workers will mention the word “democracy” during such conversations, but what they are wanting is to be heard. And they do not want to be sub-divided or co-opted in the process. This is clearly a role for unions, whether they decide to accept it or not. It is also a huge opportunity for recruitment. Think about all those employees who don’t join because they have it in their head that unionism is just about pay and conditions. (more…)

pcApologies for lateness! Paul Mason’s book PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future came out in 2015. However it wasn’t until the victory of Donald Trump that I realised how important it was. Do yourself a favour: grab a copy of this book and get familiar with the mess we’re in. Come to terms with the fact we won’t be saved by Bernie Sanders, yet alone Hillary Clinton.

That said, it’s not a grim read. Quite the opposite. I remember thinking so furiously as I was reading it that my internal discussions kept drowning out the text. It was like singing along (albeit terribly) to a new favourite song. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. It didn’t really matter whether I was agreeing or disagreeing with what he saying (I was doing a bit of both); it was just bloody good fun.

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