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The End of Security

by Tom Binger Thursday, Apr. 27, 2006 at 3:00 AM

The state has a social nature and isn't only a security and power state. If the state is reduced to a trough or waterboy for capital, the class compromise is dissolved and justice becomes an abstraction. Neoliberal myths legitimate the growing precariousness


Precarious Working Conditions and New Class Configurations

By Tom Binger

[This article published in: Zeitschrift informationszentrum 3.welt (iz3w), Nr. 182 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

“We must bid farewell to the idea that life is guaranteed.” With this programmatic statement, Carl-Peter Forster, president of General Motors Europe (GM), reacted to the demand of the Bochum Opel- works council for a location-security agreement that excludes terminations up to 2010. Instead, GM in the short-term plans the dismissal of over 4,000 workers in the Bochum location alone. The remaining personnel can prepare for a far-reaching flexibility of working hours and wage cuts up to the threatened plant closure in 2009. The one-week “wildcat strike” at Opel-Bochum did not change this situation at all.

Job guarantees at the Opel-rivals Daimler-Chrysler and VW were gained at a high price with a weakening of wage standards, wage renunciation and further flexibility of working hours. However more than the automobile branch was involved. To save the degenerate Carlstadt department store, the Verdi union agreed to a redevelopment plan that included renunciation on wage increases, vacation money and Christmas bonuses.

These current examples show that precarious work penetrates jobs formerly secured by collective bargaining. Unprotected, poorly paid and fixed term working conditions are now becoming normal conditions for more and more persons in the core capitalist states. These conditions were already long dominant in countries of the periphery.


The cause of this development is a structural crisis of he Fordist model of capitalist accumulation. The Keynesian variant of the welfare state aiming at generalized prosperity and limited material equalization – the institutionalized class compromise – falls victim to this crisis. With Agenda 2010 and the Hartz laws, the German government now bursts a dam that was already breached in the Anglo-Saxon countries in the 1980s. Longer working hours and lower incomes should improve the exploitation conditions for local capital in the location-competition.

Unlike normal working conditions, precarious employment is usually marked by time limits, earnings below the living wage and restrictions of social and contractual rights of protection and security. Precarious employment eludes socially enforceable income- and protection standards and lowers the level of social integration.

Precariousness is not automatically identical with complete exclusion and absolute impoverishment but is a relational category dependent on the respective social standard. Thus precarious working conditions mean something different for industrial workers in the core capitalist states than for female workers in Latin American maquiladores. The conditions of existence of a personal company are considerably different from the informal poverty-sectors in large parts of Africa and Central Asia. Working conditions and wages in formerly state enterprises that are now privatized in East Europe are not comparable with western European standards.

Nevertheless the social process of precariousness aims at a general erosion of normal working and social integration standards beyond all regional distinctions. This process leads directly into absolute impoverishment in the periphery of the world market (as far as Fordist conditions ever existed there) while wealth creation on the backs of a broad layer of the “working poor” intensifies in the capitalist metropolises.


The destruction of the welfare state class compromise and the “real subsumption of society under capital” [1] is the basis for a new flexible accumulation regime and a drastic improvement of exploitation conditions. However neoliberal deregulation in itself does not give rise to a new hegemonial project. Rather a dangerous loss of control over the ever-larger critical mass of degraded and marginalized persons threatens through the intensified “class struggle from above” and the cancellation of the social consensus. As a consequence of social polarization and re-proletarianization, Karl-Heinz Roth presumes a “return of the dangerous classes” [2] (those without property having nothing to lose) on the stage of world history. The historical class division between the guaranteed (industrial-) working class and the sub-proletariat could become obsolete through expansion of a low-wage sector, precarious employment and a new mass poverty in the core capitalist states.

The “return of the proletariat” on a world scale is also the starting point for Roth’s vision of a broad social alliance covering all losers of the upheaval process from precarious employees and the core of the industrial working class to new independent persons. The basis of this alliance is the farewell to the centrality of the industrial working class that has defined and narrowed the perspective of the industrial working class and recognition of the undeniable heterogeneity of the social actors.

The organization of social struggles and the search for common interests in precariousness are difficult under local conditions. This was clear at the International Congress on Precariousness and Migration in Dortmund in June 2004 organized by LabourNet and other leftist and anti-racist groups. Agreement was reached in describing the diverse panorama of precarious employment: “The alleged knowledge- and information society is based on fixed term work and low wages – whether letter carriers, truck drivers, warehouse laborers, McDonalds service workers or call-center agents, slogging away for their existence as personal companies, fighting for their pay as contract workers, a Kazakhstan woman doctor cleans German apartments, Kurdish refugees offer refreshments, Poles, Rumanians, Portuguese and Germans work on construction sites, home-workers work on call, students tear off movie cards or later have auxiliary jobs in the education-sector.” [3]

The self-image, perspectives and goals of employees are as different as the jobs and working conditions. While migrants with or without papers are forced into the worst jobs by the labor market and immigration policy, labor prohibitions and special laws, other persons understand precarious forms of employment as ways out of factory discipline and lifelong foreign determination. For others, an interlude is offered for financing education or a way to a normal professional career. The great differences between chosen and forced precariousness, fixed term employment regulated by contract and illegal work completely unprotected in industrial law forbid an hasty homogenization of very different life and interest situations. A new collective – even revolutionary – subject is not in sight.

Hardly any functioning models and practical experiences exist for interweaving heterogeneity and the base-democratic organization urged by Roth on the basis of diversity and individuality. With their anachronistic orientation in location-security, normal working conditions and core personnel, most unions and a large part of the works councils are not alliance partners. Initiatives of base unions and movement-oriented social movement unionism that were successful in other countries met with little response in Germany in the past.

In Berlin, illicit irregular construction workers supported by anti-racist groups successfully resist wage robbery. The society for legalization brought union functionaries into difficult situations because of their demand for union representation of workers with precarious residence status. The few positive initiatives remain isolated and are not taken up by unions or by the German protest movement against Hartz IV.


Nevertheless the leftist confrontation with precarious working conditions and life forms is indispensable. A return to the golden age of Fordist normal working conditions is impossible. In an historical perspective, the Fordist wage regime could even prove to be a special case or exception. As the Hamburg Blue Monday group stated in 1998, extensive precariousness is the new norm of working conditions and the “normal working condition of the 21st century.” Ultimately “there are no guaranteed employment conditions in capitalism.” [4]

The political consequences of progressive precariousness can hardly be imagined. Precariousness contains an enormous potential for new social division and hierarchization. However the general insecurity of living conditions does not automatically promote emancipatory thinking and acting. A diffuse rage toward the whole political class can become the entrance gate for rightwing-populist appeals. Continued orientation in the work fetish and performance ideology is often combined with the prosperity-chauvinist exclusion of migrants and the social Darwinist demarcation against the unproductive and non-exploitable.

In addition, the situation is complicated since precariousness is tied to concrete needs from below and does not only represent a rule-project of capital based on repression and manipulation. The utopian abundance of revolts and movements in the wake of 1968 is founded on rejection of factory discipline and the closed institutions of Fordism. Against the tendency to a new repressive socialization in an “authoritarian welfare state,” a social and political counter-power can only be constituted when it offensively asks about social presuppositions for a good life. The “kingdom of freedom” always meant something other than full employment and lifelong factory work.


The strike of precarious employees in the French cultural sector, the strike of African cleaning women in Paris and the labor struggle of migrant agricultural workers in Spain around pay and residence status – all these examples demonstrate that precarious employees develop their own strategies of resistance. Since time immemorial, migrants have been born out of distress in networked communities organized in urban districts and supported by other social groups.

One of these initiatives is the European RESPECT network (Rights, quality, Solidarity, Power, Europe Cooperation Today). The RESPECT network supports migrants who work in private households. The German scion in Berlin was founded in February 2000 by counseling centers, migrant organizations and supporters and is dedicated to the working conditions of migrants in private households and in the cleaning industry independent of their residence status. Many house-workers work without labor contracts are often cheated of their wages and exposed to violence and abuse. Further examples of organizing the precarious are the Polish social council in Berlin and its project ZAPO (“Central Drop-in Center for Commuters from Eastern Europe”) and the Brandenburg refugee initiative (FIB).

Legal contracts do not protect from wage fraud in construction work for example. With their campaign against wage fraud, the Brandenburg refugee initiative and the group Elexir-A support people in their struggle for wage payment through information events in refugee hostels. The campaign had noteworthy success in 2003 at a massive house-building site in the center of Berlin. Over 20 construction workers of African descent received no wages from a sub-contractor for two months. After a protect demonstration, the business accepted responsibility for the payment.

Non-commercial spaces are needed for organizing precarious working persons against the social atomization since unstable jobs with constant workplace changes are the rule. The Union Workers Center has successful branches in the US. These are foundation-sponsored areas for communication and cou9nseling about labor law. These Workers Centers also exist in free trade zones where unions are usually prohibited, as for example in Bangladesh, Taiwan and Arab workers in Israel. Concrete plans for a first Workers Center in the Rhine area were presented at the Dortmund Precariousness congress “The Costs Rebel” in June 2004.

Spreading and interweaving these initiatives internationally is vital. This cooperation occurred for gastronomy at the Dortmund congress. A Euro-Mayday was organized in the tradition of militant precarious workers in Spain and Italy by the ESF in London.

The traditional unions only offered all this very restrictedly. They always direct their main attention to the remaining regular staff and in-house competitiveness. However a rethinking is manifest in some areas. New ways of organizing precarious employees are marked out in some service branches. The European association of migrant workers helps through counseling on enforcing contractual and legal claims in the respective native languages. However this association is only being developed. For the future, precarious employees will depend on self-organization. (Mag Wompel, LabourNet)

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