By Jo Littler, Nina Power and members of the Precarious Workers Brigade.
Jo What are the main problems with work today?
Nina We have high unemployment, a massive increase in very low paid work, expanding hours, zero hours contracts, unpaid internships, exploited grey-market labour and prison labour and so on. At the same time, there’s a cultural fetishisation of work, with TV programmes suggesting that getting into work is all about improving your attitude, cutting your hair, trying harder, believing in yourself. The rhetoric is that work is a moral individual responsibility. If you’re not in work or trying to get work it’s a sign of moral failing: you’re somehow a lesser individual, especially if you’re on benefits.
It could be asked why you would even question work, when so many are unemployed. Shouldn’t we simply acknowledge that it’s clearly not healthy for people to be out of work? But there are serious questions to pose about the alienation and exploitation that people experience. Why shouldn’t we question what work is today, especially in such difficult circumstances? We need to have a discussion about work, in all of its aspects, simultaneously. I want to think more deeply about what is being sold and who gets a profit. Can we think about human activity beyond work: ‘non-alienated labour’, in old Marxist terms?
A lot of my interest in work comes from feminist debates about how different types of work are valued in relation to production and reproduction; about unpaid labour and the Wages for Housework Campaign. My book One Dimensional Woman partly came out of my experience working in job agencies and observing the feminisation of labour. I really hated having to be friendly when cold calling. There is a particular liberal feminist argument that says that more women in work is objectively a good thing: it is good for the economy, for women, for their visibility. But perhaps we need to go beyond that argument. What if work is part of the problem? What if work does not solve the obvious problems of gendered labour? We have to think about this alongside the fact that issues around childcare are not going to be solved by employers, because employers do not have a vested interest in solving them.
Anne The Precarious Workers Brigade is a group of mainly cultural and education workers organising around issues of precarity. We came out of a smaller group called ‘The Carrot Workers’ Collective’, which was more concerned with free labour, particularly internships. We’re still dealing with those issues – they’re a significant pressure point – but the group wanted to broaden out to address systemic problems. We began by conducting a ‘People’s Tribunal on Precarity’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) two or three years ago, organised as part of its ‘Season of Dissent’. (This became problematic because there was actually rather a lot of dissent amongst workers at the ICA; they’d just undergone major restructuring and many people had lost their jobs.) The tribunal format derived from the People’s Tribunal on the Iraq War, and it was designed to shine a spotlight on a particular issue. We collected testimonies from groups of precarious workers, including ourselves and ex-workers at the ICA, and invited ‘expert witnesses’ to speak on the impact of precarity. We identified four main areas: migration; no pay, underpay and working conditions; institutional precarity; and ‘affect’ – addressing how precarity affects the mind and body, particularly in the long term. The audience developed lists of culprits, remedies and demands.
Barbara Out of that tribunal we formed working group models. One focuses on letter writing, especially to cultural institutions, as there’s a loophole in the law here. If an intern works unpaid for six months, four days a week, in a private institution then HMRC can crack down on that organisation for not paying them. But charities are a real grey area: they’re allowed to have volunteers and not pay them. And a lot of cultural institutions are charities, even though they are often semi-commercial. So you have to make the moral argument.
Anne This group seems to ruffle a lot of feathers. Just writing a chirpy letter to a gallery seems to get a lot of people upset! We also have an educational group, which has been writing what we call an alternative curriculum – a pack for people teaching work placements, for example, or careers offices, to help them raise these questions.
We collaborate a lot with the University of the Arts Students’ Union and the Devil Pays Nadacampaign to draw attention to free labour problems. Most universities no longer officially circulate information about unpaid positions through their careers offices, but lots of individual course leaders do. But there is also a demand for work placements, and we need to think about where that comes from.
Barbara We talk to students, particularly on courses relating to cultural industries, about how desires for control and flexible working on your own terms can get conflated with arguments about demands for flexibility on the market’s terms. Passion for your work can open up too much space for being exploited.
Nina That point is so important, because it is historically so clear that demands for flexibility, for part-time work, for a work/life balance, for autonomy, for self-organising, have been noted but then co-opted and given back to people in an exclusively negative way.
Barbara It’s also often very obvious that people are working for cultural capital, just for a label to flash on their CVs. I was talking to students recently who pointed out that they could go in anywhere and mop the floor – all that seems to matter is that they can say that they have worked there.
Anne And with ‘creative labour’, the difference between the work that gets paid as opposed to the work that does not get paid seems entirely nebulous. A tiny bit of pay is supposed to cover a vast amount of preparation.
Barbara Non-alienated work, like childcare, creates excuses not to pay people; there’s an opening for exploitation and self-exploitation. So when you organise around work, you’re aware of a lot of feminist history. You also have to avoid reducing everything to demands for wages, as they’re already alienated. A wage is a concrete concept, but it should actually be just a transitional demand, because you don’t want to become a wage slave either. It’s a complicated space to occupy.
Nina Questioning work always inevitably raises questions about money: what would it mean to live in a moneyless society? What would unalienated labour look like if you went back to the general ideology of communism? Of course it’s something of a joke now … but what really would it be like if we truly lived according to the idea of from each according to their ability and to each according to their needs? Debates around work, as in Kathi Weeks’s work, often end up with quite reformist demands. Requests for a guaranteed basic income are clearly very radical – you can’t imagine this happening any time soon – but even they rely on the same basic structure of money. Thinking beyond the division of labour and the wage is speculative and utopian and idealist, but it’s important to start from there and then track back. It becomes an important ‘thought experiment’, if not exactly a political demand.
Barbara Michael Denning’s article ‘Wageless Life’ highlights how three quarters of the economy around the globe is not generated through paid work. ‘The economy’ is not produced just in formal economies but outside, be this subsistence labour, housework, etc. Therefore Denning argues you always take a conceptual and strategic gamble when you organise around the figure of the male, nineteenth-century, industrial worker – which Britain is very wedded to.
Jo How do you get ‘unpleasant jobs’ done in a wageless society?
Nina Historically that’s precisely the right question. Early twentieth-century projections about work in relation to technology raised the almost reasonable expectation that work could be done by technology. People would not necessarily have to do the jobs that are traditionally valued less and associated with low wages, with migrant labour and with women. Silvia Federici says that one of the limits of mechanisation and technology is that you cannot outsource care; a robot is not going to look after you in the same way that another human can. So perhaps there’s another integral suggestion here: that we should start with care, and make care the most valued thing in the world, rather than the least valued in terms of economics and in terms of status.
Anne We also have a working group on the corporatisation of the arts, although working groups are not entirely separate. At the Whitechapel Gallery Samantha
Cameron and Nick Clegg were asked to curate the Government art collection and open it to the public while simultaneously cuts to the arts were being announced. So we dressed up as washerwomen, washed dirty laundry outside the Whitechapel and gave out pamphlets about whitewashing.
Jo That makes me think of Mierle Ladermans Ukeles’ 1969 work ‘Maintenance Art’, when she scrubbed the steps of a New York gallery to draw attention to how different types of work is valued and gendered; and how the feminist art-activist group the Guerrilla Girls often critique the galleries that host them.
Barbara Yes, a lot of us are artists and we often get invited to do a relational art project within an institution. We say no to ninety per cent of them, but occasionally we do say yes, and obviously we then have to raise questions about the extent of our engagement with the institution. It’s clearly problematic that the issues that we work on are questioning the structures of the institutions themselves, while they simultaneously want us to produce something radical within the content of those structures. We haven’t yet figured out exactly how to negotiate this. We keep experimenting with different ways of trying to be both inside and outside the institution, but it’s extremely difficult. So this particular working group focuses on interventional strategies and power games.
Nina It’s important to do that with all cultural institutions. Mapping where the money is and where it goes is essential. We also need to differentiate between people who are able to say no and those who aren’t. If you are a young struggling artist and you get an offer from an institution that is morally and financially dubious (and let’s face it, they all are), you are in a very different position to someone who is well established. This is also a question about accepting money for the work that you do; I sometimes offer articles to newly set up magazines for free, but you have to consider it on a case-by-case basis. There’s a huge difference between providing free labour for companies that can afford to pay you but don’t want to, and working for free for companies that just can’t afford it.
Anne The other working group is solidarities. We do not want to be a single-issue group protecting its own interests. We try to work with other groups, such as the Latin American Workers’ Association, with whom we created a card giving advice about UKBA raids, and which now has a life of its own and has been published in many languages. We’re also part of an International Coalition for Fair Internships, and we’ve worked with cleaners’ campaigns and Boycott Workfare.
Nina Some of the most important work that you are doing is pointing out that these different issues with work are related. How do you think it relates to housing? The statistics make it very clear how expensive renting and buying is, and no social housing is being built. The relationship between working for free and actually staying alive is becoming even more untenable for more and more people.
Barbara This is one of the reasons we really liked the word ‘precarity’ – we felt that it included wider questions about work, housing and general life conditions. Several people in the group are active in housing campaigns. This is what’s nice about The Common House (a new common activist space in Bethnal Green); we have freedom to converse with others, so, for example, someone joined our meeting last week from Tower Hamlets Housing Action. We’re very aware that all of the ways that people used to use to survive are disappearing: for example, the chances of getting a council flat now are extremely slim. The ways that people used to have to piece together a living out of very little are now gone.
Jo This also connects to the rising cost of living, to increasing food and energy costs.
Nina It’s a horrible ideological paradox: it’s increasingly difficult for everyone to stay alive, particularly through creative work and cultural life, but at the same time, that’s what’s being celebrated. The implication of the 1990s Cool Britannia fetish was that we were post-industry, and focused on pop music, culture and fashion, so everybody was told that they should come and study in London because it was such a cool place. But all the ways in which that lifestyle could be possible for an individual to experience are being stripped away, unless you’re really rich.
Barbara That moment made the cultural sector less middle-class, because it was seen as a viable moment for all kinds of people to enter it. But there was also a huge sense of let-down. It increased aspiration towards the cultural sector and closed opportunities down at the same time.
Jo What impact do you think your campaigns have had?
Anne The most obvious impact has been on internships. As it’s so specific it’s an issue people can really take hold of. The debate has increased dramatically. The Arts Council even published a set of guidelines on internships last year.
Jo Internships are on the radar of the mass media and on the public agenda in a way they simply weren’t five years ago. There are grassroots campaigns like yours, the TUC Intern Awarecampaign, books like Intern Nation getting a lot of press, and now government clampdowns and politicians supporting the case for paid internships.
Barbara Unpaid internships are definitely starting to become taboo: it’s gradual, but it is a shift. It’s good that there has been a tax clamp down on it through parliament. It’s no longer possible to advertise unpaid internships through universities officially, even though they still do under the table. When we first started working on this issue we were under New Labour, and you had to tread very softly with regard to how you talked about it. But now people are much more confident about saying unpaid internships are a bad thing. The recession has also hit the middle class: suddenly the parents of kids at Goldsmiths were aware of it in a way they weren’t before. We get interns talking about sitting in an office having not even been paid their fare to get there, and they will be putting in an order for £2000 of champagne. They suddenly have this very sharp, very intense experience of class.
Jo Do you think that creates solidarity between middle-class people on internships and people on workfare?
Barbara In our group it has. But Intern Aware wouldn’t join with us in putting their names on a naming and shaming campaign we ran jointly with Boycott Workfare on Oxford Street because they wanted it to be single issue. It’s an interesting question though: what’s the difference between working in Poundland for free and being an unpaid intern?
Nina It’s important to point out the similarities. I’m very worried about this general tendency amongst employers to want to pay everybody nothing. It’s obvious when you think about it: as an employer, as a corporation, why wouldn’t you want people to work for you for free? How do we give value back to workers and rethink how different work could be? I’m having some conceptual difficulties beginning my current project and thinking about how you translate these transitional and current demands to bigger structural questions. Of course insofar as I can’t imagine the end of wage labour for the time being, we need to campaign to make sure that people are being paid a wage that at least approximates to an amount that can keep up with living standards and housing. But it’s also about bigger issues than the wage. I’m not always sure how to link the more utopian anti-work demands in a useful political way.
Barbara The new campaigns around work have been many people’s first experience of collective organising. There’s something profoundly transformational about that. The moment where you get extra credit, or convince a company to pay for your lunch for a week, are small wins. But they can make a huge difference to people. Campaigners often have the realisation that if they work collectively, they can actually change things, they can ask for more.
Nina The living wage campaigns that have been small and tightly organised often seem to have been the most successful in getting answers to their demands. They have forced Vice-Chancellors to concede and so on. It clearly works.
Jo Also, politicians are today often very keen to be seen to approve of campaigns like that, even if they have little intention of following through.
Barbara Exactly. These arguments have the moral high ground.
Nina It goes back to the paradoxical arguments about the moral ideology of work that are being forced down people’s throats. I grew up in the 1990s and there was a rhetoric that suggested that women and men were equal, everyone could do work where they wanted to, that no one was held back by their gender. But the concept of what that employment was was never questioned. The other side of the rhetoric was that a job for life no longer existed, and you had to learn to be flexible. The one thing that you could not say was that you did not want to work. To my parents’ generation, work was everything; they worked solidly for forty years. When my mum lost her job having worked for twenty years, she became incredibly depressed and even suicidal, because her entire identity was tied up with being a worker. We really need to consider why that image of work has such a hold over people. Apart from the instrumental aspect of needing to stay alive, is there an ideology that if you do not work you’re not as good a person as someone who does?
Barbara Does that ideology affect you?
Nina I think so. I do work very hard and the idea of it irritates me.
Jo We’re talking about the relationship between gender and the transition between stereotypically Fordist and post-Fordist labour. Today the standard British response to the question ‘who are you?’ is to answer with your job description: it’s supposed to be your main source of identity and your sense of self. A lot of the feminist activity of the 1960s and 1970s was about the desire to open up a wider range of potential selves, especially through work. But many of these feminist demands made in the 1960s and 1970s around identity politics and on making work better, more interesting and more accessible to women, have been remodulated by post-Fordist capitalism into a hideously exploitative entrepreneurial ideology.
Barbara That’s where micro-political work becomes increasingly important. You have to be careful to not denigrate people’s desires. If somebody wants to be an artist, it is still a romantic and fantastic desire for self-expression and creativity. It’s an internal double bind that puts a social frame on your desires; but we need to question what would happen if we took our desires seriously instead of feeling guilty about them, or feeling that they will always be co-opted.
Jo On the one hand, working culture has forced many people to work longer and longer hours, on the other hand, many people can’t find work. How do we deal with this? One answer seems glaringly obvious: why can’t we just share it around more?
Nina There are obviously serious questions about global markets in relation to equal opportunities. Right-wing free marketeers have allowed the market to dictate where labour should go. This is a consequence of the idea that, for the benefit of capital, labour should be allowed to move freely.
We have talked about this stereotype of the industrial worker – in the British context a white man. But at the same time, so much of this country was built on the badly paid work of non-white people. The waves of migration have often been around specific areas of work, particularly transport, including the construction of motorways and the London Underground. The people at the bottom, doing the cleaning, are the ones sitting on the buses at 4.30 in the morning, who have to get to the offices to get them cleaned before the office workers arrive. And these people are primarily non-white migrants. Yet part of current anti-immigration ideology is trying to revert back to the idea that the British worker is white – despite the fact that this hasn’t been true for a very long time. Perhaps the best way to counteract that narrative is to say that everyone who works here is from here, adopting the pro-immigration French slogan.
Jo It becomes palpable to me when reading media articles worrying about how the national birth rate is declining, panicking that we won’t have enough workers to look after people when they are older, and discussing how to encourage women to have babies. Then, unconnected, beside those articles, they’ll be another article about the ‘problems’ of immigration. And sometimes another about a global crisis of population expansion and how the planet has too many bodies! But these different narratives will not be connected up in any way. There will not be a hint of how one problem could help the other; that the problems caused by a declining birth rate in some parts of the world might be helped by opening borders. Moving on to a different issue – do you see anything progressive in union activism at the moment?
Nina The spectre of them breaking from Labour would be interesting. There’s an endless problem about union bureaucracy. I’ve interviewed Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka, and found that there’s a permanent mismatch between the militancy of the rhetoric and what’s actually achieved. I did think the TUC march was great and there’s some interesting activities, such as the idea to have a £1 per week subscription for an unemployed union. Although they weren’t very successful, they at least tried to break with the fantasy of the full-time employed unionised worker – that’s just not the reality for a great number of people. We have to think about who’s being excluded. I don’t want to be overly critical of unions in general, but we do have to ask questions about what very low union membership means. Unions are still very important, but they’re not the powerful force that they once were.
Jo The difficulty of unionising temporary and ‘portfolio’ workers who are employed across a range of sectors is a big problem. Carl Roper from the TUC suggested to me that one of the most interesting models is Equity, the actors’ union. They’ve always had to work with people who are in and out of work, whose positions are precarious – and they’ve been very experimental and successful in dealing with this.
Barbara We have been discussing the challenges around organising – particularly through our work with x:talk and the Sex Workers’ Union – and trying to suggest alternative forms of coming together. Maybe the meeting, as a form, is not the best method, for example. A friend of mine worked with the Migrants’ Association in Queens in New York, and they always have an after-school club, so the mums would be there, picking their kids up from school, and they’d then go for a meal together that was strictly limited to an hour, because everyone needed to get home afterwards. These were added incentives for people to attend the meeting. The Sex Workers’ Union organised language classes, which became a vehicle for organising because they happened in the brothels, in the workplace. Denning also discusses self-employed unions in India organised by people doing informal piece work on the streets. These unions are a much more self-organised, co-operative model, and make it easier for people to bargain for cheaper fibres, for example. So there are many different models around which it is possible to organise, and people might be able to learn from each other.
Anne We get a lot of emails asking for help with problems in the workplace. Of course, the first thing we ask them is if they have a union they could join. Because despite all the problems we’ve been talking about, if you’re a union member there is still someone who can fight your corner a bit.
Barbara There are still problems with the top-down system used by union campaigns. Partly the problem is they simply announce what needs to be done. And there’s another major problem: if you start with an assumption of identification as a worker, you lose half of your audience from the outset.
Jo That brings us back to gender and work. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is currently inciting women to embrace or ‘lean in’ to corporate culture in order to achieve, presumably so corporations can ‘lean out’ of their social responsibilities. And at the same time another very different right-wing discourse says that being in the workplace becomes more difficult for women after they’ve had kids, so women shouldn’t try to be like in the 1980s, and try to ‘have it all’, instead they should just relax into part-time work, and become what Rebecca Asher terms the ‘foundation parent’. I’m also interested in how flexibility is critiqued so much today as a tool of corporate culture. This is of course true; but sometimes on the left it goes hand in hand with an implicit nostalgia for Fordist culture that I find really problematic, given the place of women in the mid twentieth century. Why can’t we reclaim flexibility for the left instead? I think that should be on the agenda. For instance, it’s necessary for parents to be flexible because children are often ill, but I sometimes feel critiqued by a left position on work for even wanting that.
Anne I suppose the point is: flexibility on whose terms? You have to distinguish very carefully between those two things. Is it the workplace that requires you to be flexible or is it according to your needs?
Nina The implicit assumption that it is the woman’s responsibility to be the ‘foundation parent’ discounts the role of another parent or person in that scenario. And it hasn’t really been adequately politicised; since the 1970s, the politicisation of that question has just disappeared. Reproduction is considered to be a private choice that you can’t talk publicly about, it’s just thought to be a personal decision. That means that it is thought of as an individual family question rather than a wider social question.
Jo You can see that clearly in the implicit downgrading of the cultural status of nurseries and wider systems of socialised childcare. There’s been some interesting academic work by Glenda Wall tracking how, over the past thirty years, mainstream US media representation increasingly depicts nursery and social childcare provision as less desirable, even dangerous. This is in contrast to how the option for the upper-middle-class entrepreneurial family unit – that of privatised childcare, of nannies – has been rendered increasingly desirable and aspirational. It’s very different from the popular 1970s demand for collective childcare.
Nina It was really important in the Black Panthers. Part of the reason they were shut down was because they were doing the ‘breakfast-included’ version of care and community work. They were providing meals, doing breakfast clubs and so on; it was a vision of a social, co-operative world where everyone looks after each other. The critiques of nurseries are perhaps designed (in the same way as the attacks on the Black Panthers) to brutally shut down anything that has a collective, social dimension.
Barbara Any discussion about this leads onto the realities of employment inequalities as well. If you are in a heterosexual couple, the chances are that the man is earning more, so his wage would be the bigger sacrifice for that leave. And in that period of leave, the woman is established as the ‘foundation parent’. And that is actually legislated for. Where is the flexibility in that? The father has two weeks off and becomes the person who comes home at 6pm. It seems so easy to walk into that stereotype of gender relations. It’s a stereotype that is dictated by work: work policies and values.
Barbara One problem is that ‘social reproduction’ is a very difficult thing to organise around because no one really understands what it means – they just think it is about making babies!
Nina Going back to the beginning, we were talking about what it would mean to value care, or rather reproduction, in the broadest sense. These things are cut across by wage labour in very negative ways and we have to find a method for starting thinking from there. We need to value those things instead.
Barbara But what would that mean? Would that be a drive for payment? In Venezuela they’re paying housewives now.
Nina I went to see Selma James the other week, and they have the Venezuelan constitution on the wall. It is clearly very significant. Their ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign was very much an anti-work position. It was misunderstood very badly, deliberately I think, by a lot of British feminist leftists, who took it as middle-class women demanding to be paid for washing dishes. It was never that, although the phrase ‘wages for housework’ didn’t help. Instead it was about how we politicise the question of value and what we mean by work, as a means to destroy this entire edifice of work as it currently exists. One way of doing that positively is to think about what we should value that is devalued at the moment.
Jo Littler, the convenor of this discussion, is a Soundings editor. The other participants are Nina Power, who is writing a book on anti-work, and two members of the Precarious Worker’s Brigade, which campaigns against unpaid internships in the cultural industries alongside wider issues of precarious labour. The latter prefer to remain anonymous and have therefore been given the pseudonyms of Anne and Barbara.
 Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work, Duke University Press 2011.
 New Left Review 66, Nov-Dec 2010. http://newleftreview.org/II/66/michael-denning-wageless-life