Globalization and the Casual Labor Problem: History and Prospects

Article excerpt

The automation and global restructuring of manufacturing is hollowing out employment overall, is relocating labor@intensive mass production to the Third World and, in North America, is creating a new manufacturing model characterized by flexible manufacturing in large-scale multi-purpose facilities run by fewer, more technically flexible and more highly skilled employees.

Heather Menzies

Rationalization combined with relocation, which constitute the response to the new structural conditions for the valorization of capital, are now bringing about a falling trend in employment in the industrial countries through the worldwide reorganization of production.

Folker Frobel

What is surprising is not that there has been so much proletarianization, but that there has been so little. Four hundred years at least into the existence of an historical social system, the amount of fully proletarianized labor in the capitalist world-economy today cannot be said to total even fifty percent.

Immanuel Wallerstein

Capitalism is full of interesting contradictions. From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, workers fought for shorter working hours. In various countries, labor struggles that brought the eight- or nine-hour day were seen as great triumphs. "Working hours in the developed capitalist nations dropped by almost half from 1850 to 1950, largely as a result of labor's recurrent struggles for shorter work time" (Moody, 1992:51). In many of these nations, one in five workers is now classified as part time. At the same time, however, official statistics in the United states show an increase in working hours for the average full-time workerover the last couple of decades (Schor, 1992). In Canada, the average work week has dropped to 35 hours. Yet this figure masks the fact that average hours for full-time jobs have remained at 42 hours per week since 1976.(1) Of course, the 42-hour average for all full-timers masks a range of schedules. "Between 1981 and 1993, the percentage of individuals working standard workweeks fell and the proportion of individuals working either short or long hours increased for both sexes" (Morissette and Sunter, 1994: ii).(2)

I argue that there is an underlying process of structural transformation that produces these outcomes. They are part of attempts by global capital to renew capital accumulation by reasserting control over labor markets and labor processes -- control that had been weakened through a history of class struggles led by trade unions and labor parties, which gave Western workers more power in the economic and political realms (Abendroth, 1972; Arrighi, 1990; Palmer, 1992). To regain control over laborpower, capital has undertaken a number of initiatives, including globalization of production, technological changes, degradation of labor, (re)casualization of labor,(3) feminization of labor, informalization of production, and promotion of neoliberal(4) state policies designed to weaken the labor movement. One U.S. statesman even referred to the "zapping" of labor (Ackerman, 1982; Harrison and Bluestone, 1988). Yet these initiatives are usually dressed in a more palatable guise. In the workplace we have heard much about "quality of working life" (QWL) and "teamwork" programs (Parker, 1985; Parker and Slaughter, 1988; Wells, 1986; 1987). At the level of government, neoliberals preach about getting the nanny state off our backs and promoting various freedoms -- free enterprise, free markets, free trade, and, to make the whole package acceptable to a citizenry that has been acclimatized to two centuries of liberal ideology, individual freedom. As we will see, though, in capitalist societies some individuals have more freedom to take advantage of opportunities than do others.

My particular concern here is to situate what I call the (re)casualization of labor in the context of global restructuring. I use the term (re)casualization of labor" as a political concept to refer to a shift in the logic of formal labor markets in developed capitalist countries, since roughly 1970. …