Race, Resistance, and Restructuring: Emerging Skills in the New Social Services

By Baines, Donna | Social Work, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Race, Resistance, and Restructuring: Emerging Skills in the New Social Services


Baines, Donna, Social Work


Since the introduction of the first neoliberal federal budget in the mid-1980s (Cohen, 1997; Teeple, 1995), cuts in funding, restrictions on entitlements, the introduction of private sector management schemes, and ongoing waves of workplace restructuring have left many social workers questioning their career choices. Along with work practices and philosophies, social work skills have been reformulated under the new lean models of service delivery (Abramovitz, 2005; Clarke & Newman, 1992; Fabricant & Burghart, 1997). Rather than a complex synergy of individual and social knowledge that increases collectively on the job, skills are recast as "competencies" or "human capital" that workers should independently own or obtain (Jackson, 1998). Competencies or skills are measured against "value-added, which means basically contributions to profits" (Jackson, p. 124), or in the case of public and nonprofit social services, contributions to cost savings. Within the competency framing of skills, if activities and interactions in the social services do not contribute to cost savings, they are unlikely to be formally recognized or valued and may be denigrated as common sense or personal techniques. Although a growing body of literature documents the growth of deskilling (Abramovitz; D. Baines, 2004a; Dominelli & Hoogvelt, 1996), little is known about the new skills emerging in the restructured social services. Drawing on subset data from a larger study on the effects of restructuring on frontline social workers, this article explores how the relatively marginalized position of First Nations (a Canadian term of ethnicity that refers to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada) and workers of color within the restructured social services sector and their resistance to this marginalization has generated new, culturally sensitive practice skills. This article also analyzes how the marginalized position of many workers of color and First Nations workers has shaped the kinds of resistance strategies they use within and beyond the restructured social services workplace, in particular, the performance and meaning of unpaid work (unrecognized overtime, volunteer work, social activism).

Differences exist between Canada and the United States, although there are also significant similarities: Both are multicultural societies with significant Aboriginal populations, professionalized social services workforces, shrinking welfare states, and increasingly integrated global economies. Although levels of public funding and entitlements may differ, at the point of everyday social work practice public and nonprofit social services operate in significantly similar ways. Although qualitative studies are not representative of, or generalizable to, larger populations, the data drawn from this study provide an opportunity to flesh out some of the differential effects of restructuring on racialized groups as well as the unexpected outcomes such as the development of new social work skills emerging from widespread resistance to racial inequity, downsizing, managerialism, and cutbacks.

WORKPLACE RESISTANCE

In sociology and labor studies, the concept of workplace resistance does not necessarily involve massive social transformation. Instead, the concept of resistance explores the ways in which workers are involved in "getting back and getting by" in specific workplaces and in workplaces in general (Nichols & Armstrong, 1976). Resistance may involve minor infractions of rules, open advocacy for change, or a combination of both (Buroway, 1979; Edwards, 1979; Friedman, 1977; Lee-Treweek, 1997). Social services workers grapple with a number of themes not present in private sector work, including the following: a strong identification among workers with the social caring mandates of the agencies in which they are employed; a certain amount of professional discretion in how work processes are defined and undertaken; and, often, a gendered and racialized sense of moral and political obligation to provide care for individuals and communities (D. …

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