hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

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exclusions and expulsions

How long will labour unions survive? As long as there are persons who have a labour relation with an employer, one might think. I don’t think that these labour relations will completely disappear in the (near) future. But numerically, these will become less significant. There is a process of expulsion and exclusion going on in the world of labour.

“Expulsions” is the title of the last book by Saskia Sassen (Cambridge MA, 2014) in which she discusses how our life is affected by our capitalist economy and the financial crisis of the last 5, 6 years. People are dispelled from their land due to land grabbing, for example, and part of the labour force is dispelled from the labour market as a result of austerity policies. Grim as this indeed is, there are some other trends that hint at a more positive trend. Take for example the layer of middle management in professional organisations. It came up in the last two, three decades, and it is often populated with professionals who were promoted away from the work for which they were trained and which they likely still love — simplistically said: if you are too good in your job, you are promoted one level higher, away from the work in which you excel. But now, due to ICT, the information this layer collects and disseminates in the organisation can be handled by computers. So the manager can go back to his profession and do again the job he or she really liked. (Okay, a bit of a shame for the graduate from business school who landed in this layer and does not have any professional skills.)

The harder expulsions seem to be those due to slimming down companies, due to austerity, crisis, or just creating shareholder value. What happens more and more is that workers get the offer to be hired back as a consultant by the same firm. The firm assists the workers in registering at the Chamber of Commerce and filing a vat-number, and the way the go: the same job, but now as an entrepreneur. It is a bit false, for not everybody is an entrepreneur. But here are also people who really enjoy being their own boss, even if they have a marginal income at the end of the day. Real life has more colours than the black and white print of the labour union policy reports.
Confronted with the demands of flexibility, labour unions tend to exclude these workers: only those who were sentenced to life-in-industry are considered to be real workers, others are not to be taken into consideration. The labour unions talk about precarious jobs, without realizing that these jobs are precarious also because labour unions do not want to make any provisions for these new flexible workers. In Holland at least, labour unions very, very reluctantly have started to welcome these workers in some way, though this flexible force is still mainly seen as a (serious) problem.
In the mean time, these flexible workers are joined by young people who choose to start their own small company — social enterprises, co-operatives, you name it. Quite a few of these people might have looked for the security of a contract, but finding that that is not available for them, they are just as happy to start their own business. For them, the social dialogue is too slow, too rigid, too much about acquired rights (which these workers cannot acquire anymore!) — too much Jurassic park. So, where will we find the labour unions in 50 years?

Originally published 2 December 2014

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