Blogs > HNN > Robert D. Parmet: Review of Andrew Ross's Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (New York University Press, 2009)

Oct 11, 2009 10:41 pm

Robert D. Parmet: Review of Andrew Ross's Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (New York University Press, 2009)

[Robert D. Parmet is Professor of History at York College of the City of New York. ]

With unemployment on the rise, trade unionism in decline, and management continuing to cut the cost of labor, the American worker has come under renewed scrutiny by scholars and journalists seeking to explain his and her condition. Fast disappearing for many, the idea of job security has been superseded by high risk opportunities that often do not yield high rewards. There is. too, worker distress deriving from temporary, contingent, and generally precarious employment. Often the condition of labor is subordinate to larger political or societal goals, such as becoming an Olympic host city or creating a global university.

Using the pre-Reagan era as his benchmark for labor security, Andrew Ross, who chairs New York University’s Department of Social and Cultural Change, argues that “the last three decades of deregulation and privatization have reshaped the geography of livelihoods for almost everyone in the industrialized world, and for a large part of the population in developing countries.” The earlier era of stability was a “lost utopia” recalled with “tall tales indulged by the elderly.” Geographical mobility is nothing new, the author notes, but with globalization it is made complicated by sophisticated competition. In technology industries, “brainpower is now organized on an international basis, with engineers and their knowledge circulating between Silicon Valley and East Asian nodes: Hsinchu, Penang, Singapore, and Shanghai.” Essential to these “creative industries” is intellectual property, the object of fierce competition in an “IP jackpot economy.”

As Ross explains in some detail, the competition for creative thought has been governmental as well as corporate. Its products included a “Creative Britain” campaign and cultural programs in several cities, including Glasgow, Vienna and Rotterdam. Sensitive to the value of cultural nationalism, the Chinese practiced it promoting Hong Kong, Shanghai and the 2008 Olympic Games in Shanghai. With excellent insight into local politics, Ross dissects the failed attempts by New York and London to represent themselves as “global cities” to secure the 2012 Olympics.

What Ross really accomplishes is the placement of labor history on a twenty-first century footing. By concentrating on significant aspects of the contemporary utilization and organization of labor, he resists the temptation to mourn for the past while still recognizing its value. In addition, by calling attention to the contingency nature of much of the labor devoted to such areas as urban planning and promotion and the expansion of higher education at home and abroad, he sheds light on a usually overlooked component of the workforce. In the name of cost-effective flexibility government officials, corporate executives, and university administrators plunge forward to compete and expand.

As Ross explains, they advance their programs highly dependent on those who possess creative intelligence, but it is the welfare of the latter that is often sacrificed. Lest the secure escape his criticism, he also takes tenured academic faculty to task for neglecting to champion improved working conditions for adjunct, part-time instructors and the cause of academic freedom. The latter, he observes, has been “severely curtailed” by “commercial ties with industry funders,” more so than it was by the Pentagon during the Cold War.

As Ross ably demonstrates, the world of insecure contingent labor is a real one, and even the normal state of affairs. Consistent with how Americans in particular view themselves, those who thrive in it are our best citizens. Persons primarily concerned with job security, through civil service employment, for example, are often regarded with disdain, even contempt. As for security itself, through government programs or union contracts, it is of relatively recent vintage, often associated with the New Deal and its successors into the 1960s, but still never the top priority for true economic heroes.

Under the influence of Reaganism, when the prevailing wisdom was that government was the nation’s “problem” and unions impeded progress, Americans permitted public and private “safety nets” to disintegrate. Predisposed to insecurity, and hopeful of receiving rewards for taking risks, workers accepted the new contingency arrangements. In the face of the current recession, it remains to be seen to what degree this acceptance will continue.

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