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I’ve griped about some of the intellectual and political problems of invocations of ‘precarity.’ To restate just a bit, I think arguments like “unions are outmoded because today there’s so much precarity” are straight up wrong. First, they begin from the peak of unionization and move to the current valley after that peak, and say “the valley has so much more precarity.’ The “precarity, so there’ few unions” argument seems to me exactly backward, when really it’s “there’s few unions, so, there’s lot of precarity.” I think the picture would also look quite different if people begin looking prior to the rise of that peak, a period which was characterized by a great deal of precarity for those sectors who later unionized. That would, I think, show two things. One, to be skeptical about the possibilities of unionization under conditions of precarity is to be skeptical of the the very thing that happened in many sectors. Two, it seems to me that the desirability of unionization was largely derived from precarity: unionization offered a potential for security and control in response to precarious conditions.

“Automobile workers’ tenuous hold on their jobs before seniority was instituted as a criterion for governing personnel decisions was one of the givens of pre-UAW times. Even Fortune Magazine asserted in a matter-of-fact way that “automobile labor (whether Ford, Chevrolet, or Plymouth) is labor with little dignity and less security…” and that “no worker has any definite assurance that he will be working next year where he worked last.” (…) Henry Ford’s principal biographers have pointed out that before unionization, workers in the company “were subject to discharge at any time for any reason. They had no tenure and no appeal.. .On the assembly line.. .the bosses had a natural liking for young, vigorous, quick men not past thirty-five. Experienced hands past that age.. .were thus often the first to be dismissed and the last to re-engaged.” Under such a dispensation, workers perceived as trouble-makers or simply as deficient in deference were dismissed without ado. Since the industry was highly seasonal with long shutdowns for model changeover, absence of seniority rules meant that long-serving employees had no assurance of being recalled to their jobs when production of new models began. There were situations in which the oldest workers in age and length of employment were the least likely to be recalled. It was to counter their intolerably precarious hold on their jobs that automobile workers perceived seniority as the keystone of their moral economy. They were formulating an anti-laissez-faire morality against the unrestrained labor market freedom of employers who acknowledged no limitations based on rights of employees.” “Seniority and the Moral Economy of U.S. Automobile Workers, 1934-1946,” by Carl Gersuny and Gladis Kaufman, Journal of Social History, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Spring, 1985), 463-475

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