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Professor Margaret Levi on a familiar story of job creation

“All along the shore, come in.” This was the call to the men sleeping rough on the beach and keen for work on the docks. The films On the Waterfront and Cinderella Man capture the indignity of this employment process.

This was the 1920s and 1930s, and those who later formed the longshore unions began as casual labour, treated with indifference, disrespect, and greed by their temporary employers. It is to that world we are returning. Casual labour, part-time and seasonal employment, jobs without benefits or rights – this appears to be the future of the post-industrial societies.

Those who held the old industrial jobs had a significant advantage over contemporary workers. They had factory floors, water coolers, hiring halls, and other places to gather.

But that kind of workspace is gone or transformed in the highly developed economies. Technological change and the new industries tend to separate rather than congregate workers. Workers once used those spaces to express class-consciousness; employees now have little or no class identity. Today’s workers are an increasingly complex category. Some sit together in large spaces and gather regularly in the lunch and meeting rooms. Think Google or Uber. Some work in teams to create a product. Think Apple or Microsoft. But many have little or no actual contact with each other. Think Uber drivers or the ‘Turkers’ of Amazon who browse online to find work a computer still can’t do.

Many of the new tech and transportation companies define a lot of their workers as independent contractors or temporary employees hired through an employment agency. The workers thus have few rights; there are limits on collective bargaining and even access to benefits provided to others doing comparable jobs. And when jobs reduce face-to-face interactions and interdependencies among the employees, trust and solidarity, the stuff of effective organising, is harder to achieve.

The inability of workers to express voice has significant consequences for our societies. Political parties and elected officials are likely to be less and less responsive to workers who neither mobilise in labour organisations nor vote. The effect, in numerous sectors, is a decline in occupational safety, health care benefits and social insurance, and an increase in inequality and insecure employment.

Employers now have more power over their workforce. While some may argue that this enables the companies to be more efficient and wealth enhancing, there is far more evidence that unconstrained employer power leads to job dissatisfaction, lowers productivity, and passes off to society the costs of care of those who work multiple jobs or none at all.

Some potential solutions exist. Unions, such as the Teamsters, intimidated employers with a combination of leapfrog tactics (refusing to drop off or load goods for those who refused to recognise their union) and thuggery.

The latter tactic was always illegal and is not to be advocated, and the former requires imaginative new strategies. Class actions and state legislation redefining work and employers are sometimes successful. Transforming on-site marketplaces into digital hiring halls, where employers must come to find workers and where the workers control the supply of labour, is another possibility. But how to do this in the world of the ‘gig economy’, where so many are stitching together part-time jobs, is not obvious.

The capacity to strike peacefully declines in the US as one state after another adopts ‘Right to Work Laws’ – that is, laws that restrict the ability of unions to collect the dues that support their negotiation of contracts, their lobbying and their general organisational capacity. Such legislation has passed even in states once as progressive and union friendly as Wisconsin and Michigan.

To regain voice, employees must find new bases for common identity and action, and this requires fresh ideas, leadership and strategies. Where those will come from remains unclear.

How will the workers of the future join to express their economic and political needs/demands? The first step is forging a collective identity, of recognising a ‘community of fate’ in which their futures are entwined and they are motivated to act on each other’s behalf.

Creating such a ‘community of fate’ might be the hardest problem of all.

Maraget Levi is Director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. She originally wrote this piece for the December edition of our Centre Write magazine.