Unionizing and fighting is also working

organizarse y luchar

Working is producing goods and services that other people need or not, but goods and services they want and may enjoy. Working is what enables us to build some of our personal capabilities, but fundamentally our relationships with people with which we must cooperate to perform the task entrusted. Working is also conducting part of a productive process that other people manage, even when many times we do not understand quite right what our contribution is and how our small contribution integrates to result in a final product. Working is in turn what allows us to have a place in the circuit of wealth production and, thus, legitimately participate in the consumption of goods and services. That is why we say, hear, and repeat that any job is decent. This dignifying nature of work is transferred in turn to the working person and, by opposition, is denied to those who do not do it.

This morally positive characterization of work was built and spread since the 19th century through the cooperation between the State and companies based on a mutually convenient agreement: the maintenance of full employment as a central policy ―although it was only a promise― in terms of the horizon to be achieved. But why? Well, because wage societies were created in the framework of an ideal economic development based on the promotion of industrial capitalism, but also on a domestic market-oriented industrial capitalism. In order to sell the increasing volumes of products produced by companies, it was necessary that there was also a growing number of workers who had money to buy them. And that is exactly what no longer happens nowadays. Globalization has led major capitalist enterprises not to be subject to territories and, since markets are global, they are not interested in ensuring that their own workers acquire the goods and services they produce. Therefore, at present companies pretend not to know about full employment and promote labor flexibility and unemployment, which allow them to keep low wages and be competitive in the international market.

The response to this change in outlook by the State ―and much of the academic discourse, we have to accept it― has been trying to delineate the social responsibilities for this situation and keeping an eye on what people who cannot access employment do not know, cannot do, or do not have. This approach to the matter has given rise to the concept of (un)employability, which describes those personal factors that make a given worker hirable (or not). Those factors range from gender condition to age, from studies to appearance, from the neighborhood where one was raised to the number of languages one can speak. Studying these aspects in detail allows us to establish their social or human capital deficit and thus determine which aspect of their personality or background has taken them to the poverty they are living in. The problem with this approach is not only that it blames the unemployed for the situation they are going through, but also that it is based on a false premise, because it is not true that if all people were multilingual, heterosexual males with college education, no children, and many influential friends, unemployment would disappear. As said before, unemployment is not a matter of lack of employability, but a drop in the demand of full-time workers with open-ended employment contracts.

Organizarse y trabajar

Working for unionizing: Group discussion to formulate the regulations for a waste classification plant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Source: The author.

However, as we have learned that we need to work, not only to have money, but also to find our decent place in society, we have come to a situation in which people that are deprived of access to work, mainly legal jobs with rights, not only suffer because they do not have money to meet their needs and those of their families ―as they are deprived of building their capabilities and establishing relationships with others―, but also because they feel worthless. The article “Organize, Work and Struggle: Focalized Social Policies and Building Collective Capacities in a Territorial Organization of Buenos Aires” published in the journal Memorias shows how this background resulted in the creation of groups in Argentina ―as well as other countries― that resist those discourses that put them in a position of unemployability by fighting and unionizing to give shape to self-managed undertakings that have enabled them to join the process of producing and reproducing wealth, while building personal capabilities and relationships with neighbors, officials, and companies. In this manner, they turned union and fight into another form of work because it is their way of living in dignity. In doing so, they also show that, despite its perversity and effectiveness, the employability discourse bases on another false premise, aside from the aforementioned, and it is that today companies still need the work of people much more than people need companies, when it comes to stand by their rights to live, unionize and fight for a place of dignity under the sun.


Cecilia Cross

Cecilia Cross is Ph.D. in Social Sciences from Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina. Currently, she is a Researcher for the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in Argentina, Research Secretary at the Universidad Metropolitana para la Educación y el Trabajo, and regular Associate Professor at the Universidad Nacional Arturo Jauretche.