Why Strong Governments are Bad for Precarious Workers

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Philip Rathgeb, author of the recently published Strong Governments, Precarious Workers: Labor Market Policy in the Era of Liberalization, chatted with our publicity manager Cheryl Quimba. Here’s their conversation:

What is Strong Governments, Precarious Workers about?

It examines why some European welfare states protect unemployed and ‘atypically’ employed workers better than others. While all countries faced the emergence of such precarious workers, some compensated them with better protection and training, whereas others reinforced new divisions within the workforce. The question is, why? Looking at the cases of Austria, Denmark, and Sweden in particular, I find that trade unions are the most consistent force in resisting precarious employment and welfare. What is most striking, however, is that left-right differences between political parties matter less for trade unions – and thus precarious workers – than differences between weak and strong governments. Only when governments are weak can trade unions enforce greater social solidarity in the interest of precarious workers. The book therefore challenges theories that attribute precarity to union clientelism.

Can you explain this relationship between strong governments and precarious workers?

The gradual stages of the liberalization era shifted the balance of class power from labor to capital, which created opportunities for employer associations to push governments in their preferred direction. Governments of the right as well as the left therefore stimulated job creation by liberalizing the labour market. Strong governments are unrestrained in this regard, because they are internally united and have enough seats in parliament. As a result, they can marginalize trade unions to prevent lengthy and costly negotiations. Weak governments, by contrast, need trade unions for consensus mobilization, which creates opportunities for trade unions to strike policy deals for precarious workers. Variations in government strength best explain why trade unions in Social Democratic countries like Denmark and especially Sweden faced remarkable defeats in labor market reform, whereas their counterparts in a Conservative country like Austria remained influential and could thus enhance the protection of precarious workers.

What motivated you to write this book?

What I find striking is the gradual breakdown of the long-term employment relationship in favour of flexible short-term jobs. Among the middle classes of my generation – the so-called “millennials” – this shift is often welcomed, because it can create greater autonomy in working life. You can switch jobs and adapt working hours according to your current life situation or desire for self-realization. This is certainly a great progress for well-educated people without problems in making ends meet or reconciling work-family life.

But I care more about the other side of this story: in-work poverty, unpredictable income, low protection when unemployed or retired. While “flexibility” means greater autonomy for some, it means greater insecurity for others. I wanted to understand when political actors respond to the social demands of workers that are unemployed or on temporary ‘atypical’ contracts, as they face the costs of growing flexibility on contemporary labour markets.

Why do you think this is important?

Precarity is associated with several trends that are detrimental to democracy and society. First, we know that precarious workers are less likely to vote, because they gradually lose faith in the political system. This refers to a process of political resignation so impressively captured by Marie Jahoda, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Hans Zeissel in their seminal study Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal. I vividly remember reading this book when I was in high school, as it has shaped my way of thinking about unemployment ever since. Second, it is clear that precarious workers are more likely to face economic poverty, unequal life chances, poor health, and even an increased relative risk of suicide. Understanding how political actors respond to precarity is thus of great political and social significance in contemporary capitalism.

 

Philip Rathgeb is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz.

Why Strong Governments are Bad for Precarious Workers