Pandemic Labour and the Politics of Job Guarantees

by James Meadway

13 May 2020


The pandemic has forced open questions of power and control in the economy that had remained dormant for decades.

By imposing new rules on how, when, and who can work, the lockdown disrupts the employment market like nothing seen previously outside of war. From this profound interruption of capitalism’s most important institution – the institution of work –  everything else follows: the supply chain disruption, the loss of incomes from employment, the collapse in demand, the financial crises.

But it also creates the sudden reappearance of labour and work as a political question, in a way that has not been seen in Britain for perhaps decades, at least. It has meant negotiations over how work is performed are politicised, with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) being invited in to negotiate with Downing Street over the terms of the lockdown – resulting in the biggest labour market intervention by any government in Britain’s peacetime history in the form of the furlough payment schemes. The side-effect of having to regulate work – as a direct result of ‘social distancing’ and the regulation of all human contact – is to suddenly place potential power over work back into the hands of those who actually perform it. Because the market (and employers) are no longer the only factor determining how, where and when work is performed, power over work has begun to shift elsewhere.

Questions of control and power over work don’t fade away as we start to look beyond the first phase of the public health crisis. As the anticipated reduction in furlough scheme payments shows, these questions will, if anything, become much more intense. With foot-stamping to the government’s right on the need for a speedy return to ‘normality’, but a Conservative party split on the issue and the public understandably concerned about rushing to end the lockdown, the management of a return to work is posing the question of power over labour particularly sharply.

The TUC’s refusal to simply fall in behind the government’s forced march back to work is an outstanding example of this – as are the indignant squeals at its temerity from Tory sources. The confused messaging offered by the prime minister on phasing out the lockdown shows how politically fraught the issue has become: the class politics involved in essentially insisting that blue collar work must be performed in hazardous workplaces, whilst white collar workers can continue to stay home, are jarringly obvious. Yet without direct compulsion it is not, at the time of writing, how far the government’s will can be enforced.

This is the real meaning of the chancellor Rishi Sunak’s climbdown over proposed furlough reductions: with interest rates for the government at their lowest in history, there is no serious question that these payments can be afforded. Instead, proposed reductions are a crude means to reassert market power over employees, in the interests of ‘restarting’ the economy – and never mind the dire consequences of a second wave of infections, or indeed the likely collapse in spending and prolonged recession that might result. But facing union ire, the Treasury has backed off, extending the existing furlough scheme with no reductions for another four months.

Job guarantees.

It’s in the context of a shifted power relationship around work that we should see the TUC’s new proposals for a job guarantee. As well as the necessary demand that the furlough payments in the Job Retention Scheme (JRS) and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) be extended – and have enough flexibility introduced that workers returning partially to employment are covered – the TUC proposes that the government offers guaranteed jobs, prioritising those already out of work.

The idea is that those out of work would be offered either a job or accredited training, and paid at least the living wage. Priority should be given, the TUC argues, to work that helps shift towards a low-carbon future economy. For a job guarantee scheme, this is sensibly designed, with central government funding but regional and local distribution of those funds and the allocation of work. But it won’t be enough, by itself, to resolve the current crisis to the benefit of working people. In the context of this pandemic, guarantees of work even contain risks that the guarantee will be used against them.

Part of this stems from the economic situation. You might be forgiven for thinking otherwise from the truly inane coverage in much of the British media, but there will be no return to pre-Covid conditions, and the most immediate prospect is a prolonged slump in economic activity, plausibly on a scale similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This dire economic prognosis should not be used as an excuse to end the lockdown: even if we prioritised economic growth over human life, countries that have had weak restrictions in place from the start, like Sweden or the Netherlands, are today forecast to perform no better economically than those who imposed strict controls, and of course they have a much higher rate of infection and death. (Those countries that imposed restrictions early and forcefully are now clearly in the best position, while Britain has something of the worst of both worlds – late and lax restrictions.)

More likely from any premature efforts at derestricting the lockdown is a surge in infections, hospitalisations and deaths – with, incidentally, the associated economic damage these cause. Britain is likely to enter a prolonged period of messy attempts at lifting the restrictions, followed by panicked reimposition as infections spike, shifting awkwardly back and forth between the two, all against the backdrop of collapsing economic activity here and across the globe.

It is in this context that the economic fights move from the conventional struggles over the distribution of what society produces that we are used to – in which, for a long period of time, labour has broadly lost out to capital, as real wages stagnated or even fell over the last decade – and more directly into the intense political conflict over the right to control and direct work. Distributional conflicts will remain, of course, but they will be joined and dominated by this extra dimension of control. The disruption caused by Covid-19 zeros in on the labour market and the physical activity of work itself; managing a return to a functioning economy will require the direction and prioritisation of certain activities. The market alone cannot do this, but economic disputes at the centre of this Tory government hinge on how far it might be able to.

The dangers of guaranteed work.

To understand the risks of guaranteeing work, then, we need to come back to the central point about power and where it lies under capitalism. The fundamental problem with guaranteeing work in a capitalist economy was identified in the middle of the Second World War, before even the first glimmerings of the ‘30 glorious years’ of the post-war boom swam into view. Wartime conditions had created full employment, as the major economies mobilised every resource for the demands of total war. After the devastation of mass unemployment during the Great Depression of the 1930s, it became natural for many to think that the same government intervention that had ended unemployment in war could do the same in peace.

But in a strikingly prescient 1943 essay, ‘The Political Economy of Full Employment’, the brilliant (and criminally neglected) Polish economist Michal Kalecki made the point that, whilst full employment was a technical possibility under capitalism – being a matter, principally, of managing demand appropriately – it was, over the longer term, a political impossibility.

His argument depended on the critical point that the reduction in unemployment shifted the balance of power at work sharply towards workers, which in turn provoked a reaction from employers who feared not so much the loss of profit as the loss of control; in effect, a loss of the conditions under which profits can be produced. As Kalecki puts it: “…‘discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the ‘normal’ capitalist system.”

The next three decades were an uncanny demonstration of his case. Full employment, in the exceptional conditions prevailing across the western world, led to the growth of union membership, influence and power to peaks never seen previously. Union demands shifted from simple bargaining over pay and conditions – systematically improving as never before, or since – to questions of control over work, workplaces, and even the purpose of production as such: the Lucas Plan of 1977, drawn up by workplace representatives at Lucas Aerospace, a major engineering firm, posed a radical shift of production from armaments to socially useful production, like ventilators for the NHS.

The reaction to this was exactly as Kalecki forecast. One way to understand the emergence of neoliberalism as the game-plan for running economies from the 1970s onwards is that it was a direct attempt to wrest back control over the economy on the part of management, breaking union organisation as it did so, and radically depoliticising all questions about the economy – from the distribution of its rewards to the control over what and how it produced.

In terms of presentation by the government and media, the economy was shifted from something that we all take part in and create – something, in other words, that is the product of all of our work, plus the natural riches of the world we inhabit – and into a mysterious external force that, like an angry volcano-god, demanded sacrifice: unemployment, pay cuts, austerity. This brutality was glossed over with rhetorical appeals to competition, and to calculation: one was good, the other necessary.

What has happened under the pressure of the pandemic is that the reality of the economy as a social process has been rather starkly revealed. We can all see now that work performed in specific ways matters, whether it is care work or delivering food. The (classically neoliberal) move to disguise all these specific forms of work behind a general claim of seeking ‘productivity’ – with, naturally, some of the most important work being the most ‘unproductive’, since it produces no output that can be reasonably counted or measured, as in the case of carework – suddenly looks rather flimsy.

Meanwhile, this economy has plainly over-rewarded activities that are valueless, or close to valueless, and massively under-rewarded some essentials – to the point of depriving the people performing essential work of the protection they need. What researchers based mainly at Manchester University usefully labelled the “foundational economy” after the Great Financial Crisis should now be the focus for a slow, humane move back towards a functioning society: first get the fundamental tasks that a minimum civilised existence today requires – like keeping shops open or buses running – done right and safely. Everything else is secondary.

The exit from this phase of the pandemic crisis will pose specific problems – which sectors to reopen? how to guarantee safety when they do? – that require specific and detailed answers. The left should be proposing that control of this process is put in the hands of those who actually do the work, and who will be first to suffer the consequences of infection, rather than to the scheming of this government and Tory donors. Income support and the suspension of essential payments, from utility bills to monthly rent, are all necessary during this period and for the immediate future, and current income provision should be preserved and expanded. But these furlough income payments aren’t a job guarantee. In a sense, they are the exact opposite: they are a non-work guarantee. They are guarantees of protection for when work should not be performed.

Guaranteeing jobs in a pandemic.

Indeed, there are specific concerns with job guarantees that the pandemic emergency poses, centred critically on the degree of authoritarianism imposed. It is one thing to say everyone should work. It is quite another to insist that everyone must work, even when it is actively dangerous – or could seem to be so.

The government’s current messaging, such as it is, leans towards should; it may move into must, and cuts to furlough payments inch it towards that. It is essential, in circumstances of pandemic risk and with the possibility of second or more waves of the current virus, as well as the high degree of uncertainty around the immunity of those who have been infected, to have the right to refuse work and to insist on the right of refusal in unsafe conditions. Most people have a good sense of this already, as the polling unease about ending the lockdown clearly indicates.

Of course, it would be possible to write a comprehensive, codified ‘Job Guarantee’ which also built-in recommendations for work only being provided if it was also safe. It would also be possible to write promises in this Job Guarantee to make sure hours were short, pay was high, union membership provided and so on. But the more desirable the features of the guaranteed job, the harder it would run into Kalecki’s political barrier: the greater the encroachment on the prerogative of employers to set the conditions of employment, the greater the resistance by those employers. The job guarantee we would want is not a job guarantee we are likely to get.

In practice, where workplace organisation is weak, a general Job Guarantee would be more likely to create substandard but nonetheless compulsory jobs. Indeed, some of the technocratic supporters of a general Job Guarantee envisage precisely this mechanism at work: creating undesirable guaranteed jobs to reduce the inflationary pressure on the wider economy by undermining conventional employment.

By substituting miserable guaranteed work for the misery of unemployment, workers outside the guaranteed sector can still be disciplined to accept lower wages, worse conditions, and the authority of their employer. And for employers, the ability to draw from a stock of easily accessed, suitably work-disciplined and perhaps even trained workers is, potentially, preferable to drawing additional labour from a stock of the unemployed. We’ve already seen variants of this form of ‘Job Guarantee’ in the form of workfare schemes.

The major barrier to this outcome is the existence of strong, independent trade unions. But as Ben Wray notes, citing Kalecki in his recent article for Conter, these don’t exist at present. If we take strike days as an indication of union power, the latest figures suggest trade unions have never been weaker – at least until now.

Since the financial crisis, we have seen a decade of weak economic growth matched with stagnant or falling real wages but very significant job creation. On Wray’s estimate, about 1m unionised and relatively secure jobs in the public sector have been replaced with non-union, poorly paid and insecure private sector jobs. But the peculiarity of the pandemic is that it has now created the conditions where those who work are potentially in a position to exert some control over how that work is performed. The strikes by retail workers across the US for greater protection at work are the best example of the broader point. For the UK, whilst there have been a few scattered strikes (most notably by bin workers), it has been the top-level negotiations between the TUC and a strongly anti-union government that have been most telling.

What we don’t know, as yet, is how the UK’s labour market, with its weak unions and proliferation of crap jobs, will respond to a collapse in demand as we move out of the initial phase of this crisis. After the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-9, unemployment spiked upwards, but then rapidly came down as shoddy, poorly-paid, insecure jobs were created on a grand scale over the next decade.

The same pattern seems more unlikely now, largely because the immediate future is one in which the regulation of labour will remain extensive, and therefore the ability to create new jobs difficult – and, potentially, expensive in terms of the provision of health protection for additional employees. Unemployment maintained at a continuously higher level is likely, but it may lose the disciplinary function Kalecki highlighted where the need to monitor and regulate labour is still present – as it will be. The shift in the balance of power created by the pandemic can remain in place at least as long as restrictions on work are necessary – and that shift, in turn, opens up the requirement for more direct forms of control and management of labour.

The new frontiers of control: biology and data.

There is a further twist to the problem of the disputed control of work. We can see already the glimmerings of a future in which the biological monitoring, regulation and control of labour becomes far more pervasive: infra-red sensors built into Amazon warehouses, mass contact tracing, temperature checks on the morning commute.

Where once the monitoring of one’s health was largely left to the individual worker, the pandemic is beginning to socialise this on a grand scale. At the same time, the sudden expansion of homeworking under the lockdown has (in effect) hugely expanded the boundaries of the workplace – not just geographically, as is obvious, but also temporally, with working days expanded and the work-life balance “obliterated” for those working from home. Somewhere down the line, of course, the great private behaviour-monitors of credit scoring and life insurance will move into this space, whilst the $14bn commercial genomics market is set to grow exponentially over the next few years.

These are all massively data-intensive technologies and industries. And they increasingly impose themselves on what, historically, was a sphere of human life outside of the market and free from the direct control of capital. The frontier of control for work is no longer simply in the specialised locations where work is performed – the office, the factory, the building site – but, potentially, the entire sphere of our existence, from the home to the workplace, and all points in between.

At present, the expansion of this frontier is being driven by the government, which is imposing the requirements to not work under certain conditions, independently of the wishes of any particular firm or industry. The pandemic emergency demands this – but it has the side-effect, unfortunate from the viewpoint of capital, of immediately politicising the question of control over work, since it is plainly the government, and not private capital, that is determining when and how work should be performed.

This government will want, as far as possible, to revert to more obviously market-led and depoliticised mechanisms of control, but that is unlikely to be entirely possible: the additional costs of monitoring and regulation that the pandemic imposes – including the need to monitor and regulate in case of future pandemics, even once a Covid-19 vaccine is available – will create costs that private firms will be keen to push away from themselves and back on to wider society, via government. One variant of that drive to reduce costs is likely to be the increased efforts to exclude labour entirely from specific tasks through accelerated automation.

Should the economic slump manifest itself over the next few months – as currently seems likely – with demand draining away, bankruptcies multiplying, and unemployment becoming more of a direct threat, the demarcation dispute between work and not-work could intensify. It is certainly possible to imagine a future in which very large numbers of jobs have been broken down into tiny discrete routines, with totally insecure, zero-hour workers switching between tasks (‘microjobs’) across numerous separate employers, many of which will be done from an (increasingly monitored and regulated) home, and performed just at the point where it is marginally easier to employ a human than artificial intelligence – all being done under cut-throat competitive conditions against entirely unseen legions of fellow microjob workers.

It’s easy to imagine this because, of course, much of this world is already here. But it means some traditional trade union demands, particularly around the security and organisation of work rather than everything outside of work, may no longer fit quite so naturally for those on the sharp end.

New programmes for the left.

The challenges as we move, slowly, away from the peak of the initial health crisis are clear. First, it is essential that the economic restart takes place only at the pace demanded by medical need, not the demands of rich fools with connections to the Conservative party. Those at work know best about what is and is not safe in their workplaces and should be leading on any decisions, on a case-by-case basis, insisting on the necessary protective measures as needed.

Second, full provision for all those unable to work must be provided, and provided for the duration of the crisis – which includes the extension of the existing furlough payment schemes.

Third, data generated by the monitoring and regulation of individuals must be secure and its use placed under public, democratic control.

Fourth, the power to determine the boundaries of work and not-work must be left to individuals, meaning (especially) control both over the nature and extent of surveillance and monitoring that takes place, but also the power of refusal of work in unsafe conditions. A universal basic income is rapidly becoming common sense for many; since it provides the fundamental capacity to refuse work, and to refuse the conditions offered in work, it should be the foundation stone to rebuild work. The power to refuse work grants the power to shape work.

And finally, any guarantees of future employment should arrive without compulsion, and with the conditions the TUC sets out – safe conditions, proper pay, and socially useful work.

James Meadway is an economist and Novara Media columnist.


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