The Transformation of Work, the Disappearance of 'Workers', and the Future of Workplace Regulation
15 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2010
Date Written: November 26, 2009
If you have read my curriculum vitae you will not have seen the publication that inspires my remarks this evening. As I was waiting to go off to Harvard to do my master‟s degree, I was offered work revising a publication known as the Canadian Encyclopaedic Digest. In particular I was asked to update the chapter on “street railways” - what you would likely call “trams”. Sections of the chapter covered such illuminating topics as “sounding the gong” and “using the cowcatcher”. It was boring, stupid work, but I had to do It for money. What added injury to insult, however, was the fact that no one had traveled on or spoken of, much less sued, a “street railway” since the original chapter was written in the 1920s. In preparing my remarks for this evening, the thought occured to me that fifty years hence, someone may give a lecture at St. John‟s reminiscing about a youthful assignment to update a chapter on “workers” or “labour law” or “industrial relations”, terms that in the interval had ceased to refer to any extant subject of academic interest or human endeavour. A little excursion into history will set the stage for this glimpse into a possible future without labour market regulation. From 1945 or 1950 to, say 1970 or 1975, workers in most advanced economies enjoyed rising wages; more secure job tenure within the internal labour market of the enterprise; greater protection of their health, safety and dignity; and improved access to social benefits, such as pensions and health insurance, whether provided by the state or by their employers. These improvements didn‟t just fall from the sky. They were secured through the efforts of unions and of social democratic and social market parties, in the context of favourable labour market conditions associated with an expanding economy and productivity gains and against the backdrop of a general desire to avoid the social conflict of the interwar and wartime years. In the 1970s, however, labour markets conditions began to change in response to larger developments in the global political economy. These changes, in turn, came to be reflected in the nature of work and character of workplaces and in the social, cultural and political significance of “work” and “workers”. The result, I will argue, is that the forms of workplace regulation that seemed to serve us well during the earlier period no longer do.
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