Marcel Paret. 2015. “Precarious Labor Politics: Unions and the Struggles of the Insecure Working Class in the United States and South Africa.” Critical Sociology 41(4-5): 757-784.
Abstract: The growing precariousness of the working class and the declining significance of unions has given rise to precarious politics: non-union struggles by insecurely employed and low-income groups. Under what conditions do unions incorporate these struggles as part of a broader labor movement? This article examines how unions responded to two particularly visible examples of precarious politics in the late 1990s and early 2000s: the struggles of low-wage noncitizen workers and communities in California, USA; and the struggles of poor citizen communities with high unemployment in Gauteng, South Africa. Contrary to what the legacy of unionism in each context would predict, unions became fused with precarious politics in California but were separated from them in Gauteng. This surprising divergence stemmed from the reconfiguration of unions in each place, most notably due to steady union decline in California and democratization in Gauteng. Whereas unions in California understood noncitizen workers as central to their own revitalization, the close relationship between unions and the state in Gauteng created distance from community struggles. Both cases underscore the importance of workers’ citizenship status and the role of the state for understanding how unions relate to precarious politics.