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The Nomad, the Displaced and the Settler: Work in the 21st Century

The following analysis was originally published in Red and Black Revolution, produced by the Workers Solidarity Movement in Ireland.

The Nomad, the Displaced and the Settler Work in the 21st

In many countries there has been a debate as to the nature of the
changes in western workplaces; in Britain they talk about increased
casualisation of the workforce, in the US they talk about contingent
labour and on the European continent they use the language of
precarity. Central to in all these debates is the issue of job

A number of issues are being discussed. Firstly has the workplace
changed fundamentally such that people increasingly are in temporary
work rather than permanent work? Secondly is the division between
work time and non-work time dissolving, are we spending more of our
lives 'in work'? Thirdly are the non-work aspects of life becoming
increasingly insecure?

In this article I argue that the world of work has changed, yet it
has also stayed the same. There has been a decline in the numbers
working in manufacturing jobs, and an increase in numbers working in
the service industry. There have also been the creation of totally
new occupations based around computer work. However, it is also the
same in that there has always been fragmentation within the
workforce. There has always been a diversity of experiences. What is
important is that we identify the different workplace realities that
exist and that we develop strategies that allow us to address a
variety of struggles.

The end of a job for life?

As mentioned above, many accounts of today's workplace concentrate
on the job insecurity and the end of a job for life. Yet the argument
that work in the private sector is more insecure now, implies that in
the past work was more secure. However the idea of a job for life, is
an idea that held true for a very specific time, place and workforce.
The economic boom that followed the Second World War and lasted until
the oil crisis of the 1970s was perhaps rather unique. It led to the
growth of mass manufacturing in certain areas in certain western
countries. In northwest Europe this industrial region stretched from
the English midlands, to Northern France, Belgium and Southern
Holland, to the Ruhr area of Germany with some isolated pockets in
Northwest Italy and Southern Sweden. In North America a similar
industrial region existed in the north-east, also based on the mass
production of cars, machinery and domestic appliances. Those employed
in these huge factories became known as the 'mass worker'. The rise
of the welfare state, and employment in the public sector paralleled
the growth in mass manufacturing.

Sociologist Colin Crouch describes the idea of a job for life that
existed here as the 'mid century compromise'(1), that is, there was
the expectation that in return for a commitment to the employer, men
would receive job security. Permanency and mass workplaces
facilitated union growth and power. In Michael Moore's first film
'Roger and Me', he showed how the manufacturing belt had turned to
rust, and depicted the enormous social cost of the destruction of
this dream.

However it is worth making a number of points. While the job for
life (for the blue collar worker) or career (for the white collar
worker) was a realistic expectation for some, it was not a realistic
expectation for all. For example in the Republic of Ireland, with
almost no manufacturing base, emigration rather than job-stability
was the norm and remained the norm almost until the Celtic Tiger boom
of the 1990s (2). Similarly for most women the expectation was that
after marriage, work in the home would replace paid employment and
indeed until 1977 in the Irish civil service this expectation was
formulised by the marriage bar which required women to leave work
once they got married. Even in industrialised nations not all workers
experienced job security. For example in the UK in the 1960s only
half of all male workers and two thirds of all female workers had
been in the same employer for more than 5 years(3). Many occupations,
such as dock work, construction and domestic work have always been
insecure. So the job security, which many nostalgically refer to, was
never a reality for all.

Is job instability increasing?

So much for then, what about now? It is very difficult to get
exact data on job stability in the workplace. Certainly there has
been an increase in part-time work and this is often cited as
evidence of an increasing insecurity in the workplace. The
mid-century compromise was based on male full-time workers, not
female part-time workers. Until very recently part-time work was
associated with fewer benefits than full-time. However recent EU
directives are aimed at reducing this discrimination (4).
Furthermore, part-time work is not necessarily temporary work. It is
not necessarily insecure.

Another way of measuring job stability is to look at those in long
term employment, however definitive data on job stability is
difficult to find. Researcher Kevin Doogan, using European Labour
Force data argues that contrary to received wisdom, the number of
people working long term (that is more than ten years for a single
employer) has actually increased in most European countries. Yet he
also shows, citing European social attitude data, that across the
occupations, there is a growing sense of insecurity. So here there
seems to be a contradiction, on one hand there is more job security,
on the other, there is a sense of foreboding about the future.

Why do people feel more insecure?

There are a number of factors that can account for this. Firstly,
with the dismantling of the welfare state, the cost of losing one's
job is increasing. In the US the popular saying goes 'you are only
two pay packets from the gutter'. In January 2005 the Irish Central
Bank noted that for the first time ever, borrowing had exceeded
incomes. Our economic growth has been accompanied by increased house
prices, which has forced people to live further and further from the
cities and become increasingly dependant on private transport in
order to get to work, shops, hospitals etc. In addition our health
service fails to meet basic needs. While there has been a huge
increase in the number of women in paid employment, there is almost
no support for childcare or care of the sick and elderly (jobs that
traditionally were the responsibility of women working in the home),
Increasingly many of the services which were previously provided by
the state are now being charged for. The introduction of a waste
collection charge is to be followed by a water tax. Electricity, gas,
telephone and transport costs have all increased in recent years and
unless further privatisation is successfully resisted, are likely to
increase even further. Job loss therefore might also mean losing
one's house or having to watch an elderly parent being denied
adequate health care for lack of money. It is these fears that cause
even the most secure employee to feel anxious for the future.

Secondly, Kevin Doogan argues that in the private sector this is
the era of outsourcing and mergers. Employees find their employers
changing about them and are left unsure as to what their position is
within these ever changing organisations. This process of
re-structuring is mirrored in the public sector. Most recently in
Ireland the public sector has introduced Benchmarking and has altered
their organisational structure in a way that has left many unsure as
to where (or whether) their job will be in the future. In the past,
for those with a job for life, the future was secure and dependable.
These days the future seems more uncertain and unpredictable (though
this may be more perception than reality).

What have we lost?

Returning to the death of the mid-century compromise, why was
job-stability for the few important and why is its death lamented? To
the Marxist organisations, whether they be revolutionary or
reformist, in the mass worker could be found the revolutionary
subject. That is, here was a section of the working class (5) whose
industrial strength and organisational capabilities could be
mobilised to bring about political change (whether that be a welfare
state or a revolutionary society). Though the anarchist perspective
doesn't seek to identify any particular sub-section of the working
class who will 'lead' the rest, we have to be aware what we have lost
in the end of the mid-century compromise.

Where workers expect to be spending a considerable proportion of
their lives in the same workplace, it is in their interests to
improve the terms and conditions of their workplace as best as they
can. Collective organisation is based on relationships and trusts
built up over time. It is not surprising therefore that these mass
workers built strong trade unions and were able to exercise
considerable industrial and political power. Their demands
contributed to the creation of the welfare state. For those others
working in more normal, unstable conditions, the mass worker provided
the good example, the alternative, the example of workplace power
which could inspire those working in less permanent jobs. With the
mass worker came a rhetoric of rights and expectations, which even if
it did not hold true for all, provided an important challenge to the
power of capitalism.

Yet, it can also be argued that the job for life is a limited
demand, in that work was/is often mundane, boring and tedious. In
itself there is no liberation from capitalist control over our lives.
It places limitations on the ways in which capitalism exploited us,
but it does not challenge the servitude itself (as the slogan goes,
'bigger cages, longer chains).

It is also true that, despite the expectations of many in the
traditional left, many workers embrace job flexibility and
impermeancy because it gives them the opportunity to either modify
their working conditions or to reduce the role of work within their
lives. This can particularly be seen in Ireland in those working in
the Information Technology sector (ICT). These workers are a very
small, yet fast growing segment of the Irish working class (7.5% of
all jobs are within the ICT sector ). It is a sector in which there
are skill shortages and high job mobility. Put simply, if people are
unhappy with their working conditions, they leave and move to a new
(and hopefully better) position. It is worth noting that although
there are no reliable figures on the numbers working on temporary
contract it seems that in Ireland numbers working in contract
positions has decreased within this sector. This is a mobility from
permanent position to permanent position, a mobility that is chosen
and not forced, that is not based on insecurity. While it is
difficult to get statistics on over all job-mobility, case studies
indicate that there is also high job turnover among less
highly-skilled occupations for example, high job turnover has been
reported among those working in the hotel and restaurant sector.

There are a number of points worth making here. Firstly, embracing
flexibility in this case is as much a strategy as the mass workers'
call for job security. Here we have the difference between nomads,
and settlers in that while settlers have a long-term interest in
improving the place they have settled in, nomads seek improvement via
exit. The settlers solution is collective, the nomads
individualistic. Secondly, the nomadic strategy makes sense only in
very particular economic conditions. Ireland in 2005 has very low
unemployment, and many sectors experience skill shortages. It is
these particular economic conditions that switch the balance of
forces, such that employers are willing to offer security, while
employees are rejecting it. Thirdly, the risks are minimised where
there is a welfare state to soften the blow. It is within this
context, that government policy seeks to redress the balance in
favour of the employers, as we have seen above, by increasing the
gamble that workers take when they move between jobs.

Lastly whereas there has been a tendency to speak of the mass
worker as if that was the experience of work for all in the post
1960s, there is also a tendency to speak of the workplace today as if
the experience of particular countries (the US and the UK) reflects
the experiences of all. From the above it is obvious that the
experience of job stability and instability is not the same for all.
Different countries have different levels of social welfare
provision, legal protection and unemployment rates; and even within
countries, instability can be experienced differently. For example
the illegal immigrant worker in Dublin had a very different
experience of impermanence than does the software worker mentioned
above. For some job mobility is an often successful strategy to
improve working conditions borne out of labour market strength or
resting on the welfare state's safety net. For others it has the
exact opposite effect. It is imposed, unwanted and arises out of
employers strength and employee weakness. Here the end of a 'job for
life' represents a significant defeat for the working class.

How do we develop strategies?

So what are the implications of this diversity of experience? Can
we develop a strategy that encompasses those who jump, those who are
pushed and those who stay; the nomad, the displaced and the besieged

One approach to the issue of organising is to try and identify
which category of worker will fill the shoes left vacant by the
demise of the mass worker. Some focus on the two sectors that have
been the fastest growing in Europe, the expansion of those working in
the knowledge economy and the rise of the service sector. The
difficulty is that, firstly these are sectors that have very
different experiences of work, expectations, problems and needs.
Beyond the fact that both are paid labourers, it is hard to see what
is gained by trying to establish a one-size-fits all strategy that
can be applied to both of these groups (or should that read, one size
fits nobody). Secondly, there doesn't seem to be any practical
rationale for elevating the experiences of these groups of workers,
above the experiences of more traditional workers. We shouldn't be
blinded by the shiny and new at the expense of the old and dusty.

This may seem like a trivial point, but we do need to be aware
that there is a political legacy that seeks to identify the 'leading
sector' of the working class, a legacy which runs counter to the
anarchist ideal of a revolution in which power is exercised and held
by all in society. The elevation of the mass worker, full-time and
male, came hand in hand with the marginalising of the experiences of
the woman worker, the part-time worker, the woman working in the
home, the unemployed, etc. We shouldn't repeat this mistake. Instead
we need to identify the diversity of experiences, and develop
multiple strategies that address this variety, and ways of writing
which can highlight the experiences of some without excluding the
experiences of others. And when for reasons of limited resources, we
focus our organisational efforts on one group we need to be clear
that our decision to do this is driven only by pragmatism.

Politics is global and local

The first thing we need to do is be aware both of global
influences and the local particularities which create the stage we
revolutionaries act upon. The second thing we need to do is, within
these structures, identify the problems and opportunities within
different sections of the working class mentioned above, the
displaced, the settlers and the nomads. In doing this we are
identifying areas of struggle because we want to both improve our
position in the here and now, and to build the confidence and skills
among our class and the sense of collectivity that will be necessary
to overthrow capitalism.

For example, what is the structure of the Irish political and
economic environment? As in many countries, the Irish economy is
increasingly globalised (indeed Ireland is cited as one of the most
globalised economies in the world (6)). Also as in many countries the
ruling party in Ireland (Fianna Fail) has adopted a strongly
neo-liberal agenda, an agenda which is dismantling a welfare state.
Unlike many European countries, we have never had strong social
democratic legacy so that our experience diverges from those in
Northern Europe and in the UK in that our welfare state has always
been weaker. Fianna Fail is a party that has, since the founding of
the state in the 1920s, successfully managed to sell itself both as
the party of the working class and of big business. Despite multiple
corruption scandals it is extremely good at getting itself
re-elected. Ireland diverges from its own history (and also from
other European countries) in that the last ten years have seen
sustained growth in the economy, skill shortages, enormous decreases
in unemployment and immigration instead of emigration. Finally, and
possibly the factor which has presented the most difficult to us, and
has coloured much of what I am going to say below, is that for almost
twenty years the major trade unions have participated in social
partnership(7). This has resulted, for the most part, in stagnant,
conservative unions, who have been incapable of capitalising on our
economic growth and have atrophied at the shop-floor or grassroots
level (the phrase 'couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery' comes to
mind). In the final section of this article, I look at the different
segments of the Irish working class in order to identify possible
areas of struggle and opportunity.

The Displaced

Firstly we have the displaced. By this I mean the temporary or
insecure worker, what sociologists refer to the peripheral labour
force. They are hired and fired according to the whims of the market
place. These are the low skilled, the low paid, the woman worker, the
young worker, the student and the illegal. In terms of time, here the
issue is the increased unpredictability and fragmentation of working
hours that comes with working shifts and Sundays.

A key need here is security and protection from the vagaries of
the employer and the market. The trade union movement should provide
this protection, but here we meet the first shadow of partnership.
The experience of unionising has not been positive in Ireland in
recent years. Although there have been a few successes in terms of
campaigns for trade union recognition (8), there has also been a
string of defeats (9) which reflected a failure on behalf of the
union bureaucracy to fight seriously on this issue. At a partnership
level the unions have failed to win the legal right to union
recognition (10). In other instances, once recognition has been won
it has only been in the short term. On one hand the employers have
managed to isolate and exclude trade union activists, on the other,
as partnership has destroyed the local life of the union, the
membership see less and less reason to actually belong to the union
and membership gradually erodes over time.(11) Finally, high turnover
within the sector brings with it all the difficulties of creating a
sense of collective identity, solidarity and power within a
frequently changing group.

The difficulties are considerable, how do we overcome this
isolation and at the same time change the trade union movement in
Ireland? This is a problem we have been struggling with, and we have
not found any easy answers. In face of such difficulties there could
be the temptation to avoid a union focus altogether, yet unions
provide the stable support which temporary workers need. Without a
union, as activists we would be condemned to a life of continually
re-inventing the wheel, continually fighting the same battles over
contracts, working hours, pay, working conditions while providing a
worse service than our existing unions.

Yet there are some strategies that can be adopted. One is to build
networks which work both within and between the trade unions. A first
step in this process is to, through our propaganda, highlight the
similarities of experiences that exist within these groups, break
down the isolating effects of the workplace and of temporariness, to
build a sense of collective identity. To those not in unions we can
raise awareness of rights that already exist. We can provide
encouragement and support when trying to unionise. And critically,
after unionising is successful, we can use the networks to force our
unions to respond to our demands. It is sometimes assumed, in error,
that unions are incapable of organising the transient worker. In a
sense we are recreating the struggles of the early trade unions, such
as the ITGWU, a century ago.

The Settlers

The second groups of workers I referred to above are the settlers,
those who are in long term, stable employment. These are often
unionised, yet thanks to partnership, rarely involved in union
struggles. Within the WSM, the attempt to build networks within the
unions is not a new strategy, and to be frank, we have found it
extremely difficult. We have been most successful when we have
addressed this section of the workforce, not in the workplace, but on
issues outside the workplace. So for example we fought against the
imposition of the water charges (successfully), the bin tax
(unsuccessfully) and will probably be faced with another anti-water
charge campaign in the new future. However, despite the difficulty in
building a grassroots trade union movement, it is not a strategy we
should abandon in favour of a focus outside the workplace. Union work
is very dependent on having people in the workplaces at the time when
disputes occur. Though the level of workplace struggle has decreased,
occasionally conflicts do emerge. We can't control whether we are
going to be in any particular workplace at the right time or place,
but if the opportunity does arise for political activity, it would be
foolish not to capitalise on it.

The Nomad

Finally, we reach the nomad, the highly skilled, highly paid
worker whose mobility reflects labour market strength. The unions
here have even less appeal. Partnership pay rises of 3-5% per annum
(barely in line with inflation) represent a pay cut to those who can
expect 10% rise on switching jobs. Even the dot com crash did little
to dent their security as it was relatively short lived and many
received redundancy packages far in excess of the statutory minimum.
It is also a sector in which the dream of getting rich quick and thus
escaping work altogether is particularly widespread. Within the
workplace, these are difficult to mobilise. However there are aspects
of their working conditions which cause tensions. In terms of time,
here the issue is an increased vulnerability to long working hours
and the ending of the separation between work time and non-work time
(for example being on call, that is carrying a mobile phone during
non-work hours and being forced to return to the workplace is the
need arises).(12)

A more central time issue, which affects both the settler and the
nomad, may be the erosion of 'free time' caused by long commuting
hours as people are forced to move further and further in search of
affordable housing and the government's prioritising of private
transport over public transport.

Whether it be in a computer company or in a supermarket, people
co-operate, communicate and work together to create an enormous range
of services and goods, the services and goods that fundamentally
alter our lives. In a very real sense, the world is of our making.
Though most of us are in one way or another part of this enormous
collaborative effort, we do not have ownership of our workplaces, we
do not have control over what we do. Despite the cooperation that
occurs daily, an increasing sense of isolation seems to be the
hallmark of contemporary society. This is a contradiction that
creates enormous barriers to those of us who are trying to change
society, contradictions that we have to find some way to overcome.
However there is no point in adopting a one strategy suits all
approach, no point in prioritising one field of struggle above all;
instead we need to struggle both in the workplace and between
workplaces, in our unions and between our unions.

Workplace struggle is often seen in a narrow sense as struggle
that occurs only within the walls of the factory, shop or office. Yet
if we look at the early trade union movement we see examples of
workplace organisation been conducted hand in hand with organising
outside the workplace. For example, a number of years ago I conducted
a piece of research on Irish dockworkers.

As part of this research I came across magazine known as The
Waterfront, which was produced by one of the dockers' unions in the
1960s. Its by-line proclaimed, that this was 'the paper for the port,
produced for the workers, by the workers'. Not only did it seek to
present the port workers' side of the story; but they also employed
three doctors, introduced a sick and medical pay scheme for all port
workers, men and women, Christmas savings schemes and children's
scholarship schemes. They arranged socials and cultural events
(interestingly this was a Catholic union, so these events often
centred around the church - a tactic we aren't likely to copy). Many
of the articles were aimed at creating the type of solidaritistic
identity that we now take for granted. Here was a trade union that
managed to organise one of the most insecure workforces, and did so
by engaging dockers on a number of different levels; on the docks, in
the communities and culturally.

As fragmentation of the workplace continues, we need to examine
again strategies such as these. We need to adopt a variety of
tactics, some will address the settler, some the displaced, some the
nomad, and we need to create networks that will link the struggles of
all. In the end the question we must answer is where can we win,
because few things are more powerful than victory.

Aileen O'Carroll


Brainworkers and Chainworkers in Ireland

Originally a box within the aticle above.

Chainworkers means the 'workers in malls, shopping centres,
hypermarkets, and in the myriad of jobs of logistics and selling in
the metropolis'. Brainworkers means the knowledge workers, the
programmers, the creatives and the freelancers. How do these
categories pan out in the Irish labour market?

In 1996, just over 3 million people were over the age of15. Of those just over 1.8 million or 58% were in the labour force (i.e. either working, looking for their first job or unemployed). A third of these workers lived in the greater Dublin area. Of those not considered part of the labour force, 34% were working in the home, 27% were students, 25% were retired, and 10% were not in the labour force due to illness of disability.

The big change in Ireland in the last 10 years had been the rapid increase in the number of women in paid employment. Female participation rates rose rapidly from 36.5% to 47.9% during the 1995-2000 period (The EU average in 2000 was 46.9%). Not surprisingly this has been mirrored by a drop in the numbers of women working in the home, from 661, 510 in 1986 to 417, 663 in 2002.

The largest category of workers are indeed the Chainworkers, the unskilled workers concentrated in manufacturing and the service sector (these accounted for almost a third of the Irish labour force). Those in personal services (the waitresses, the cleaners etc) experienced the highest growth rate of any occupation (their numbers grew by 49.7%).

However the second largest category are the blue collar workers found in manufacturing, construction and the drivers. These account for almost 20% of the Irish labour force. Finally the third largest group, are also in a more traditional form of employment, those employed in the public sector (13.5%). So a third of the Irish labour force are employed in the 'newer' service occupations, while a third are in more traditional fields.

How about the Brainworkers? These are a relatively small percentage of workers, representing 7.6% of the labour force. However they are also the category of workers that has experienced the second greatest rate of growth (their numbers grew by 35.6%).

These figures highlight that the numbers of displaced and nomads are growing, but also that a significant proportion of those working in Ireland, continue to be settlers. This has implications for the type of propaganda we produce and the struggles we are active in.


1. The only exception to the trend toward emigration was the
period after we joined the EU in the 1970s.

2. Crouch, C. (1999). Social Change in Western Europe. Oxford,
Oxford University Press

3. Stimpson, Alex (2004) Mobility in the eEconomy

4. Richard, Greg (2001) Mobility in the European tourism
sector The role of transparency and recognition of vocational
qualifications, Cedefop Panorama series, Luxembourg: Office for
Official Publications of the European Communities, 2001

5. By working class, I mean the majority who do not own the
means of production and therefore have the most to gain by the
destruction of capitalism. I'm not defining class in terms of
occupation or income level. As the discussion outlines, the
working class is not a particularly homogeneous or unified group.

6. Ireland ranked as the most globalised of 62 states due to
exports. Irish Times. Dublin. 8th of January

7. Social partnership refers to the arrangement whereby the
government, the business organisations and the trade-unions come
to centralised agreements on a range of industrial issues,
including wage increases. This means that that there is very
little trade union activity at the workplace level.

8. The defence of the unions right to negotiate in the retail
shop Dunnes Stores

9. Ryan Air, Nolans Transport, Pat the Baker.

10. While anyone has a legal right to join in Ireland, there
is no legal requirement on behalf of the employer to negotiate (ie
there is very weak legal support for the right to join a trade

11. For example, this occurred in the archaeology sector.

12. Though a significant proportion resist and working hours
in this sector are lower than those in the UK and US.

13. Data from the 1996 census as reported in Proinsias Breathnach (2002) 'Social Polarisation in the Post-Fordist Informational Economy: Ireland in International Context', Irish Journal of Sociology, Vol 11.1"