Abstract and Keywords
In today’s precaritized world, working people’s experiences strangely are becoming more alike even as their disparities increase. This puzzling situation characterizes workers’ intensified psycho-physical suffering, increasing atomization, growing geographical mobility, and mounting struggles with temporal compressions and discontinuities. Yet precarious workers are fighting back, as worldwide upsurges on the left demonstrate. Migrant day laborers’ experiences and reflections offer promising grounds for crafting a critical approach to precarity that addresses both its exceptional and its widely encompassing aspects. Day labor centers are expanding in numbers, tethering dislocated migrants to local communities, building multiscalar networks, innovating organizationally as unions decline, and repurposing temporal gaps in everyday work-life. In addition, day laborers’ lively intellectual culture of popular education suggests new ways to activate theoretically and politically sharpening contact between popular ideas and scholars’ critiques of precarity. This introduction sets the stage for such inquiry by describing the project’s fieldwork, analytical process, and political commitments.
THE MATURATION OF neoliberal capitalism has yielded a curious conundrum: even as the social circumstances of the world’s populations become ever more vastly dichotomous and unequal, in certain ways the fates of working people everywhere have become more densely interwoven. At one and the same time, working people’s experiences have come to resemble one another more closely and have acutely diverged.
The damage wrought by neoliberal transformations of working life has been exceedingly partial and sometimes narrowly targeted. The continually growing burdens of employment reductions, wage and benefit cuts, corporate restructuring, finance-driven accumulation, social welfare retrenchment, deunionization, and workforce casualization have fallen hardest on the least fortunate in terms of class, racial, gender, and national privilege. Social commentators and academic theorists often usefully gather the panoply of losses, stresses, and humiliations that stem from these social-systemic transformations under the conceptual rubric of “precarity.” These problems, ranging from daily punches in the gut to dwindling hope for long-term personal security, familial well-being, and social justice, have by no means been distributed equitably. Indeed, it is central to neoliberal logic that social disparities, and hence competitive and self-preservative motivations, should deepen and proliferate aggressively.
Yet precaritization also has projected tendrils and sent down roots within multiple class strata well above the bottom, among white as well as nonwhite people, in the lives of men and women alike, and in the United States just as in societies victimized by US empire in decline. If precarity names the special plight of the world’s most virulently oppressed human beings, it also denotes a near-universal complex of unfreedom. In critically attending to these strangely juxtaposed situations and drawing their political consequences, there is the potential to make things turn out differently. Precarity can have a politics, and that politics can espouse radical desires and imaginings.
(p.2) This book searches for portents of such radical hope in the words and practices of day laborers. These beleaguered and impoverished migrants inhabit social quarters quite remote from the spheres of labor that tend, for good reasons, to kindle the most excitement among critical theorists on the lookout for a constituency that could form the nucleus of a new workers’ mobilization. If, for instance, communicative value-generating processes define capitalism’s current formation, as Jodi Dean argues, then it makes sense to hinge expectations on the radicalization of knowledge workers.1 Insofar as digital innovations comprise the leading edge of capitalist expansion, “info-producers” who perform “cognitive labor” would seem the most fitting candidates for leadership in any new mustering of working-class political spirit.2 Others reason that given capital’s growing reliance on logistics to ensure optimally timed transfers of material commodities and technical information between globally networked ports, warehouses, and retail outlets, attractive opportunities exist for strategic intervention in logistically structured “domains of struggle.”3
Developing anticapitalist theory and molding practices for constructing alternative social forms certainly require investigating workers’ political potentialities in these tactically advantageous domains. Nevertheless, a different perspective on dominant social tendencies must also be sought by engaging the reflections and experiences of people cast to the banks by capitalism’s rushing currents of innovation. As Walter Benjamin advised, it is often amid ruins strewn across revealingly disordered landscapes by societies bent on progress that theorists can discern the telltale marks of domination and the stirrings of hope.4 Without such illuminating signs, critique and resistance in the face of power will lack not only a genuinely universal scope but also critical bite. In other words, the warrant for paying sustained attention to the thoughts, acts, and communities of the hypermarginalized goes beyond simply taking stock of tactical assets that particular groups could lend to others’ mobilizations. The rationale is also more than a matter of principled respect for the dignity of the most woefully downtrodden individuals. Lingering sympathetically and critically with those mired most deeply in society’s ruts is also necessary because general social phenomena invariably look different from the vantage points such tarrying makes possible, as this book demonstrates. With surprise, at times with shock, we come to know otherwise the warp and texture of the social world that vastly inclusive systems—of labor, work’s ethics, public spaces, or social temporalities—generate for all classes and cultures of workers when we try out the viewpoints of day laborers and others at the extreme margins.
This book provides a new and politically redolent critique of contemporary precarity through intellectual collaboration with migrant day laborers. Of course, others before me have elaborated, derided, and wrestled with the concept (p.3) of precarity. Rather than catalog such prior interventions, I begin this account by offering a series of general theses or propositions regarding precarity today. This preliminary exercise unfolds various ways in which precaritization at once singles out specific groups of people for uncommonly deplorable treatment and makes work-related experiences isomorphic for populations throughout class, racial, and gender hierarchies. These theses also provide opportune moments to acknowledge preceding accounts of precarity’s qualities, antecedents, and effects. In addition, exploring these propositions about precarity furnishes an avenue for introducing day laborers’ circumstances, considering why their idioms of work-life and organizational struggle merit special attention, and offering some initial meditations, in a heuristic and exploratory spirit, on several key concepts that later chapters address systematically, following day laborers’ leads: time, movement, isolation, suffering, and collective struggle.
Thesis 1: Precarious Workers Are Suffering
There is a diffuse awareness today that people who work in the most benighted occupations suffer grave threats to their lives, bodily integrity, and emotional stability as a result of their jobs. Regular albeit discontinuous news stories about industrial disasters in the global South offer familiar touchstones for this phenomenon. Emblematic of such reports was the brief coverage of a dilapidated garment factory’s collapse near Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013. The building’s cave-in killed over one thousand workers and drew scrutiny of their dismal wages, which were at planetary lows.5 As is customary with media cycles, the public gaze soon shifted to other matters but then returned abruptly to Dhaka when further reports emerged about a spate of factory fires in the same region.6 Neither Walmart’s sanctimonious promises to embrace new safety standards in the plants supplying its megastores, nor Disney’s holier-than-thou severing of ties with Bangladeshi producers, seemed to have altered daily realities for Dhaka textile workers. Such news stories resonate with periodic reports about intolerable working conditions elsewhere—women clothing workers in Cambodia who faint by the dozens due to extreme heat and overwork;7 Foxconn iPhone assemblers in China who see no exit from infernal laboring conditions apart from suicide;8 Latin American migrant meatpacking, dairy, and farm workers in the United States exposed to constant injury, wage theft, and poisoning on the job.9 Cumulatively, such reports foster an ongoing, low-grade perception that employers across the world are treating workers disgracefully and that these problems are inevitable. Intervallic evocations of shock enable an overall schema of normalization.
The odious suffering of precaritized workers thus has become a matter of public consciousness that is, itself, distinctly precarious. Both formations of (p.4) precarity feature a similar temporal tension. On the one hand, the mainstream media supply routine reminders of low-wage workers’ abysmal employment conditions; there is a continuity and predictability to the stories’ publication, just as the grinding abusiveness of workers’ job-situations remains a constant. On the other hand, precarity is made to seem a matter of astonishing events, such as a long-serviceable building suddenly collapsing or a conflagration bursting out unexpectedly. A “breaking” story about workers dying en masse qualifies as “news” because it is supposedly about something extraordinary, just as the report itself is intense but fleeting. In short, the suffering endured by precarious workers involves not only hazards of life and limb but also the social death associated with the commodification of their circumstances: the mortifying effects of temporalized media rituals that stave off serious engagement with workers’ experiences by making them objects of public consumption.
But who exactly qualifies as a precarious worker consigned to a suffering existence? The better question might be: who does not belong to the vast population of the precaritized? As Lauren Berlant argues, precaritization inflicts suffering on not only the indigent and racially abjected but also much wider swaths of the working population, although it reserves its greatest wrath for the former groups. Berlant underscores that what matters is not just the depth of suffering but also its affective structure: the ways certain emotional, relational, and corporeal habits become ingrained and reinforce one another under specific sociohistorical conditions. She sees a particular affective syndrome as characteristic of precaritized work-life, in which people’s fantasy-filled struggles to thrive or just survive economically ironically diminish their capacities to do either of these things. She calls this predicament “cruel optimism,” and she contends that it applies “across class, gender, race, and nation: no longer is precarity delegated to the poor or the sans-papiers.”10
Another news genre illustrates how precaritization in this form—protracted self-debilitation through work that registers in anxious psyches, overtaxed senses, constricted hopes, and worn-down bodies—radiates throughout the economy. In the early twenty-first century, reports abound about emerging technologies and management-techniques that are making work environments hostile and displacing masses of working people from their jobs, even as they promise to tailor work to individuals’ dreams and desires. One exposé probes Amazon’s “Darwinist” white-collar work culture, where employees’ mutual ratings through social networking combine with intensive job-performance data-collection to foster a cutthroat and mercilessly stressful milieu.11 Uber, we read elsewhere, adapts algorithmically contrived stimuli from video games to induce drivers to extend their hours beyond the point of exhaustion.12 Airbnb relegates most who try to earn a living through the online rental economy to a perpetual gauntlet of (p.5) temporary gigs and ultimately magnifies affluent people’s advantages rather than redistributing wealth downward, as the company’s celebrants claim.13 Popular apprehensions mount as a torrent of reports project the termination of whole categories of employment, from the most stingily paid supermarket checkers to lawyers and financial advisers, due to accelerating innovations in artificial intelligence.14 Precarity thus stamps its imprint on declining mental and physical health prognoses for working people in virtually all industries. It augments this misery, furthermore, through the peculiar malice of encouraging fantasy in the pose of resignation to these cruel circumstances of self-incapacitation as less bad than completely going under.15 Only superficially disputing such resignation, in turn, is the compensatory fantasy suggested by the news media that major institutions are always ready to respond to breakdowns in the “normal” social order, not least (although perhaps at most) when the media themselves break stories about new crises of precarity.
In sum, precarity is written on the bodies and inscribed in the psyches of suffering workers the world over. Precarity means injury, illness, sudden death, and foreshortened life, including attenuated life from the constant and growing anxiety about when the next lethal threat will target the worker’s already pummeled body, heart, and mind. Precarity portends these maladies especially for nonwhite people, women, low-status workers, and residents of countries outside neoimperial America. Yet precaritization as suffering extends to many more privileged populations through structurally encompassing dynamics. The dominant venues of public communication intrepidly hide both these inclusionary features and the narrowly concentrated forms of working people’s misery precisely through granting them publicity. Public discourses enlist time and temporality as field generals in the ongoing campaign to reassure us that the problems we see all the time are mere aberrations, thereby compounding the suffering of precarious workers.
Thesis 2: Precarious Workers Are out of Time
Precaritization not only advances through time-calibrated rubrics for translating workers’ suffering into public discourse—it also arises through workers’ day-to-day experiences with distinctive temporalities of action and affect. The analysis of social time-patterns has been central to the critique of capital since Marx famously dissected the working day and proclaimed its strategic manipulation as the secret of capital’s genesis. From today’s perspective, Marx’s intervention appears less a solution to capital’s riddle than a provocative starting point for contemplating the ever more widely proliferating and variegated forms of capitalist domination rooted in temporal flows and formations. Critiques of post-Fordism and (p.6) postmodernity by André Gorz and David Harvey, respectively, highlight some particularly crucial transformations in work-related time since the mid-twentieth century.
For Gorz, unprecedented temporal “discontinuity” results from the ascendance of “economic reason” through post-Fordism’s advance, especially as firms boost profits by replacing permanent full-time jobs with temporary and part-time employment arrangements.16 Work time becomes disjointed in an everyday sense, as workers constantly shift gears between multiple jobs that they perform for shorter durations during the same day or night. Furthermore, argues Gorz, short-term and independently contracted employment breaks up people’s work time trajectory over a personal life-span.17 Workers who experience such fragmentation are thrust “out of time” in at least three related senses. First, they lack time to do much else apart from working or going to and from whatever jobs they have at the moment. Second, workers must perpetually carve out time in the midst of their present work-lives to find and prepare for the next job they will need when the one at hand expires, even as the concentrated effort any given work-activity requires is becoming more and more taxing; this not only aggravates time’s diminution in quantity as a disposable resource but also spells the overburdening of time in everyday life with an excess of activity. Third, because modern mythologies that ground social belonging and political citizenship in stable full-time employment remain hegemonic, people whose work-lives fail to correspond to these ideals end up feeling, and being viewed as, out of sync with “normal” society.18 These modes of social-temporal dysfunction disproportionately implicate women, who continue to shoulder the bulk of domestic care responsibilities and hence must squeeze another entire category of work into these multiply constrained circumstances.19
Precaritized workers also are “out of time” inasmuch as their jobs block them from consciously and collectively intervening in capitalism’s globally distributed and historical temporalities. In part, the problem is that workers are caught in the prevailing social condition of time’s condensation into a present with neither forward- nor backward-looking trajectories, which Harvey describes as follows:
Accelerations in turnover times in production, exchange and consumption . . . produce, as it were, the loss of a sense of the future except and insofar as the future can be discounted into the present. Volatility and ephemerality similarly make it hard to maintain any firm sense of continuity. Past experience gets compressed into some overwhelming present.20
As subjection to such temporal compression, precarity signifies imprisonment within a self-contradictory formation of time that is both homogenized as a (p.7) relentless presentism and replete with fragmentation and flux. For Harvey, these temporal constraints also correspond to a form of spatial confinement: even as globalizing capital surmounts obstacles of time and space, “the incentive for places to be differentiated in ways attractive to capital” grows.21 As a result, working people are increasingly subordinated to locally specific regimes of labor control. People’s temporalities of work therefore become disconnected across varying geographical regions, even though their labors aggrandize an ever-slimmer set of corporations, whose activities increasingly conform to a uniform worldwide beat. Immersed within divergent and place-specific temporal rubrics of labor, and even though they are capital in the classic sense theorized by Marx, precaritized workers nonetheless occupy practical conditions of everyday life that systematically impede their apperception of capital’s structural and historical dynamics.
Considering the multiple ways that precarious workers are out of time suggests further aspects of precaritization’s dual structure as both aimed at certain exceptional groups and pervading the general population. Even working people fortunate enough to hold full-time, long-term jobs increasingly face management techniques, ideological inducements, and technical interventions that intensify the productivity for capital of each moment of their day. As Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Kathi Weeks, and Christian Marazzi each show in different ways, the activity of work has saturated people’s everyday lives in several key respects. Technological devices such as smartphones now make it possible for any tiny stretch of time in any part of one’s day to yield bits of surplus-value-enhancing work.22 Meanwhile, an ever-more insistent “postindustrial work ethic” bids us to use every opportunity to “grow” our individual value as “human resources,” in a world where firms’ stepped-up reliance on “immaterial” and “affective” labor makes any human activity or encounter potentially convertible into economic value.23 This reconstituted work ethic gains irresistible force, moreover, from exhorting us not only to do our jobs dutifully but also to love our work and to seek ultimate fulfillment from working24—so, why would we not want work all the time? Yet we also end up working incessantly even when we think we are relaxing or just having fun. Businesses coax consumers to provide surplus-value-producing labor routinely and for free, such as through social network-based product or service evaluations that spread information—that is, advertising—about companies’ offerings.25
These social patterns of desire and behavior comprise general forms of precaritization insofar as they make people throughout society feel that, and act as if, they are never working hard enough, no matter how hard they try. To be sure, some groups experience this predicament with more material urgency than others, just as some grapple disproportionately with post-Fordist time’s rampant discontinuities and postmodern time’s self-contradictory compressions. Yet (p.8) Cameroonian day laborers who wait on edge for highly uncertain, dismally paid, and micro-term construction jobs at Casa de Maryland’s Silver Spring worker center, decompressing now and then by going on Facebook, render services to capital not unlike those of white millennial techsters clustered at northern Virginia start-ups, regardless of whether the latter are permanent staff or independent contractors. Throughout the employment hierarchy, working people are running out of time and living out of time, notwithstanding the greater abilities of some to approximate standards to which all aspire. Likewise, the suffering produced by this temporal drain and arrhythmia imposes itself on the working population at large through generalized syndromes of anxiety and depression even as it expands most alarmingly among migrant workers and others at society’s distant margins.
Thesis 3: Precarious Workers Are on Their Own
Capitalism has long been indicted for creating a world where people live in atomized, hostile dissociation from one another. Yet critics of capitalism also have traced dialectical switchbacks by which capitalism’s need for temporarily stable worker-collectivities counteracts its own fostering of anonymous individualism. For instance, Marx and Engels envisage modern factory floors as sites where industrial workers can recognize their world-making power as a class; Gramsci ruminates on prospects for forging counterhegemonic projects among culturally distinctive and geographically localized constituencies that economic-structural developments endow with special historical consequence; Harvey underscores capital’s inevitable dependence on relatively fixed spatializations of production, markets, and legitimation regimes. The historical formation of human collectivities catalyzed by capital’s relentless pursuit of self-expansion, at least at times, has thus provoked a series of unintended opportunities for convening anticapitalist associations.
Precarity in our time immeasurably deepens workers’ individual segregation from one another while ruthlessly eliminating possible loci for forming communities of any sort, let alone solidarities of resistance. Capital’s centripetal effects with respect to human interrelationality have metastasized as temporal disjunctions and desynchronizations have proliferated. Lacking a contiguous space-time of work, contingently, multiply, and sporadically employed workers no longer have even the ambivalent basis for cultivating subversive associations that regular jobs once offered. Gone are the ballasts such interpersonal and political relations once could find within a fairly consistent set of colleagues, a familiar institutional culture, and a steady organization of work featuring stable procedural “games” one could learn to play skillfully over time.26
(p.9) The consequences of these developments, once more, are felt most acutely by those in the worst jobs. Thus, migrant meatpacking workers endure bitter isolation in the midst of densely populated but insanely sped-up cattle disassembly operations, in which perpetual panic and sense-numbing noise foil any attempt to speak to coworkers. Rapid employee turnover, as mega meat companies churn through the “disposable” migrant workforce, further undercuts efforts to kindle solidarity, or even just sustained acquaintances, among workers.27 Meanwhile, household domestic workers’ ranks swell as neoliberalizing states offload social-reproductive responsibilities onto women and as companies’ wage and benefit cuts induce women to take on more wage-earning activities for longer hours. On the job, women who do domestic work find themselves marooned and alone in the intimate spaces of their “despotic” employers’ homes, sometimes lacking even an informal network of fellow workers with whom to commiserate over routine abuses and humiliations.28 Migration as such also freights those who relocate continents away from those they love with weighty burdens of loneliness and loss, while the ever-present fear of capture by immigration officials terrorizes the unauthorized into avoiding social contact and seeking solitary refuge in what Mexican migrants to the United States call la vida encerrada (living shut in or encaged).29
Nevertheless, the atomizing instrumentalities of precaritization operate at all levels of the class, racial, and gender hierarchies, and for lawful citizens and the unauthorized alike, if not in equivalent manners or proportions. Dean’s emphasis on knowledge workers’ decisive implication in communicative capitalism as a class notwithstanding, the mechanisms of expropriation she describes apply throughout contemporary society. Insofar as the population at large eagerly performs the “searching, commenting, and participating” online that companies convert “into raw material for capital” in the form of “Big Data,”30 people everywhere, at every rung of the social ladder, are working for communicative capital. Correspondingly, all of us undergo precaritization through this ubiquitously extractive process in the sense of being left on our own. Dean characterizes the social milieu spawned by newly dominant profit-making strategies as “a setting of communication without communicability” in which “the content of our utterances” loses importance in direct proportion to the capital gains achieved through our words’ quantification.31 As this general “decline in a capacity to transmit meaning” gathers pace,32 isolation spreads in the form of a pervasive disability to have meaningful, language-mediated interactions with anyone outside our own heads.33
Consigned to a form of la vida encerrada, albeit likely without the physical abuse and everyday terror that shape many migrant workers’ existences, mass populations dispossessed and atomized through the communicative “enclosure” movement also know they are on their own in the struggle not just to survive but, more specifically, to prove their own worthiness to survive. Such (p.10) “responsibilization” furnishes key contours of the dissociative individualization that is precaritizing all reaches of society. Wendy Brown succinctly defines neoliberal responsibilization as an array of techniques aimed at “forcing the subject to become a responsible self-investor and self-provider.”34 Enthusiastically devoted participation in protocols of outcomes-maximizing “governance” supposedly ensures not just the individual’s sustenance but also that person’s perpetual increase in value as “human capital.” This, in turn, promotes value’s nonstop growth in society at large in a way that relieves leading institutions of accountability for the vast risks their ventures precipitate.35 Similarly, Maurizio Lazzarato sees the hallmark neoliberal figure of the “indebted man” as emerging through disciplinary practices that induce individuals always to strive to appear deserving of credit through conscientious labor and ceaseless self-valorization. The cancerous growth of hyperindividualized and monetized conscience tracks the degree to which such diligent “work on the self” also becomes “an injunction to take upon oneself the costs and risks of the economic and financial disaster.”36 Of course, migrants face more daunting and distinct pressures to prove themselves trustworthy and hard-working, and to “pay their debt” to society for violating border laws, even as their personal liabilities balloon with the ever-increasing costs of coyotes’ smuggling services. Still, in important ways, the trope of the self-reliant and industrious immigrant, on which migrant advocates reflexively lean and which most migrants strive to emulate, expresses but one permutation among others of the broader phenomenon of responsibilization.
In sum, precaritized workers are hoisting heavier, more isolating, and more densely moralized burdens of economic self-sufficiency, as firms cut wages and casualize jobs, states slash social programs and retract union rights, and debtors’ obligations mount while capital’s financialization expands. As their private encumbrances become more unwieldy, workers also feel the weight of the world pressing down on them as never before. Ever more segregated and alienated from others by work processes—whether in manufacturing or services, as paid employees or unconscious drones in the communicariat, and for legal residents and national citizens just as for unauthorized migrants, although more intensively for the latter—precarious workers are on their own as they face the moral injunctions decreed by the responsibilizing culture.
Thesis 4: Precarious Workers Are on the Move
The precaritization of work-life is tightly intertwined with the growing geographical mobility of people across the globe. In absolute numbers, as of 2015, more people were migrants than at any other time in the history of migration record-keeping—over one billion people in total, including 244 million international (p.11) migrants.37 Although migrants have comprised about the same proportion of the world’s population over the past few decades, this figure has more recently crept upward, from 2.8 percent in 2000 to 3.3 percent in 2015.38 International Labor Organization (ILO) data show that migrant workers comprise “about two-thirds of the total international migrant stock” and that migrants “have higher labour force participation than non-migrants, particularly due to higher labour force participation rates for migrant women relative to non-migrant women.”39 In North America and the Arab states, migrant workers make up particularly high proportions of the total working populations.40
It would be inaccurate to say that work’s precaritization is causing migration to increase, pure and simple. Violent conflicts have recently displaced record numbers of people from their communities of origin, in particular from Syria. People fleeing war and destruction in Syria generated a 55 percent increase in the worldwide number of refugees between 2011 and 2015.41 Once people are on the move, violent clashes in destination locations aggravate migrants’ hardships and propel further efforts to find refuge elsewhere, as has happened with Somalian and Ethiopian refugees in Yemen.42 In addition, to say that work is becoming precaritized implies a previous situation in which work was more stable, better remunerated, and more capable of securing normative identities associated with the work society. Although such conditions and expectations have hardly been limited to advanced capitalist countries in North America, Europe, and Australasia, they have been far more deeply embedded in these societies than in developing countries of the global South.
Yet the standard distinction between economic migrants and refugees, and hence the sorting of migrants into laboring subjects and victims of violence, needs to be critically interrogated, for at least two reasons. First, war distributes its effects in dramatically unequal and class-specific ways. Second, refugees and “asylum seekers” work for self-supporting income more commonly than many people assume. They also usually work for little monetary reward, under hazardous circumstances, and in informal arrangements, just as do most “economic migrants.” In Jordan, for instance, over 40 percent of the massive and growing population of working Syrian refugees in 2014 labored in construction, which is rife with job-related injuries and illnesses the world over.43 Among Syrian refugees in Jordan who were working for pay, a full 99 percent worked in informal occupations and most worked longer hours than Jordanian citizens.44 Syrian refugee workers also netted significantly less money than native Jordanians, with most camp residents earning below the statutory minimum wage for non-Jordanians, which in turn was roughly 30 percent lower than the rate for Jordan’s citizens.45
Precarious work also does impel people to uproot and relocate themselves for multiple reasons and with mounting frequencies. The temporal discontinuities (p.12) and compressions analyzed by Gorz and Harvey have spatial correlates. Tenuous ties to any given job, whether in terms of inconsistent hours, limited hours per week, or brief contract durations, weaken people’s desires to stay in one place rather than moving elsewhere to seek work. The condensation and presentism of temporal experience propelled by accelerating capital turnover erodes people’s abilities even to imagine enduring bonds with particular places. Such temporal speed-up also imparts a quicksand-like quality to the ground underlying strategically devised place-specific economies because the progression from initial success to capital’s overaccumulation, crisis, and exit becomes that much swifter—and when that happens, people leave, too. In turn, capital benefits handsomely from and thus promotes mobile workforces of precaritized migrants. Not only have major business sectors such as meatpacking and other agricultural industries come to rely structurally on migrant workers; in addition, the inflation of global migration rates has fueled the growth of an entire “migration industry” (with its own precaritized workforce) that profits from facilitating, interdicting, incarcerating, or deporting workers on the move.46
Strangely, precarious workers’ ever more hectic and frequent movements to other locations are often accompanied by obdurate forms of stasis. Berlant suggests that precaritization in this sense creates yet another affinity between the degraded conditions of the most oppressed and the problems of more privileged social constituencies. Recent films about unauthorized migrant workers and those who take advantage of them illustrate this paradoxical coinciding of movement and immobility: they depict “the constant movement of people and things through national boundaries, temporary homes, small and big business, and above all an informal economy,” yet no one gets anywhere in the sense of upward mobility.47 The immobility that oddly twins with precarious workers’ wanderings can also be a bodily attribute. It is discernable, for instance, in the sedentary habits encouraged among those who lack the wealth to avoid standing in line, whose jobs prevent them from walking around at will, and whose haphazard work schedules make the idea of regular exercise regimens laughable. In certain ways, as Judy Wacjman acerbically notes, “Speed for the few is contingent on others remaining stationary.”48 More precisely, all but the 1 percent face the spatial conundrum of precarity that melds stubborn fixity with perpetual motion, although the intensity of this conflict varies for different groups of precarious workers.
Thesis 5: Precarious Workers Are Fighting Back
Assaulted frontally and on every flank by forces that wreak so much suffering and cause such extensive isolation in precarity’s time-spaces, precarious workers often battle tendencies toward acquiescent fatalism and respond to the powers (p.13) that assail them with courage and inventiveness. Precaritized workers’ political counterthrusts have taken many different forms and yielded ambiguous results. Following the world financial crisis of 2008, Greece became a focal point for those seeking signs that precarious workers could mobilize to contest both national and international neoliberal regimes. Activists initiated radical-democratic circles of protest and deliberation in Syntagma Square in Athens that thousands attended. Those who gathered repudiated European austerity demands, launched militant demands for social policies to counteract precaritization, and audaciously asserted the constituent power of ordinary people just a few meters outside the walls of parliament. Migrants contributed in energetic and gutsy ways to this Greek activist culture. For Andreas Kalyvas, the 2008 “insurrection” witnessed “a real rupture: a new subject appearing into the public realm, the rebellious immigrant, politicized and public, claiming a political life.”49 Embracing both deliberative and confrontational modes of action, and refusing to confine themselves “to the civil and private spheres of social life and economic production,” immigrants numbered among the hundreds arrested for causing civil disorder and joined in debates about defining the rationale for the uprising.50
More ambivalent assessments have greeted the institutionalization of Greek popular-democratic energies through the SYRIZA electoral coalition, as with similar attempts to create more formal vehicles for radical upsurges in other countries. Initially celebrated worldwide as the first genuine repulse of neoliberalism’s advance in Europe, SYRIZA’s 2015 victory was soon followed by disillusionment as leaders’ actions belied their denunciations of international creditors’ austerity demands. Analysts of Spain’s leftist Podemos party have similarly criticized its detachment from the most radically democratic currents in the Indignados popular movement.51 Events in other regions have been even less encouraging, as popular-democratic revolts in Turkey and the Middle East have met with brutal repression. Already by the time of SYRIZA’s watershed moment in Greece, the Arab Spring seemed a very long time ago, as did the previous gains of the neo-Bolivarian left in Latin America.
Disaffection and disappointment with momentous struggles to reignite a powerful and spirited left politics thus abound at this book’s writing, although these sentiments are also alloyed with a growing, albeit at times desperate, sense of expectation that the world stage is being set for left resurgence. On the one hand, the deflation following the dissolution of Occupy and other radically democratic and anticapitalist thrusts to reappropriate public spaces has more recently been mixed with dread upon witnessing the racist Right’s expansion, as indicated by Brexit in the United Kingdom, Trumpism in the United States, and nativist parties’ advances throughout Europe. In this sense, the kernels of a left politics of precarity that had seemed to sprout shortly after the start of the new millennium, including (p.14) the EuroMayDay movement and various other protests in France staged in the name of la precariat,52 seem to have produced shoots either stunted by opportunistic compromise or bent toward the sickly phosphorescence of the new fascism. On the other hand, socialism has gained renewed currency in the United States in the wake of the Sanders presidential campaign, especially among millennials, while a formidable new sanctuary movement has networked progressive urban leaders with migrant justice organizations to challenge Trumpist nativism. Brexit may have passed, but Labour in Britain then tacked left, elevating Jeremy Corbyn to party leader. In Europe, some newly emerging left parties have treated antimigrant parties’ alarmingly swelling numbers in parliaments as opportunities to forge new constituencies from the detritus of social-democratic and green coalitions. Across the globe, people are increasingly defining action in response to climate change as a matter of taking stands against capital and welding the environment’s defense to the mobilization of displaced and exploited workers. Both climate-oriented political activism and counterorganizing against antimigrant hate also face the imperative of responding to the distinctive phenomenon by which precaritization for the world’s general population twins with exceptionally lethal forms of precarity for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
The political ferment among precarious workers, especially migrants, thus argues against any simplistically disconsolate narrative that would see recent left insurgencies as culminating merely in repression, sellout, and right-wing counterorganization. Taken together with the first four theses, the tenuous yet proliferating materialization of precarious workers’ political struggles then prompts a basic and urgent question: how can working people craft a politics of precarity that addresses both acutely marginalized groups’ uncommon predicaments and social syndromes that enwrap mass constituencies? Proponents of such a politics face the core challenge, in other words, of configuring an autonomously collective force that is at once formidable and elastic and that stays bifocally attentive to the ubiquitous and the exceptional. We need a politics that merges universalist ambitions to change history, which are indispensable to structural change, with responsiveness to group differences that matter because minimizing them means leaving some people out whose contributions are essential and whose demands for freedom are nonnegotiable.
Other pressing questions follow from the prefatory meditations on precarity in the prior sections: How might a politics of the precaritized give workers’ suffering its due without valorizing it in ways that make it seem acceptable or even laudable? How, in addition, might a politics of precarity forge collaborations among workers who suffer in very different ways and with varying intensities, even while sharing certain politically significant miseries? How might organizers among the precaritized nurture the relational attachments crucial to any political (p.15) cause even while precarity relentlessly isolates and displaces individuals? With legions of precarious workers on the move and with capital itself ever a moving target (yet always seeking provisional points of fixity), how can workers develop alternatives to capitalist spatial logics? As spatial flux mounts among precaritized workers, how might antiprecaritization efforts splice together place-making elements with other components that tap the transformative energies of migratory mobility? In turn, if anticapitalist struggle has quite frequently been in some sense a fight for time, then how should this fight be updated and retooled today? How might precarious workers’ organizations invent more self-conscious, more affectively dynamic, and more politically galvanizing strategies for grappling with the temporal dimensions of precarity?
Finally, what organizational forms can best equip working people to strike back against precaritization in all its multiple and varied guises, and what substantive priorities should those organizations adopt? This issue increasingly absorbs the attention of political theorists, who have offered widely divergent proposals in response, of which the following are illustrative examples. Jodi Dean advocates refocusing on the mass party as “a basic form of political struggle” that operates affectively, psychologically, and across “different organizational terrains” to build and unleash the “collective power” of “the people.”53 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri warn against reinvesting hopes in “a vanguardist revolutionary party” but affirm the need to reflect critically on organizational implications of the radical “critique of leadership” in recent liberation movements, such as Zapatismo in Mexico and Black Lives Matter in the United States; they call for the creation of “institutions without centralization” and “organizations without hierarchy.”54 In contrast to Hardt and Negri’s embrace of “nonsovereign” organizational forms, Ali Aslam sees transformative promise in social movements’ “micro-practices” for “democratizing sovereignty” and rejuvenating popular hopes for attaining political freedom through the state.55 He concentrates on social movements inspired by the Tahrir Square protests, analyzing their affectively stimulating efforts “to cultivate responsiveness and vitality among citizens habituated to low-intensity citizenship” and accustomed to satisfying “their desires for agency in their identities as consumers.”56 Romand Coles shares Aslam’s regard for the transformative effects of microaffective energetics. Rather than focusing on movements, however, Coles highlights even more localized efforts to forge “a radically democratic habitus,” in part through organizational forms and tactics that co-opt the neoliberal “politics of co-optation” such as action research programs at public universities.57 Thus, there is no shortage of difficult questions about the social scale, structural attributes, internal power-distribution, core practices, and relation to neoliberal culture of organizations we might envision to advance a politics of precarity.58
Day laborers’ activities and commentaries make up the focus of this book, and these workers have much to say regarding the questions just posed. Faced with endemic suffering that comes from poverty, insufficient work, and the hardships of migration; often alone as they wait to get hired or work exceedingly brief jobs with no steady location or consistent coworkers; awkwardly positioned in urban spaces that expose them to daily harassment and intimidation; desperately out of time, in all the ways I have described—day laborers also have grounded robust forms of common life and political solidarity in the muck of their suffering and loneliness, forged innovative and atypical political spaces within cityscapes on digital capitalism’s cutting edge, and converted the scattershot-yet-continuous drumbeats of precaritized time into opportunities for developing new organizational forms for autonomously collective action. Those who seek answers to the questions about precarity formulated in this introduction should consider taking a sojourn among day laborers and listening to how they think about time, space, suffering, community, politics, and work.
A sojourn: a detour from what might seem like more urgently needed inquiries with workers central to the digital and logistical economies; an extravagant expenditure of time in an era when none of us has time to spare; a tarrying with the temporary, at which the word’s etymology hints (with the antecedent Latin subdiurnare59 and Old French surjurn,60 words related to Latino day laborers’ self-designation, jornaleros); an irresponsible digression from work, shirking the social-scientific labor of dutifully scrutinizing policies, institutions, and populations more obviously decisive for the shape of the polity; a search for contemplative repose and reinvigoration through transitory relocation elsewhere. It is perhaps the most heartrending, and heartening, contradiction in the lives of day laborers that even as they express with poetry and grim precision what it means to face necessity’s relentless pull and the obligation to work without rest, they are creating social spheres where work is not all, where there is time for freedom, and where the people’s precarity catalyzes the precaritization of capital’s rule.
I was initially drawn to learn more about day laborers while finishing an earlier research project about migrant workers employed at a large meatpacking plant owned by Tyson Foods.61 A corporate titan whose beef, chicken, and pork products dominate world markets, Tyson operated a cattle slaughterhouse and beef-processing plant near my home in eastern Washington State that generated job-related injuries and illnesses with astonishing frequency. The broader factory culture was rife with unfair, degrading, and illegal labor practices. Banding together at first quietly but then with growing boldness and numbers, immigrant (p.17) workers at this plant ultimately staged the largest wildcat (i.e., unauthorized) strike in decades, took control of their local union (Teamsters Local 556), democratized its internal operations, and launched challenges against Tyson on multiple fronts. Interviewing the Tyson workers gave me a gruesome familiarity with the mechanisms that systematically expose migrant meatpackers’ bodies to disfigurement, pain, and death. I also learned that for migrant workers, bodily endangerment and its psychological comorbidities are hardly confined to meatpacking—they permeate all reaches of the low-wage migrant laboring world. Particularly energetic efforts to tackle job health and safety problems, I then found, were underway among day laborers, who were studying occupational safety and health (OSH) problems and developing training activities through the nontraditional labor organizations they called worker centers, while also calling badly needed attention to a wide range of other deplorable working conditions in many areas of the low-wage labor economy.62
Worker centers, I soon realized, were quirky places that fomented power among day laborers in ways both similar to and different from the processes of solidarity-building I had witnessed among Tyson workers in their Teamsters local union. Above all, I noticed a puzzling contrast between the significant political influence worker centers seemed to exert and the dolorous poverty, acute marginalization, and personal crisis-states of most members. The Local 556 unionists had been fully employed individuals with stable homes and families, notwithstanding the personal agony and turmoil that resulted from the injury mill at the plant, and they were also mainly legalized migrants. Day laborers at Seattle’s Casa Latina and Portland’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Labor Center (MLK Center), the two worker centers where I began new research, were in much more dire straits. About half the workers were homeless; virtually all were legally unauthorized; many were “food insecure,” as the delicate euphemism puts it; many struggled with substance abuse; their family and personal lives were often a wreck, or at least under severe duress; almost all were men who had migrated from Latin America, and the minority who were trying to support families abroad or in the United States seemed unable to do so consistently; they moved locations constantly, although at irregular intervals, largely because they lacked stable jobs. More than a few day laborers told me they had relocated temporarily to the Midwest to work in meatpacking but then left due to injuries, pain, or stress from those jobs. Skeptically, I wondered: if, unlike the stalwarts who doggedly waged Local 556’s decade-long fight despite the brutality of their jobs and the company’s vicious attacks, these workers had quit and moved on, then what were the chances day laborers could contribute much insight about contesting neoliberal capitalism? How, indeed, could anyone in circumstances so thoroughly precarious be expected to develop an activist will, a critical consciousness, and a commitment to common struggle?
(p.18) Casa Latina and the Voz Workers’ Rights and Education Project (Voz), the MLK Center’s parent organization, held precious assets Local 556 lacked, however. The worker centers were gradually and methodically sending down roots in their urban communities, which was ironic because their very physical structures were visible testaments to day laborers’ wobbly and transient existence. In 2008–10, when I conducted most of the fieldwork for this book, both organizations operated out of run-down trailers perched tenuously in the shadows of the downtown viaduct (Seattle) or just off the freeway’s edges (Portland). Yet Voz and Casa Latina were also forging enduring relationships with local groups: Latino advocacy organizations; nonprofit associations; social-justice-oriented churches; municipal officials; university research shops; student organizations; service learning courses—even labor unions, despite the obstacles to cooperation imposed by competition for construction jobs. Like most other worker centers in the United States, these organizations were in the process of growing beyond initially underfunded and “undernetworked” origins into groups with more stable membership bases and denser community ties.63 Although Latino small businesses and churches had at first rallied to the Tyson workers’ cause, that support had waned over time, and the reformed union’s later efforts to build new community bases, ambitious though they were, did not survive Tyson’s eventual busting of the union. Brilliant as it flared up in the “hot shop” atmosphere at the plant, and instructive for the critical analysis of race, class, migration, and power under neoliberalism, the meatpackers’ movement never implicated itself into a larger and more durable solidarity network. Casa Latina and Voz were also tossing out lifelines far beyond their respective cities when I started my research and have continued to do so avidly. At that time, under the leadership of the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON), which Voz and Casa Latina helped found, day labor organizations were embracing more militant antideportation activism.64 The intensifying political vitality of the immigrant rights movement, which day labor groups had fueled since their inception, thus further infused these organizations. By the time of Donald Trump’s election, Casa Latina and Voz had assumed indispensable roles within the political infrastructure pursuing migrant justice in the Pacific Northwest.
Popular Education and the Constellating of Theory
Still another important difference between migrant worker activism via Casa Latina and Voz centers in comparison to the Tyson mobilization was that worker centers organizers had a more autonomously developed theory of transformative social action. Worker-activists in Local 556 had eagerly embraced principles of rank-and-file democracy borrowed from Teamsters for a Democratic (p.19) Union (TDU), a long-running effort to build leadership from below within the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Viewing union governance and legal action as scaffolding for worker-leadership development rather than the realms of elites serving passive clients, these migrants had made the union the animated body of the workers-in-struggle. Moreover, through shared narratives that linked the battle at Tyson to harrowing experiences of migration, workers had recrafted the TDU approach as their own intellectual creature. The day labor centers, however, drew on a theoretical disposition with organic antecedents in Latino migrant and Latin American working-class activism, and with a less embattled, more intuitive, and more palpable presence among participants. This was the theory and practice known as popular education. Casa Latina, Voz, and their network partners celebrated a theoretical culture oriented by popular education, although this culture was often more a manifestation of taken-for-granted common sense and habitual affect than the result of intentionally elaborating and implementing a conceptual model.
Here was a new opportunity and growth challenge for me, as a researcher and theorist. In my earlier project, I had advanced an egalitarian approach to social theory by seeing migrant workers’ narratives as bases for developing a Gramscian critique of hegemony’s reliance on ordinary people’s common sense. Yet those workers, although appropriating TDU concepts and attitudes in ways that resonated deeply with Gramsci, had never conceived of their own stories and struggles in Gramscian terms. Day labor organizations possessed a more homegrown intellectual account of their own activities. In addition, their popular-educational culture spoke directly to methodological issues regarding how one might relate academic theory to vernacular speech and how social research can help motivate popular action for radical social change. In this situation, engaging day laborers and worker center organizers as intellectual collaborators implied an obligation on my part—and a prospect I found exciting—to draw upon popular education in crafting the interpretive procedures and categories for my analysis.
Proceeding in this manner gives this project affinities to other critical and political theorists’ recent interventions, to which it may be helpful to compare this book. Like Romand Coles, I immerse theory within activist contexts as a way of sparking theoretical ideas about how to undertake radically democratic action in the face of neoliberal capitalism’s profoundly antidemocratic and socially oppressive onslaught.65 My explorations of precarity in day laborers’ bodily experiences and thought-worlds further synergize with Coles’s avid engagement with affective politics in Arizona migrant collectivities of resistance. Coles and I also share a curiosity regarding modes of transformational action that are densely imbricated within congealments of domination yet strike out beyond them. Recent investigations by Raymond A. Rocco and Alfonso Gonzales also (p.20) meaningfully resemble what I seek to accomplish here. Rocco gauges the democratic electricity that circulated through Latino and migrant informal-mutualist networks in East Los Angeles in the 1990s, in the wake of massive job flight and social program cuts. His fieldwork propels an alternative conception of “associational democracy” that overturns theorists’ common assumptions about the proper institutional foci and practices of democratic action.66 Gonzales fashions an incisive account of the “anti-migrant hegemony” orchestrated by the US “homeland security state.”67 He does this, in part, through conversing with Latino migrant workers in Southern California warehouses as well as with deportees who confront life-threatening circumstances upon their forced relocation to El Salvador. With all these scholar-activists, I hold a common commitment to doing research that takes an active and self-reflective role in migrant workers’ struggles on the ground and that produces theory from within those contexts.
How, exactly, to do this, is a complicated question that admits of multiple valid answers. My approach derives its specific orientation from the popular-educational culture percolating among day laborers today, and thus I strive to be studiously attentive to these workers’ thoughts and situations of everyday life. In the pages ahead, readers will find a series of sustained, fine-grained, carefully wrought encounters with thematic elements of day laborers’ commentaries about searching for work, performing day labor jobs, interacting with employers, and participating in worker center communities. To some, this might seem like a form of ethnography because it prizes meditation on the specificities and idiosyncratic wrinkles of people’s everyday speech as well as their micro-level, habitual, corporeal, and communal practices. Especially since so many anthropologists conceive of ethnography as immersed in intersubjective relations with the people whose lives are at issue, and sometimes in political struggles alongside them, family resemblances abound between my project and ethnographic research.68 Also, within political science, a small but feisty contingent of scholars has recently taken up the banner of ethnography to demand greater recognition of research that employs qualitative methods, in a situation where quantitative inquiries still enjoy the greatest prestige in the discipline.69 I am grateful to have found solidarity among these researchers for the kind of analysis I carry out here.
Nevertheless, what I offer differs from most ethnography in two related respects, and understanding these differences helps convey what makes this project methodologically distinctive. First, an investment in theory is fundamental to this book. By “theory,” I mean both (1) the critical elaboration and exploratory reformulation of general social-analytical concepts that proceeds self-consciously in the context of historically based, critical-theoretical textual genealogies, although not necessarily with the goal of extending any one particular strand; and (2) the characterization of social phenomena in analytically stimulating or (p.21) reflective ways by people who are not usually recognized, and typically do not regard themselves, as “theorists.” Rather than primarily seeking to satisfy a curiosity about the complexities of people’s vocalized and lived experiences and subordinating theory to the probing of such nuances, I aim to activate mutually enlivening moments of contact between popular conceptions and scholars’ attempts to describe and account for precarity in social-structural terms. The point is to see how ordinary migrant workers theorize both their own specific circumstances and more broadly ranging social predicaments in distinctive ways that at once resonate with, diverge from, and can spur critical rearticulation of notions of precarity suggested by those who theorize in academic registers—and vice versa.
Second, this book has metatheoretical ambitions, which are to sculpt a subtly contoured figure of how to conceive of and call forth this resonant relation while also modeling how to fashion such a figure by reflecting on migrant workers’ own theoretical culture. I thus hope to furnish a stimulating example of how similar critiques could be carried out with other groups in other contexts, taking up whatever cultures of theory such groups honor and practice. In addition, I hope to foster more critical appreciation for the political-intellectual resources offered in this respect by popular education—that is, concerning how to enact encounters between academic social critique and popular understandings of power, such that these juxtapositions embody a spirit of intellectual equality and emanate political vibrancy. This intention fosters a kinship between this book and the work of James Tully, whose call for theorists to pursue “public philosophy in a new key” I affirm. Tully encourages theorists to “establish pedagogical relationships of reciprocal elucidation between academic research and the civic activities of fellow citizens.”70 For Tully (and for day labor leaders, as the final chapter discusses), citizenship is thus a practical rather than narrowly legal designation.71 The category also includes academics and activists alike, and it accentuates dialogical relations of mutual learning, just as popular education does.72
The principle of reciprocity oriented my field investigations for this project, which centrally comprised individual interviews but also included participant observation at the Seattle and Portland worker centers. Two bilingual research assistants and I conducted seventy-eight interviews in total with day laborers at Casa Latina (in 2008) and Voz’s MLK Center (in 2010).73 I worked out the interview questions through processes of mutual accommodation with coordinators at each center, settling on paths of inquiry meant to yield useful information for these organizations while also furthering my academic aims and with an overarching ethos aptly described by Tully’s notion of public philosophy.74 The interviews explored workers’ experiences seeking jobs at the centers, on day labor corners, and in other fields of work; their encounters with employers, occupational safety (p.22) and health concerns, and other working conditions; the general circumstances of workers’ everyday lives and needs; workers’ conceptions of community membership at the centers; and workers’ thoughts and experiences regarding political action through the centers or otherwise. At each center, systematic and extensive participant observation in the context of regular volunteer work at the worker center complemented the conduct of interviews. I describe our volunteer activities in detail in chapter 1. For the most part, my assistants and I taught English classes at the MLK Center; we took employers’ calls and dispatched workers at Casa Latina; we supplemented these efforts with many other activities in both locations. Through these endeavors, we all came to feel part of those communities, enjoying day-to-day friendly acquaintances with workers, staff, and other volunteers. The interview process further strengthened these ties, inasmuch as we performed them at the center or a few steps around the corner, with the aid of coordinators who ran spirited lotteries for the interviews and vocally played up the importance of these conversations, and also because the interviews, themselves, for which we paid workers twenty dollars apiece, materially wove together the political-educational aspects of the center cultures with these organizations’ economic activities, in characteristic ways that I explore in depth in chapter 5. As I discuss further in chapter 1, all these personal experiences provided a concrete basis for listening attentively to the workers’ interview-commentaries in the analyses that unfold in chapters 2–5 and for attributing various social-critical and political provocations to them, despite certain misapprehensions that doubtless exist in the pages ahead. Importantly, we treated the question protocol as a basic organizational tool and a flexible spur to relatively open-ended exchanges: we engaged with participants on topics they brought up as significant even if our questions did not cover those issues. We also made a point of asking participants not just to describe their experiences but also, following the core thrust of popular education, to share their thoughts about the reasons behind problems and the forms of action that could address them.75
In a sense, this book participates in popular education by conducting preparatory activities for it, although my theoretical and metatheoretical interests also mark the project at hand as different from an exercise in popular education per se. As the next chapter argues, Paulo Freire’s early texts offer compelling reasons to view the critical correspondences I evoke between workers’ themes and academicians’ concepts as vitally conducive to the popular-educational process of “conscientization” (conscientizaçao). My discussions of day laborers’ themes partly seek to provision organizers with fruitful material for “dialogues,” in the Freirean sense of interactive and affectively charged discussions through which oppressed persons identify problem situations in their lives and develop a critical sense of how they can transform these conditions. I have conducted (p.23) experimental dialogues informed by workers’ themes that confirmed my characterization of these themes as intellectually and politically generative for day laborers, as I recount in chapter 4. On the whole, however, this book seeks to lay groundwork for popular education, through analytical procedures critically drawn from popular education, rather than practice popular education—which, as any organizer with Casa Latina or Voz will tell you, would consist in reiterated dialogical interactions in real time among people in the flesh. This also means that in this project, I am the one responsible for the interpretations here of what day laborers seem to be saying. Only in the case of workers’ themes regarding occupational safety and health, and even then, through just one workshop, have I exposed my readings of day laborers’ commentaries to workers’ critical scrutiny in an organized and methodical fashion, although I have discussed my analysis casually with coordinators, workers, and volunteers on numerous occasions. Nonetheless, Freire’s writings suggest the distinctive value of the novel form of critique I unfold here as a prelude to popular education. Furthermore, as the next chapter contends, radically transforming precaritized conditions not only requires practicing popular education among local groups of working people; it also demands efforts to knit those endeavors to much larger embodiments of collective action. Envisioning the terms of such connections is precisely the point of combining popular-educational priorities and perspectives with interventions in critical theory.
Apart from my methodologically oriented critical recuperation of Freire, the chapters that follow foreground an eclectic assortment of theoretical writings selected because of the luminosity each acquires when placed in proximity to day laborers’ themes, to which it reciprocally lends a distinct glow. My textual archive is weighted somewhat toward autonomist Marxism but, on the whole, is purposefully not confined to any particular school of thought, much less any canonical theorist or theoretical construct (thus differing, for instance, from the way my analysis of the Tyson workers’ narratives sought to rearticulate Foucault’s conception of biopolitics). Instead, this archive brings together a cluster of theoretical texts chosen because of each one’s capacity to resonate, in its own way, with workers’ commentaries, such that the two forms of theorizing disclose more about precarity jointly than each could do by itself. That said, my successive pairings of workers’ themes and scholars’ concepts do yield a tenuously coherent account of precarity: as both lamentable condition and political opportunity; as both targeted at the hyperoppressed and extending throughout society; and as having certain key temporal, spatial, bodily, and ethical aspects. What makes thinkers as diverse as Kathi Weeks, Lauren Berlant, David Harvey, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Hagar Kotef, David Weil, Nicholas De Genova, Raymond A. Rocco, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Cristina Beltrán, and Romand Coles all capable of contributing to this theorization (p.24) of precarity, in particular, is their common ability to join day laborers in revealing the defining temporalities of precaritization in ways that simultaneously suggest political tactics for contesting these time formations and time deformations. This, then, is theory as the provisional and politically entangled construction of thought constellations rather than as the developmental extension of a theoretical tradition that subjects itself to dutifully rigorous self-critique. As the charting of constellations, such theory inevitably partakes of the fortuitous. This situationally configured theory is also especially attuned to the singular rhythms of historically generated currents surging in the present, and better outfitted for illuminating, by faint starlight, courses through and beyond them.
Day Laborers and Counterprecarity Politics
This book aims not just to rethink precaritization but also to help fight it. The passion for political research that animates this effort echoes similar expressions of resolve in writings by Coles, Tully, Dean, Gonzales, and others, albeit with the distinctive sonorities that my particular style of engaged theory emits. This commitment to research that gains a critical edge from its conduct within contexts of political struggle, rather than from any inevitably misleading pretense of detached objectivity, also links my endeavor to important undertakings outside political theory. Some might consider the project at hand a species of “militant research,” for example, and I would affirm this association. As Glenda Garelli and Martina Tazzioli explain, the qualifier “militant” signifies the dislodging of research from the depoliticizing snares of “its incorporation within the academic practices of a ‘-Studies,’ ” such as “migration studies” or “labor studies.”76 These theorists also intend the moniker of militancy to evoke historical associations with the practice of collaborative research developed by Italian workerist movements during the 1960s that later gained adherents in Argentina:
Militant researchers sought workers’ direct engagement in social research, to sift through the transformations that occurred within the system of production and to come up with new strategies for workers’ struggle. The explicit goal was to overcome the distance between the researcher and the target of the research (hence the name conricerca/co-research); to craft a knowledge practice stripped of the “comfort of ‘critical distance’ with regards to the object” (as [the Argentinian organization] Colectivo Situaciones would later put it), and thus to stage a mode of enquiry rooted in a particular point of view, i.e. that of the workers’ struggles. It was a political goal: making certain knowledges part of, and tools for, social and political struggle.77
(p.25) My effort to situate research squarely within determinate fields of political and social struggle also connects this book to Aziz Choudry’s explorations of “the knowledge about systems of power and exploitation developed as people find themselves in confrontation with states and capital,” whether in the Quebec student movement, antiausterity organizing in the Philippines, or elsewhere.78 I have written this book as a participant in day laborers’ and worker centers’ struggles to demand justice on city streets, in the sequestered spaces of employers’ homes, and against the deportation regime. More precisely, this text has emerged in the midst of an as yet only partial politicization among ordinary day laborers, as organizers strive to spin the straw of precarity into the gold of power. I proceed with the task of envisioning such political activation and exploring its possible links to wider forms of solidarity, upon the premise that intellectual collaboration with day laborers is indispensable to this endeavor.
Strategic considerations also underscore the value of investigating day laborers’ working worlds and political initiatives for any broad-scale attempt to contest the forces of precaritization. In part, this value stems from the fact that day labor organizing is happening in rapidly mutating global cityscapes that day laborers are physically building and that therefore depend on their cooperation with the capitalist forces engineering these changes. In other words, day labor is a strategically significant aspect of the current economy, even if these workers do not perform communicative or digital labor. Residential housing construction throughout the United States now structurally relies on migrant day labor, even as commercial real estate construction continues to depend on traditionally unionized workers in the building trades.79 Day labor also has been thoroughly integrated into the burgeoning economy for home improvement projects that renovate, enlarge, and beautify people’s dwellings and yards. The home remodeling and residential construction industries, in turn, connect the work of day laborers to the enormous growth of Home Depot and other such retail companies. The significance of day labor for contemporary urban capitalism also goes beyond providing an easily exploitable labor force for dynamic industries: these economic-sectoral activities are hardwired into the most frenetic circuits of financial capital via the mortgage and consumer-debt industries. Furthermore, the home improvement retail firms help solidify the recently evolved capitalist strategy of boosting accumulation by relying on logistics-enabled “just in time” supply chains.80 In addition to all these material implications of day labor for capital today, furthermore, business activities in the areas of home renovation and construction bolster American fantasies about the family and the livable city in an era when a bewildering array of socioeconomic forces have rendered these ideologies fragile. In sum, migrant day labor is implicated in post-Fordist, globalized, digitized, logistical, financialized capitalism in intricate and extensive ways that are belied by these workers’ socially marginal status.
(p.26) Similarly, as I have noted, the political vigor and sway of day labor groups contrast strikingly with day laborers’ socially peripheral condition, and this curious incongruence reflects day labor organizations’ tactical ingenuity and catholicity. The one nationwide study of day laborers, conducted in 2004, found a median hourly wage among day laborers of just $10 and monthly earnings that ranged from $500 in slow seasons to $1,400 during peak periods.81 Just under 120,000 worked or searched for jobs as day laborers on any given day, in a tremendously fluid labor force that individuals enter or exit daily; it was also a small labor force, representing less than 1 percent of total employment in 2006.82 The study further found that three-quarters of day laborers were unauthorized migrants, mostly from Mexico (59 percent of all day laborers) and Central America (28 percent) and that 60 percent had lived in the United States for six years or less.83 Other research notes that even though day laborers typically experience egregious violations of basic fair labor standards, few are even aware that they have any rights under labor law much less disposed to seek legal or political redress for these injustices.84 Nevertheless, by inventively combining direct action, community organizing, policy advocacy, and other modes of struggle, day labor groups have wielded far greater power than day laborers’ humble numbers and marginal circumstances would lead us to expect. During the second Obama administration, for instance, day labor groups and their coalition partners mobilized blockades of ICE vehicles and hunger strikes that successfully pressured the initially reluctant president to grant a temporary deportation reprieve to millions of undocumented youth and then to propose a similar stay for their parents. Simultaneously, day labor organizations deployed other tactics to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, including congressional lobbying and internet-enabled mass petition campaigns.85 These groups’ work-targeted initiatives have evinced a similar strategic versatility, tacking among First Amendment–based lawsuits defending workers’ rights to solicit jobs in public spaces, the patient assembling of urban coalitions to gain municipal funding for worker centers, shoe-leather-on-pavement organizing to set wage floors at day labor corners, and boisterous pickets outside the homes of employers who short workers’ wages.86
Day labor groups’ organizational forms also hold provocative implications for a politics of precarity, in ways that speak to the heated debates about this issue among political theorists and social activists alike. At a time when the traditional labor movement can no longer make even a dubious claim to represent the US working class and even in countries where unions historically have achieved far greater institutionalized power, the future of working-class solidarity depends significantly on the growth of alternative workers’ organizations such as worker centers. To be sure, unionism maintains or is even increasing its vitality in various (p.27) places and industries, and some unions have built strong memberships among precaritized workers despite their lack of a consistent employer or workplace. Migrant workers have been motor forces behind not only the spread of worker centers but also much union rejuvenation, as impressive campaigns among low-wage security workers, hotel workers, janitors, and garment workers illustrate.87 Nonetheless, the exploding variety of work-arrangements, especially in terms of work process and employment temporalities, spatial locations and fluxes, and legal governance, demands fluid and inventive organizational responses. Migrant workers have acted as innovators in this respect, too. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), for instance, surged in strength after its 2007 founding and a decade later counted over sixty affiliated organizations and more than twenty thousand members.88 Pressured by the NDWA, California, New York, Illinois, and several other states have passed “domestic workers bills of rights” mandating minimum wages and establishing unprecedented fair labor standards for these workers. Through transnational alliances in pursuit of global-level institutional action, in turn, the NDWA and allied groups from other countries pushed the ILO to issue a first-ever Convention and Recommendation on domestic workers’ rights in 2011.89 Migrant warehouse workers in Southern California have accomplished similarly startling results through novel kinds of worker organizations. Inventively mixing organizing along commodity chains with direct action, lawsuits, and labor coalition-building in a campaign that began in 2008, Warehouse Workers United brought Walmart to heel, forcing the corporate giant to improve its workplace standards.90
Worker centers offer another response to the pressing need for organizational ingenuity that brims with future promise. This book partly aims to demonstrate how and why worker centers show such potential as organizational vehicles for antiprecarity politics, particularly in the last two chapters and especially in ways that day labor organizations manifest. Here at the outset, however, a few basic considerations are worth noting. One is that worker centers have grown rapidly in numbers and have established themselves as pivotal participants in the migrant justice and workers’ rights communities in most major cities, in fairly short order. In 1992, just five worker centers existed; by 2013, there were over two hundred. The great majority of these organizations also serve and are firmly grounded within migrant communities.91 In my reflections on the fifth thesis, I underlined that countering precaritization demands spatially attuned, place-making politics among working people who are perpetually “on the move.” Worker centers promote just this sort of action: they ground organizing in specific urban communities and thus furnish essential local tethers for workers who are otherwise prone to severe spatial, temporal, cultural, occupational, and personal dislocation.92 In addition, worker centers have been organized among a wide variety of ethnic-national (p.28) groups. Even though most people involved in US worker centers (and almost all who attend Casa Latina or Voz’s MLK Center) are Latin American migrants, large numbers of West African migrants populate the Casa de Maryland worker centers near Washington, DC, Chicago’s Latino Union worker center has seen an influx of Polish migrants,93 and influential worker centers exist in the Korean and Filipino communities of Los Angeles.94
As day labor groups exemplify, worker centers also have built networks on multiple geopolitical scales, thus striving to keep pace with capitalism’s global kinesis, its fueling of worker transience, and its decimation of the union movement in the United States.95 Worker centers have forged sturdy ties to “popular organizations in the countries from which workers have migrated.”96 They also have joined in global “movement building” through the Excluded Workers Congress, which worker centers helped found at the 2010 World Social Forum and which has brought day laborers together with domestic workers, farmworkers, restaurant workers, and other highly precaritized working people.97 Along with these ventures, the day labor network has developed cooperative arrangements with unions that have intensified traditional labor’s focus on workers who are “on the move.” Increasing coordination between unions and worker centers in California during the 1990s created momentum for the adoption in 2000 by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) of an unprecedented resolution to promote immigrant rights and to prioritize organizing migrants.98 By the time of the massive immigrant rights marches of 2006, NDLON and the AFL-CIO had established a formal partnership.99 A 2015 report commissioned by the Labor Innovations for the 21st Century Fund reaffirmed worker centers’ and unions’ commitment to “Building a Movement Together.”100
Just as worker centers provide a politicizing form of grounding for migrant workers on the move, so likewise, they furnish environments for grappling creatively and politically with the myriad ways in which precaritized workers are “out of time.” Again, this book makes the case at length in the later chapters that these organizations operate this way for day laborers—and that worker centers have untapped wellsprings of this sort for precaritized workers in general. To begin this line of thought, however: one of the first curiosities that sparked my enthusiasm for conducting research at day labor centers was noticing how these organizations seemed to refunction the embattled time of everyday life for those who attended. Workers congregated at Casa Latina and Voz’s MLK Center during awkward pauses in their work activities and work searches, more often just waiting around than expeditiously getting dispatched on jobs. Yet at the centers, this waiting time could become something other than merely dead or suspended (p.29) time. To be sure, I saw plenty of workers who just kept to themselves, seemingly preferring to be left “on their own” as they sat in boredom with the slim hope of hearing their names called in the job lotteries. Other workers, however, joined in animated conversations about all sorts of topics, from World Cup matches to free trade agreements, soup kitchen hours, and weather reports. Overlaying these lively informal interactions were (loosely) organized activities: English classes, arts projects, know-your-rights workshops on immigration enforcement, and worker assemblies that usually featured vibrant debates and moments of humor. Sometimes, a worker pulled out a guitar and began singing and playing, either to himself or with others listening. In my very first visit to Voz’s MLK Center as a volunteer English teacher, I was abruptly assigned a minor role in a slapdash “theater of the oppressed” exercise that coordinators cooked up to prod workers into reflecting on stubborn racial and ethnic tensions among them. As the exercise progressed, I heard and saw workers transition from play-acted griping about the filthy habits of “peasants” from Guatemala’s highlands or Mexico City “delinquents,” to accelerating hand-clapping in unison as the contrived character of the exercise dawned on those assembled, to candid discussion about how to combat unfair preconceptions that sapped the community’s power. What struck me on this and other occasions was not only the diverse range of affects such activities encouraged, and not just the fact that the centers seemed able, against stiff odds, to nurture a common spirit and a sense of abundance among deeply isolated, poor, and discouraged migrant workers. It was also how intentional, improvisational, and informally connective activities emerged within mundane time-gaps in the precarious work-economy—and then remade the time of everyday precarity into novel, unpredictable, and politically generative temporalities.
In sum, taking a sojourn among day laborers not only furnishes intellectually enlivening prospects for reworking critical theories of precarity while feeding popular-educational efforts to ignite theory-on-the-ground among the oppressed, but this apparently digressive journey also carries real political stakes for the fight against precaritization. The stakes derive from day laborers’ crucial participation in urban residential construction and home improvement economies, with their multiple material and ideological vectors. Augmenting the need for this sort of study are day labor organizations’ strategic ecumenism, tactical versatility, and outsized influence in the worlds of public policy and migrant justice activism. Signs also abound that worker centers and the day labor network have much to teach, and a great deal to offer in practice, in the effort to develop dynamic and sustaining time-spaces of political action for workers who are out of time, on the move, and on their own as they suffer the effects of today’s precaritized working world.
The chapters ahead pursue this critique of precarity in partnership with day laborers and other critical theorists through a series of steps. I first develop and justify my approach of critical-popular analysis in chapter 1, in dialogue with Freire’s theory of popular education. Crafting a procedure for critical social research to participate meaningfully in social and political transformation, this chapter reconstructs from Freire’s early writings a conception of fieldwork among oppressed groups that sheds light on structures of power and names these power formations in politically galvanizing ways. Freire calls such nominative activity the articulation of “generative themes”; chapter 1 elaborates the qualities that enable themes to “generate” critical consciousness and political action and suggests how researchers can recognize such themes in interview transcripts. After specifying how such research can equip local groups of oppressed people to tackle social-theoretical and political labors through popular education, this chapter also takes on a further challenge: delineating a complementary process of critical-popular investigation that discloses larger-scale opportunities for radical worker solidarities by staging encounters between particular groups’ generative themes and structurally oriented theories of social power. The chapter then concludes by reflecting on how best to construe the relation between generative-thematic inquiry and political action. Here, I argue that militant and receptive affects stimulated through both Freirean popular-educational dialogue and demand-politics, as conceptualized by Kathi Weeks, can reconstitute political subjectivities in radically transformative ways within localized contexts. Critical-popular insights, in turn, coax into view the broader-scope and audaciously utopian implications of such mutations.
Three chapters then follow that take up day laborers’ major themes regarding their circumstances of work and work searches, as voiced during the interviews. Chapters 2–4 thus construct a differentiated account of contemporary precarity guided by day laborers’ reflections in conjunction with resonant conceptions drawn from recent social-theoretical writings. These discussions accentuate the temporal, ethical, and corporeal dimensions of precaritized work-life as well as the antiprecarity political priorities that various juxtapositions of theme and theory bring to light. Each chapter also attends to certain masculine qualities of the workers’ themes and considers how these gendered features limit the significance of day labor as a synecdoche for precaritization writ large. As I discuss in each main portion of the analysis, other research often suggests how women migrant workers—for instance, the domestic workers who are becoming increasingly influential leaders and participants in worker centers and the day labor network—would likely frame the temporalities, bodily constraints, and ethical (p.31) dilemmas of precarity differently, while still probably pointing to many of the same problems. One important implication of this study is thus that additional critical-popular inquiries with women migrant workers, as well as with more racially and ethnically diverse worker-center communities than those at Voz’s MLK Center and Casa Latina, would help further elaborate a politics of precarity capable of attracting widespread commitment and mustering radical energies.
Chapter 2 explores the ironic pairing of “desperation” with “responsibility” as themes through which day laborers characterize their everyday trials seeking highly uncertain and fleeting employment stints as unauthorized migrants. Probing these themes uncovers a hallmark structure of time in everyday life that re-emerges in related forms in this book’s subsequent generative-thematic investigations: a conflict between time’s stifling uniformity and immutability, as the urgent need for work never subsides while the worker’s anxiety steadily mounts, and abrupt, frequent, and unforeseeable shifts in everyday temporal experience with each job lottery, each new gig, and every altered set of employer predilections. Further complicating this temporal conundrum is an imagined time-trajectory associated with workers’ striking claims of personal responsibility to ensure their own economic sustenance and success through hard work. Shifting the gaze from workers’ commentaries to social theory, I then ponder how this ironic syndrome of “desperate responsibility,” which avows fidelity to personal duty under conditions that preclude any meaningful choice about whether to act dutifully or not, applies exceptionally to migrant workers who are uncommonly vulnerable to economic crises and to deportation. Yet with the ascent of affective and digital labor, along with a post-Fordist work ethic that grounds all personal satisfaction in work but disables such fulfillment by making work incessant, the theme of “desperate responsibility” designates a predicament stretching far beyond the forlorn world of day labor. This brushing together of workers’ themes with theories of neoliberal crisis (David Harvey), the deportation regime (Nicholas De Genova), the contemporary work culture (Kathi Weeks), and labor’s new psychopathologies (Bifo Berardi) thus generates insight into specifically temporalized and moralized structures of precarity. It also clarifies the political orientations needed to address these problems, especially more militant opposition to an increasingly desperate work culture and a vicious deportation apparatus.
Day laborers who attend worker centers often also seek jobs on street corners, and for most day laborers, looking for work on the corner comprises an indelible episode in their personal stories of migrating and straining to find economic footing. Chapter 3 thus delves into our interviewees’ accounts of “fighting for the job,” as they put it, in these perilously tense and arbitrarily policed urban time-spaces. This generative theme connotes a distinctly embodied experience (p.32) of temporal contradictions mapped out initially in chapter 2. On the corner, protracted temporal stasis, registered by the worker’s motionless body and its slow evacuation of vitality, gets punctuated at random intervals by outbreaks of frantic physical combat, as day laborers compete for jobs when employers arrive. Nevertheless, day laborers strive to mitigate this temporal predicament by envisioning the corner as their launching pad toward a future path of steady upward mobility enabled by entrepreneurial time management. In one sense, I show, day laborers’ split body-time on the corner reflects matrices of legal and cultural power in neoliberal societies that govern subaltern people’s habits of mobility, induce violations of liberal norms, and legitimate state interventions to control and expel such people. Yet “fighting for the job” also fittingly characterizes a more widespread problem: working people’s self-defeating tendency to substitute dreams for weakly approximating economic stability and upward mobility in place of hopes for material improvement and viable collective strategies to enable such success. By juxtaposing workers’ themes with Hagar Kotef’s critique of liberal mobility-governance and Lauren Berlant’s analysis of precaritized subjectivity, this chapter thus yields a sharpened sense of precarious body-time in both exceptional and near-universal modes. In addition, I find provocations for rechanneling workers’ fighting spirit into militant refusals of work and repudiations of deportation in Voz’s documentary film Jornaleros, in which day laborer-musicians stage transformative incursions into the corner’s vexed time-space.
Day laborers’ imperiled body-time also involves constant exposure to workplace health and safety hazards, and so chapter 4 takes up workers’ themes on this issue: their notion of facing “risk on all sides” and struggling to keep their “eyes wide open” for emergent dangers. In bodily threatening work, the temporal contradiction between stultifying continuity and ruptural discontinuity reproduces itself in still other ways for day laborers. The fear and prospects of injury never abate and the pain from untreated maladies never ebbs, even as new hazards arise without warning and sometimes wreak sudden bodily harm. In response, day laborers often embrace practices of responsible bodily stewardship and try to control everyday flows of work time more autonomously. Yet these individualist strategies ironically intensify workers’ embroilment in the very protocols of risky work they strain to avoid. This predicament of precarity, too, has its exceptional and synecdochal dimensions. From one perspective, it is the special lot of impoverished nonwhite migrant workers whom the deportation regime drives into the most dangerous jobs and presses into silence before callous or abusive employers. From another point of view, the burgeoning “risk on all sides” and the imperative to keep “eyes wide open” for dangers apply to working people throughout the economy. Day laborers put words on virtually all workers’ vulnerabilities in an age when work-environmental health and safety threats (p.33) are climbing, especially as subcontracting and other employment-restructuring moves relieve the largest companies of responsibility for workers’ bodily integrity. Day laborers also express with sober lucidity how worker-subjects in all sectors reinforce these processes by adopting ideologies of personal responsibility, such as those propagated through corporate employee wellness programs. These critical-popular vantage-points emerge from positioning workers’ themes alongside David Weil’s study of post-Fordist employment relations and Lauren Berlant’s critique of embodied subjectivities wrought through interactions of dangerous work with public discourses about nonwhite workers’ unhealthy bodies. From these viewpoints, we can glimpse another essential facet of an antiprecarity politics: the need to take sides unequivocally against capital’s transmutation of financial risk for the very few into corporeal risk for the great many.
Chapter 5 continues the close reading of day laborers’ comments but shifts the focus toward workers’ remarks about their community-building efforts through Casa Latina and Voz’s MLK Center. This chapter thus bridges the critique of precarity in the book’s middle parts with the formulation toward the book’s end of an antiprecarity politics that can be—and is being—practiced by people thoroughly entangled in the hardships and contradictions of precarious work-life. In the midst of these difficulties, many workers narrow their vision for worker-center community life to the promotion of work opportunities through strict discipline and top-down authority aimed at insulating hard workers who deserve those chances from obstacles created by idlers and drunkards in their own ranks. Preserving participants’ unity as a workforce, in ways implicating deceptively complex Latino or mexicano racial and ethnic identities, becomes the mantra for day laborers who view worker centers this way. Many other day laborers, however, convert these apprehensions about security, work, and division into motivations for reaching out to one another through informal networks of conviviality and mutual care, which in turn form a vibrant practical basis for workers’ autonomously collective action both within the centers and in the wider urban society. By constellating workers’ themes regarding this inventive style of convivial politics with resonant concepts in contemporary radical-democratic theory, we gain a vivid sense of the processes by which a politics of precarity can gather momentum. This exercise both leans on and critically modifies Raymond A. Rocco’s notion of associational citizenship, Romand Coles’s vision of embodied democratic resonances, Cristina Beltrán’s critique of the Latino unity ideal, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s conception of indeterminately emerging and socially symbiotic possibility within burned-over terrains of neoliberal capitalism. Here, critical-popular reflection signals a temporally and affectively capacious politics that mingles briefly enduring but intense events of defiant public assertion with patient community organizing and adroitly spontaneous responses to sudden (p.34) onsets of personal crisis among vulnerable members. In tandem with democratic theorists’ thought-figures, day laborers’ generative themes also signal an innovative style of Latino politics with the potential to rework, in more cosmopolitan and politicized ways, a specifically neoliberal variant of the preoccupation with unity.
The final chapter closes the book by synthesizing a set of provisional objectives for a politics of precarity, assessing how day labor organizations’ activities promote these goals and could do so more consistently, and advancing a novel demand to guide the building of broad solidarity against (and through) precarity: a demand for worker centers for all workers. The exceptional forms of precaritization illuminated in chapters 2–4 spotlight the domination effects of the deportation regime. In response, NDLON and the worker centers in its network have developed an ingenious and effective blend of strategies that defuse mechanisms by which the homeland security state fuels the temporal conundrums of desperate responsibility, the fight on the corner, and the battle to ward off bodily risk on the job. These practical initiatives manifest and bolster a lively politics of conviviality among ordinary day laborers while also opening up unprecedented time-spaces of bodily action wherein democratically enlivened and provocatively unauthorized alternatives to the protocols of (neo)liberal mobility governance can take shape. Day labor organizations, I suggest, should pursue such activities with more explicit attention to refashioning the temporalities of precaritized work-life for day laborers and others in their circles. In turn, working people’s organizations at large should embrace a multipronged antiprecarity politics, the core components of which spring from this book’s critical-popular inquiries: the refusal of work, in clear-eyed recognition of work’s desperately all-consuming and psychophysically deathly character today as dominant social practice and fundamental ideology; the carving out of unprecedented spaces for embodied social interaction in contravention of neoliberal mobility-governance; the militant reclamation of the people’s time from capitalist and state powers that are stealing it with mounting rapaciousness and remorselessness. If all working people could gain access to worker centers like those that are inspiring such utopian effulgence amid cavernous precarity for day laborers, such a politics could well find masses of adherents and assume more fully developed form in our common precarious world. (p.35)
(15.) As chapter 3 discusses, Lauren Berlant calls this tendency “aspirational normativity,” according to which the popular fantasy of achieving upward mobility and stable family relationships is displaced by the attenuated wish for mere “approximations of the normative good life” and the effort to gain compensatory pleasure from simply fantasizing about this not-quite-good life (Cruel Optimism, 166).
(18.) On the major institutional and ideological components of the “work society,” in an analysis that focuses on South Africa but yields a more general theory of this social formation, see Barchiesi, Precarious Liberation.
(19.) Gorz only considers these issues regarding women’s domestic labor to a limited extent, as Nichole Marie Shippen shows in her sympathetically critical account of Gorz, which informs her own theorization of precarious work-time (Decolonizing Time, 139–56).
(28.) Hondagneu-Sotelo, Doméstica; Parreñas and Silvey, “Precarity of Migrant Domestic Work.”
(33.) For Dean, the “competition, division and inequality” that permeate the “social field” of networked identity construction further aggravate this segregation of one from others, and from all (“Communicative Capitalism,” 7–8).
(37.) “Global Migration Trends Factsheet,” International Organization for Migration, http://gmdac.iom.int/global-migration-trends-factsheet.
(48.) Wacjman, Pressed for Time, 57.
(58.) Guy Standing unfortunately avoids crucial questions of organization in his writings on “the precariat” and the social and political reforms that would counter precarity. Nevertheless, his provocative and widely read discussion of precaritization has its virtues. Standing recognizes the manifold forms of precarity faced by varied mass-scale populations even as he acknowledges migrants’ special place within the ranks of the precaritized. As in my analysis, moreover, he attributes a defining significance to temporal matters in the constitution of precarity. See Standing, The Precariat; A Precariat Charter.
(59.) “sojourn, v.,” Oxford English Dictionary.
(60.) “sojourn, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary.
(63.) Fine notes that from 2006 to 2011, “worker centers and their networks . . . significantly evolved and matured, institutionalizing themselves and substantially expanding their strategic capacities” (“Worker Centers,” 46).
(67.) Gonzales, Reform without Justice. Gonzales borrows the concept of the homeland security state from Nicholas De Genova, who proposes this notion to denote a modification of the Cold War–origin US “national security state” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. For De Genova, the concept signals the historically unprecedented focusing of security concerns on migrants and the normalization of “indefinite” migrant detention with no pretense of due process as a primary mode of state action (“Production of Culprits,” 425). Gonzales develops this conception further and more deeply politicizes it by exploring the growth of a multifaceted cultural apparatus that endows antimigrant policies and ideologies with not only state authority but also broad social hegemony, in the Gramscian sense of eliciting mass consent through the normal operations of dominant cultural institutions.
(68.) I am grateful to Lia Haro for our conversations regarding the relation of my work to ethnography, which inform my comments here.
(69.) Forrest, “Engaging and Disrupting Power”; Kang, “What the Documents Can’t Tell You”; Majic, “Participating, Observing, Publishing”; Schwartz-Shea and Majic, “Ethnography and Participant Observation.”
(70.) Tully, Public Philosophy, 3.
(71.) Tully understands a “citizen” to be anyone who is implicated in a “relationship of governance” (Public Philosophy, 3).
(72.) Although Tully’s work focuses more than mine on intersections between historical theoretical trajectories and state institutional designs, readers may discern affinities between my recrafting of conceptions of precarity in conversation with day laborers and his interrogation of liberal notions of democratic constitutionalism in dialogue with indigenous cultures. See also Tully, Strange Multiplicity.
(73.) We conducted twenty-seven interviews at Casa Latina and fifty-one interviews at the MLK Center.
(74.) Casa Latina had a formal process for evaluating research proposals, which the organization had developed after prior engagements with researchers had sometimes yielded little of value to the center. At the time I submitted my plan for research, Casa Latina was approving roughly one-quarter of such proposals. The process of developing a research agenda was more ad hoc with Voz, but in both cases, this happened through a series of meetings and emails to propose and revise an initial plan, including general topics and specific interview questions. We also jointly developed procedures for recruiting participants by lottery at each center and determined that we would pay each worker twenty dollars for an hour to ninety minutes of conversation with us.
(75.) We also conducted the interview in whatever language the participant preferred. In the great majority of cases, this was Spanish, but some interviews were done either in English or in a mix of English and Spanish.
(81.) Valenzuela et al., “On the Corner.” Day labor wages can vary significantly by location. A more recent study of Tucson day laborers found substantially lower earnings among these workers, who averaged only $400 per month and among whom over 80 percent were homeless (Trautner, “What Workers Want,” 325–26). By contrast, although workers at Casa Latina were earning just ten dollars per hour in 2008 when we did field research there, they subsequently increased their wage rates and by 2016 were earning nineteen to twenty-two dollars per hour, depending on the type of job.
(83.) Valenzuela et al., “On the Corner.” This study also found that 80 percent of day laborers sought jobs through informal hiring sites, mostly in or near residential neighborhoods, and that day laborers were concentrated in the western and eastern regions (40 percent and 23 percent, respectively), with a sizable contingent (18 percent) in the Southwest and smaller numbers in the South and Midwest.
(84.) Trautner, “What Workers Want.”
(85.) Pablo Alvarado, interview on Democracy Now!, April 10, 2014.
(86.) Fine, Worker Centers, 81, 88–89, 100–19, 157–79; Cummings, “Litigation at Work”; Apostolidis and Valenzuela, “Cosmopolitan Politics”; Theodore, “Ballad of Industry.”
(88.) “About Us,” National Domestic Workers Alliance, https://www.domesticworkers.org/about-us. See also Parreñas and Silvey, “Precarity of Domestic Workers.”
(90.) De Lara et al., “Organizing Temporary, Subcontracted, and Immigrant Workers.” Migrant workers have also made noteworthy organizational innovations through the New York–based Taxi Drivers Alliance and Restaurant Opportunities Center (Fine, “Worker Centers,” 48–49). Like day laborers and domestic workers, furthermore, taxi drivers in the Alliance have formed a national network of organizations (Fine, “How Innovative Worker Centers Help”).
(92.) According to Fine: “Most centers focus their work geographically, operating in a particular metropolitan area, city, or neighborhood” (Worker Centers, 13).
(93.) Eric Rodriguez, interview by author, November 8, 2013, Chicago, IL.
(96.) Fine, Worker Centers, 13. Although not exclusively for migrants, the “vast majority” of worker centers mainly serve migrant populations, and many, including the major centers in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Long Island, had origins in 1990s efforts to shield migrant workers from federal immigration raids (Fine, Worker Centers, 112–13).
(97.) Fine, “Worker Centers,” 51; Goldberg and Jackson, “Excluded Workers Congress.” Fine notes that even though most worker centers concentrate on workers in specific areas of the labor market (e.g., day labor or restaurant work), these organizations also invariably set their sights beyond industry-specific organizing, and they commonly seek political transformations and structural economic changes that include but go beyond securing legal protection for workers’ rights (“Worker Centers,” 52–53; see also Cordero-Guzmán et al., “The Development of Sectoral Worker Center Networks”).
(100.) Narro et al., “Building a Movement Together.” For more extensive accounts of day labor centers’ and other worker centers’ historical relations with unions, see Fine, Worker Centers, 120–56; Fine, “A Marriage Made in Heaven?”; Fine, “Building a Future Together”; Fine, “Worker Centers”; Fine and Gordon, “Strengthening Labor Standards Enforcement”; Milkman, “Immigrant Workers”; Theodore, “Realigning Labor”; Avendaño and Hiatt, “Worker Self-Organization”; Apostolidis and Valenzuela, “Cosmopolitan Politics,” 238–40. The increasing cooperation between unions and worker centers notwithstanding, obstacles to such coordination exist. Fine notes: “There is a dramatic culture clash between many unions and worker centers. Worker centers experience many local unions as top-down, undemocratic, and disconnected from the community; unions view many worker centers as undisciplined and unrealistic about what it takes to win” (Worker Centers, 124). Such cultural friction exacerbates structural barriers to joint action stemming from competition over jobs in overlapping labor markets, especially construction, and many unions’ historical patterns of racism and nativism. Nonetheless, as Fine and others document, the tendencies toward ever-greater mutual support between unions and worker centers have been marked and encouraging since the turn of the millennium. At the time of our interviews and other fieldwork at Casa Latina in 2008, for instance, the organization was experimenting with a program to encourage day laborers to seek membership in a local laborers’ union, in the context of a broader partnership negotiated that year by NDLON with the Laborers International Union of North America (Fine, “Worker Centers,” 49–50). On Casa Latina’s successful navigation of conflict with local construction unions, see Avendaño and Hiatt, “Worker Self-Organization,” 91.