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Marc Doussard, Degraded Work: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market.

Marc Doussard, Degraded Work: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2013)

IN DEGRADED WORK: The Struggle at the Bottom of the Labor Market, Marc Doussard persuasively argues that scholars and activists concerned about income inequality and low-wage work should extend their focus beyond the issue of wages to examine the broad-based degradation of work. Not only have the wages of many Americans stagnated (or declined), their day-to-day working conditions have deteriorated with increased job insecurity and instability, work intensification, scheduling unpredictability, wage theft and other illegal employer actions, harsh and unsafe worksites, and coercive and retaliatory management practices. Doussard develops the concept of "degraded work" to analyse such changes and, through 136 interviews with employers, workers, and activists in Chicago's food retail and construction industries, seeks to identify the pressure points through which workers can resist the degradation of work. Rather than targeting large footloose industries, Doussard argues, workers and activists should challenge degraded work in small, place-bound, local-serving businesses, which are not only the main culprits of degrading work, but are also more vulnerable to pressure from community-based organizations and local politicians.

Each chapter of Degraded Work is a whirlwind of information, exploring numerous topics such as the food retail and construction industries (at both national and local levels), the city of Chicago, local-serving businesses vs. manufacturing industries, Fordism and deindustrialisation, degraded work vs. low-wage work, temp work and day labour, immigration and undocumented immigrants, unions and labour history, legal and regulatory histories, worker centres and activist organizations, and more. Though all of these themes are integral to the story, the digressions within chapters and overlap across chapters can leave the reader more dizzied than galvanized. Nonetheless, Doussard builds a hard-hitting case for the importance of the analytical concept degraded work and its social impact on workers.

In Chapter 1, Doussard asserts that scholarly understanding of inequality is hampered by the often implicit acceptance that the decline of manufacturing ("good" jobs) and the rise of the service sector ("bad" jobs) increased income inequality in the US. Yet, Doussard maintains, there is nothing intrinsically "good" or "bad" about such jobs; good jobs are created through strong collective bargaining agreements, social welfare programs, and economic prosperity (235) --a point which is not new but which certainly bears repeating (again and again). Furthermore, this deindustrialisationqua-inequality narrative does not take into account major changes in job quality which, Doussard argues in Chapter 2, have been more important than wage polarization in driving inequality. (26) Although Doussard does not provide data to support this claim, his underlying point is well-taken: "moving these changes in nonwaged aspects of employment from the margins to the center of debates over employment inequality is essential" (emphasis in original, 26; see also 230). Chapter 2 heeds this call by moving the degradation of work front and centre, detailing its characteristics and prevalence in small-scale, de-concentrated, local-serving, labour-intensive industries. Although it remains uncertain whether such businesses are, in fact, the primary perpetrators of degraded work--especially given recent high-profile accounts of extremely poor working conditions in large-scale, non-local-serving businesses such as Amazon's warehouses Doussard's attention to the realities of degraded work is a welcome addition to the literature, and should spur a host of new studies that will eventually draft a roadmap of degraded work, identifying both its strongholds and breadth.

Chapters 3 through 7 examine the food retail and residential construction industries in Chicago, which serve as the platform for Doussard's substantive analysis of the degradation of work. For instance, at supermercados--the common name for most mid-sized, independent grocery stores in Chicago--workers earn subminimum "tipped" wages (but without tips), work overtime but are not paid overtime rates, and face employer retribution (including fines and punitive scheduling) for taking bathroom and lunch breaks, vacations, and sick time. In the residential construction industry which, in Chicago, is largely populated by immigrant workers--many of whom are undocumented day labourers--such problems are exacerbated by the workers' vulnerability and the jobs' contingency. Indeed, Doussard writes, "unfavorable and illegal workplace conditions are so widespread among residential subcontractors that workers single out only the most egregious problems for action; a generally high level of degraded work practices is broadly tolerated," (187) including frequent workplace injuries and delayed (or non-) payment of wages.

More than simply documenting this degradation of work, however, Doussard seeks to uncover why employers degrade labour, why workers stay in such jobs, and what activists can do to combat the degradation of work. Perhaps not surprisingly, however, adequately answering all of these questions is too ambitious for one book. Degraded Work makes important advances in doing so, yet its answers are not entirely clear or satisfactory. For instance, in the case of supermercados, Doussard confusingly asserts that "degraded work is not an essential part of the cost-cutting measures fundamental to competition in this market segment" (emphasis added, 129) but, later on the same page, that supermarkets "pursue degraded work because they must competition-wise" (emphasis added, 129) and, elsewhere, that "small profit margins and cost-based competition ... force employers to degrade work" (emphasis added, 68). Yet, even more importantly, this type of economistic cost-benefit analysis which pits profits against labour costs, and employers' survival against workers' job quality--rests on the very neoclassical economic paradigm the book sets out to critique. Indeed, the contention that degraded work (i.e., punitive and illegal employer practices, injurious worksites, and very low wages) may be necessary to businesses' success obscures the broader structural forces that rendered this strategy culturally acceptable and legally viable.

Ultimately, while Doussard's effort to investigate the specificities of local labour markets and place-bound industries is both laudable and important--as is his embrace of the "messiness" (227) that such research entails--this approach may leave some readers wondering if there is not a broader lesson to be learned from a phenomenon that is, in fact, so broad. Either way, Degraded Work will certainly provoke thought and debate. It is an important and much-needed intervention in the literature on inequality and low-wage work. The degradation of work is a profoundly important phenomenon, and future research must heed Doussard's call bring it to the centre of analysis.


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Author:Hatton, Erin
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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