[5 May 2009]
Nice Work If You Can Get It has one core message, which is loudly trumpeted throughout the book: the 21st century system of work is not working. Through examples as varied as higher education, migrant labor, creative professionals and the garment industry, author Andrew Ross demonstrates the unique challenges facing the 21st century workers he calls the “precariat”: those whose situation is characterized by “intermittent employment and radical uncertainty about the future”.
It is this precariat with whom Ross is most concerned, but the group is so diverse and multinational that Nice Work If You Can Get It will interest many beyond this core group. Ross touches on an extensive array of social, political, cultural and environmental issues that cut across the boundaries of conventional interest groups. And in the current global economic crisis, many whose jobs previously seemed stable may find themselves feeling a bit precarious, making Ross’ conclusions all the more salient. To wit: “If cross-class alliances are to flourish in anything but name, organizers have to understand, and build on, the experience of precarity as a central element of people’s lives, rather than as a temporary state of misfortune that can be remedied by a halfway decent contract”.
Ross opens with the frighteningly compelling point that the gains achieved by and for laborers during the 20th century were little more than a blip on a timeline overwhelmingly characterized by violence, corruption, exploitation and inequality. As Ross puts it, “the Keynesian era…was a brief interregnum, or, more likely, an armed truce”. He reminds us at once that the golden years of job security were not so great, being built as they were on the exploitation or exclusion of certain sectors of the labor pool, while pointing out that the labor climate of mid-century America, beneficial though it was for many, is far from being the natural state of affairs in the global marketplace.
It is this vision of the present as a return to a long-standing instability, albeit one with unique challenges, that gives Ross’ narrative its urgency. The unstable, treacherous landscape of labor is not just a sign of temporary hard times; it is an entrenched condition with deep historical roots that is likely only to worsen unless radical changes are enacted, Ross argues.
While the path forward from these challenging times is not always clear, some of Ross’ strongest writing comes in his detailed iterations of how forward-thinking activist coalitions might coalesce around common problems to better pave the way forward for us all. In chapter four, “Teamsters, Turtles and Tainted Toys”, Ross takes the subject of overseas manufacturing as a case study for how anti-sweatshop and anti-consumerist groups might learn from one another’s strategies and platforms to achieve broader goals of sustainable, responsible labor and production. Without denigrating either movement, Ross points out the failures of each in providing for a workable future and delineates a clear way forward for both.
Strong, too, is the discussion of migrant work in Nice Work If You Can Get It. Ross’ global viewpoint on the oft-controversial topic dispenses with the conventional American rhetoric and focuses on the realities of migrant life—abiding realities that are unlikely to be affected by any legislation, be it progressive or conservative. By tying the needs of migrant populations to issues such as urban sprawl and sustainable housing, Ross outlines an intriguing vision for future development that could transform the landscape of the American city. His argument—that “self-help” housing constructed entirely or in part by immigrants should be fostered, even to the extent that local building codes should be modified to accommodate it—is at once radical and simple, and the examples he gives, such as Teddy Cruz’ work in the San Diego/Tijuana border community, would inspire even the most jaded.
If chapter four is one of Ross’ strongest sections, the preceding chapter, “The Olympic Goose That Lays the Golden Egg”, is one of the weaker segments of the book. While Ross’ arguments—about the fallacies put forth by Olympic host cities to gain support for their bids—are as meticulously researched and elucidated as the rest of the book, the chapter seems to be less about labor and more about city planning and municipal policy, setting it apart from the author’s core message.
While Ross’ vast store of knowledge may occasionally lead him into digression, Nice Work If You Can Get It is nevertheless a gripping and illuminating study of the landscape of early 21st century labor. Its prescriptions for the future may seem difficult to achieve, but Ross argues convincingly that we must strive for these goals if any of us are to have any hope of humane, stable and equitable livelihoods in the future.