Friday, May 23, 2014

Contested Ideas About Work: The Crowding Out of the Occupational Citizenship Conceptualization of Work

Last week I had a stimulating time in Montreal at a conference on “New Frontiers for Citizenship at Work” sponsored by the InteruniversityResearch Centre on Globalization and Work (CRIMT, from its French equivalent Le Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur la mondialisation et le travail). But what is citizenship at work? Unfortunately, some presenters didn’t say. Others used citizenship in the common legal way that distinguishes between citizens and non-citizens. Clearly, citizens and non-citizens can experience work in very different ways, especially as the latter typically has fewer rights and their work authorization might be tied to a particular employer. And there is a need to redress these differences.

But there is another important way of thinking about citizenship at work. From my perspective, the foil of seeing a worker as a citizen is not seeing him or her as a non-citizen in some legal sense, but is seeing a worker simply as a commodity or as a productive (human) resource. In other words, to see workers as citizens is to decommodify them to give them a status as more than just factors of production or individuals seeking personal fulfillment or identities. As such, citizens should be seen as having inherent equal worth and are thus entitled to certain rights and standards of dignity and self-determination irrespective of what the market or management provides. In my book The Thought of Work, I call this an occupational citizenship conceptualization of work, where the occupational adjective is to denote a work context, not to imply identification with a particular occupation.

But as I described in my CRIMT presentation, this is only one of a variety of important conceptualizations of work. More importantly, occupational citizenship is not the view of work embraced by many scholars, business leaders, policymakers, judges, and other influential individuals. Rather, the dominant mental models of work tend to be either hostile or indifferent towards citizenship at work. When work is seen as a commodity—as in the neoliberal market ideology—the workplace is prioritized as a place of production with economic efficiency as the key goal. Citizenship activities in the workplace, labor unions, and other practices and institutions are sharply criticized and resisted for interfering with productive and allocative efficiency. To see work as a curse or disutility—as in popular culture and mainstream economic theorizing—is to see work as a necessary burden to survive and earn income; deeper pursuits such as citizenship are left to other spheres of life. When work is viewed as a source of personal fulfillment—a common embrace in the behavioral sciences and high-commitment human resource management—then voice and autonomy are supported, but largely as individual rather than collective activities that improve satisfaction and commitment rather than citizenship. 

Feminist theorizing that sees work as caring is supportive of broadened citizenship ideals, especially via a greater valuing of caring activities, but greater citizenship practices in the workplace is not a core feature of this paradigm (and citizenship perspectives on work have, regrettably, traditionally focused narrowly on paid employment to the exclusion of unpaid care work). Views of work as identity and service could also be supportive of citizenship at work, broadly defined, but greater work--no pun intended--is required to integrate these perspectives.

So occupational citizenship / citizenship at work are under siege. The public discursive space in which work is defined is contested terrain, and there are academic divisions even among camps that should be supportive of citizenship at work (pluralist industrial relations v. critical industrial relations and feminist thought, for example). Neoliberal market and unitarist HRM discourses are at best indifferent to the ideals of citizenship at work, and at worst are openly hostile towards it, especially in the context of anti-unionism. 

I claim that in the public discursive arena, these dominant narratives have overpowered and crowded out conceptualizations of work that are supportive of citizenship at work. So promoting citizenship at work requires thinking fundamentally about what work is, and in turn making the case for the deep importance of work not only for workers, but for families, communities, and societies in complex ways. In other words, clashes over citizenship at work are as much contests of ideas as  they are contests of practices and institutions.

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