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RecensionsBook Reviews

Work in Tumultuous Times: Critical Perspectives, edited by Vivian Shalla and Wallace Clement, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007, xx + 427 pp., ISBN-10: 0-7735-3141-6 and ISBN-13: 978-0-7735-3141-3.

  • Braham Dabscheck

…plus d’informations

  • Braham Dabscheck
    University of Melbourne

Corps de l’article

Neo-liberalism and globalization have shifted the balance of power in favour of employers. The never ending drive of employers for flexibility and profit have resulted in a reduction in the welfare and living standards of “substantial” numbers of workers in Western style societies, such as Canada. Vivian Shalla, one of the editors to this book of readings, in her introductory chapter states that it “continues the tradition of critically examining and analyzing the changing nature and conditions of work in turbulent times… The focus…is on work and its transformation during the past few decades, with particular attention to the world of work in Canada and comparatively” (pp. 4-5).

Work in Tumultuous Times comprises thirteen chapters. The first is a theoretical overview of recent, essentially sociological writings on work by Vivian Shalla. In it she pays homage to the pioneering de-skilling thesis of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974). In the process she notes that it was criticized by second wave feminists and postmodern writers. To the extent that Work in Tumultuous Times makes a contribution, it is how feminist writers have eschewed previous criticisms and taken on board the insights of Braverman’s pioneering work. None of the chapters makes use of postmodernism, that recent phenomenon which has blighted the social sciences and humanities. Having empirically discovered that the work and lives of many workers have been downgraded, the authors found little need to enter into lengthy discussions concerning the meaning of “language and texts” (p. 8). Within industrial relations scholarship, this has been the province of human resource managers, those servants of power, who seek to convince workers that their lot in life is improved by doing whatever it is that employers want of them.

The second chapter provides a fairly conventional approach to research methods and methodology. It doesn’t say anything that couldn’t be obtained from writings across a range of social science disciplines. The next chapter, the first of many which focuses on women, examines the different experiences of precarious employment in Australia (part-time work), Canada (self-employment) and America (low paid full-time employment). The next three chapters, respectively examine the employment strains and associated poor health experienced by workers who make use of temporary employment agencies, how workers skill levels are underutilized (à la Braverman) and how, despite writings on lean and post-Fordist production, employment in Canadian manufacturing still accounts for a large percentage of the workforce.

Chapters seven and eight highlight racial dimensions of the operation of the Canadian labour market, and how the employer driven demand for flexibility, negatively impacts on the lives, in terms of time management, of workers. The next three chapters are concerned with unpaid labour. They respectively examine broad dimensions of this phenomenon and its impact mainly on women, issues associated with the commodification of household work, and how official statistics understate the number of health care workers. The final two chapters examine issues associated with social citizenship with a call to eschew the logic of the market and a general discussion of issues confronting the Canadian labour movement in these turbulent times. The latter chapter does not contain anything that would not be found elsewhere in discussions on Canadian unions.

As already noted this volume is inspired by the work of Braverman. One of the problems with this is that even when the respective authors produce new “facts” and “information” it is not as if they are saying anything new. A reader reasonably well versed in sociological, let alone, industrial relations, analyses of work will not be surprised by the contents of the respective chapters. The individual chapters and the volume as a whole have an overwhelming feeling of anti-climax.

Other problems with the volume should be noted. Because of the volume’s linkage to Braverman, an expectation is created that there will be a series of labour process studies which will examine, for want of a better term, micro aspects associated with different types of work. This hardly occurs. The volume mainly combines literature surveys (and please note the problem in the above paragraph) with examinations of mainly government provided statistical data and surveys. In short, the respective chapters in Work in Tumultuous Times have a distinctive “top down” approach which, it could be argued, is the antithesis of Braverman’s legacy. Moreover, in the five chapters, which make use of micro “grass roots” research they constitute, to be kind, reworkings, or to be less generous, recycling of previous research. In addition, the numbers used in these micro based chapters are “low”.

At best, Work in Tumultuous Times draws together previous research which has been published on some aspects of the impact of globalization and neo-liberalism on work in Canada. It is doubtful, however, if provides information and insights that are not already well known to researchers and scholars of the Canadian labour market.