Commodification in Europe worsens working conditions

Competition between workers creates conflict, according to a new book co-authored by research professor Ian Greer, MS ’03, Ph.D. ’05 which explores how European markets work, who creates them, shapes them and organizes, and what they mean for the relationship between labor and capital.

“Marketization: How Capitalist Exchange Disciplines Workers and Subverts Democracy,” published November 3 and written with Charles Umneydraws on dozens of conversations with policymakers, administrators, businesses, workers and trade unionists across Europe to examine how markets are created and manipulated by business, policymakers and bureaucrats, and why increased competition can lead to greater inequality.

Published by Bloomsbury Academic, the book summarizes studies conducted over nearly 20 years with colleagues in England, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece and Slovenia.

Welfare systems at work, health care and live music were examined by MoreILR director Ithaca Co-Lab, and Umney to track the impact of commercialization. Greer discussed their work in an interview with the ILR school.

Question: What prepared the ground for social protection systems, health care and other parts of the European economy to be so deeply affected by commodification?

Answer: In Europe, there has been a widespread view that the problems plaguing labor markets and health systems can be solved by greater competition. This view comes from the long-standing liberal doctrines behind the European Union’s single market with the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. This kind of competition has been enshrined in the constitution since the 1950s. But the idea of ​​making people competitive at the national level, within countries, comes mostly from newer neoliberal thinking pushed by think tanks and embraced by political parties from all walks of life since the 1990s. The idea has also been embraced by companies, for example, that create virtual marketplaces using apps, online platforms and algorithms.

Q: You have found new ways to put workers in competition with each other to ostensibly reduce costs and improve quality. What were the consequences?

A: The main consequence is what we call class discipline. Workers are in competition with each other, and it becomes more difficult to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. In the area of ​​live music, for example, we identified certain concerts in London, mainly corporate functions and weddings, which were increasingly found on online platforms. Unlike traditional entertainment agents, who in the past sold “incentive” acts, platforms have made it harder for musicians to negotiate higher fees by making it easier for their customers to compare prices. Similarly, in health care, we have seen examples of working conditions deteriorating due to competitive pressures and privatization. In health, this has not normally resulted in cost and quality improvements, but it has contributed to staff shortages and bureaucratic overload.

Q: You identified how people fight commodification in their daily work. What does it look like?

A: The easiest examples to spot are large protests where workers are mobilizing against privatization or shutting down services and sometimes also demanding regulatory changes that reduce the competitive pressures they face. But there have also been quiet forms of resistance: musicians who refuse to work on the platforms, social workers who take their time to identify the needs of their clients, public sector bureaucrats who do not believe in privatization and listen to the evidence that it doesn’t work, and the community-based nonprofits that are losing money, rather than getting shrewd and corporate.

Q: What do you say to Americans who think this would never happen in the United States?

A: Sometimes I laugh, because I know they are joking. Many Europeans see the United States as a neoliberal model, with our private health care system and work-for-benefit programs replacing what was once called welfare. And the offshoring of jobs to countries with lower wages has been putting competitive pressure on American industrial workers for a few decades now. But behind that question lies a serious point: Much of the politics in the United States is driven by the abuse of private power by billionaires and big corporations, backed by police, prisons and the military. Many on the center-left believe the solution is to break up these combinations and force the capitalists to compete. It’s a good idea in some ways, but it tends to ignore the workers involved.

Mary Catt is Director of Communications at ILR School.

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