Organising in Hard Times: Urban Informality and the Promise of Transnational Labor Activism

Date and time
Tuesday 15th June 2021


 6pm, Exhibition Room, G07, Pearson Building, UCL.

Organising in Hard Times: Urban Informality and the Promise of Transnational Labor Activism

Nik Theodore, University of Illinois at Chicago

Jane Wills (QMUL) and Debby Potts (KCL).

Jenny Robinson (UCL)

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One of the perplexing aspects of the current period ofeconomic restructuring in U.S.cities has been the re-emergence and extension of forms of labor relations werethought to have been sharply curtailed, if not completely eliminated. Day labor organized through informal hiringsites located in public spaces is one example of these developments.  Elsewhere, I argue that the re-emergence of day labor is a predictable outcome of the offensive that has been launchedagainst policies and institutions that place a floor under competition in thelabor market (Theodore 2007). In the name of greater labor market flexibility, the neoliberal project has sought todismantle labor market insurance programs and job protection legislation, andto undermine trade unionism and other forms of worker collective action. Unregulated work and labor market informalityhave flourished in the economic spaces of deregulation that have been clearedby this neoliberal offensive.


But this is not the end of the story. Day laborers and workers rights organizationsare actively contesting conditions in contingent labor markets through acombination of organizing, policy advocacy and the establishment of alternativelabor market  institutions. This paperexamines an important aspect of this politicization of contingent work: theevolution of grassroots organizing strategies by day laborers, an allegedly ‘unorganizable’ class of contingent workers.  More specifically, I focus on the ways inwhich repertoires of contestation – based in a philosophy of socialtransformation through radical democracy and popular education – have defusedfrom mass-movement social struggles in Latin America in the 1980s to streetcorner organizing in U.S.cities today. Through a series of in-depth interviews with day labor organizers, the paper explores how organizingapproaches from the global South have been adapted and recombined to meet thechallenges presented by day labor markets in the U.S. which are characterized by substandard employment conditions and violations of core labor laws