French press release: Putting an end to precarity

Monday afternoon this week there was a big meeting in a fancy auditorium at the CRNS (National Center for Scientific Research). I say it was fancy because the audience’s chairs were padded bright red, a long coat rack held a long row of dark coats, and, unlike the plebian amphitheatres at the public universities, this room had a soft carpet. Everything was semiotically calcuated to make the afternoon’s discussion of precarity take place in an environment of visible luxury.

The occasion marked the results of a major study on precarity in French higher education and research. Precarity, needless to say, can become a contested and complicated concept, and I want to write about this too but first I need to read more of the prior literature. But the funny part, as it turns out, is that the researchers themselves seem to have faced these very same agonies of literature review and conceptual clarification; and, wanting to avoid having to settle on a single definition of precarity, they decided to let precarity be defined by the research subjects. Hence if you considered yourself precarious, you counted as such in this survey, which had 4,409 responses and appears to be a fairly representative sample of French disciplines and institutions. In practice, I venture to add, ‘precarity’ seemed to come down to a fairly straightforward matter of having a temporary, hence unstable, job situation.

The gist of the study is that precarity is rising fairly rapidly in this sector, the non-permanent workforce having for instance increased by 15.5% at the CNRS between 2006 and 2008, and university workforces currently being estimated at about 23% precarious (looking across all categories of university staff). The major findings of the report included a marked feminization of precarious jobs, a notable concentration of precarity in the social and human sciences (which Americans would call “humanities and social sciences”) in relation to the hard sciences, a definite group of young precarious workers (under 30) combined with a significant group of older “perma-temps,” a range of rather low wages (as someone put it rather sarcastically, temporary contracts are not being compensated for by better salaries), and, subjectively, a set of waves of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. As one would guess, there’s also a lot of struggling to make ends meet through multiple jobs (apparently a few even teach under assumed names, to circumvent age restrictions on some teaching assignments), a certain amount of disdain and nonrecognition from the tenured staff, and a set of inferior working conditions coupled to a lack of workplace rights in the face of the organizational hierarchy.

This has to be taken as only a quick provisional summary; the actual research report is 83 pages long, and I’ll write more about it when I’ve read it all the way through. But what I wanted to post for now was a quick translation of the political declaration announced at the end of the afternoon, after the research results were explained, after a panel of precarious workers had testified, after a distinguished roundtable had chewed things over. At the end there was a long line of academic union leaders (100% male, surely not accidentally) who sat in a row and released a joint statement. It reads as follows:

Press conference against precarity, Feb 8, 2010

Final declaration

The massive growth of precarity in research and higher education, the multiplication of “irregular” contracts, the practice of firing people just before they would legally be entitled to permanent contracts (CDI), and the degradation of working conditions for those with temporary contracts (CDD) — all this requires a large-scale response from the whole corps of academic staff, from the tenured [titulaires] and the precarious alike.

The academic unions and associations call on all academic staff to take stock of the results of the precarity study, and to meet in their workplaces to spread the word about this scandalous situation. Together, we will commit ourselves to collective actions which, this spring 2010, will bring the precarious out of their state of invisibility and inaugurate a fight for stable employment.

Universities and research centers have operated with precarious employees for too many years. But the rise in project-based research financing (in particular at the National Research Agency, ANR), the contractualization of the universities, and the policy decisions that eliminate tenured employment and accelerate deregulation have brought the spread of precarity to unacceptable levels. We demand the creation of new statutary posts with tenure [titularisation] for the long-term precarious staff, whether they work in universities or research centers. The government must stop the false promises and start negotiations.

The real situation of precarious staff must be immediately improved. Contract workers in public establishments can no longer live with so few rights. It is time to put an end to the successions of short-term contracts, to the nonrecognition of accrued experience and qualifications, to the frozen salaries and denied benefits. We call on all the forces of our unions and associations, in every establishment, in every region, and across the whole body of tenured staff to scrutinize precarity in all its concrete instances. We call on them to demand that local and national administrations put an end to the abuses, to demand that the most favorable possible policies be put in place.

It is everyone’s responsibility to help the precarious out of their state of invisibility, and without the active solidarity of the tenured staff [titulaires] this struggle will only be more difficult. We call on all our tenured colleagues to stop the discriminations that still exist in too many of our workplaces; for it is also by changing our own behavior that we can deal a final blow to all the forms of devalorization inflicted on our precarious colleagues. It is by improving their working conditions and in defending them in front of management that we can improve working conditions for all.

Together, we will begin collective efforts to fight against the policies of individualization and forced competition between employees, to obtain a multi-year plan for creating statutory jobs, to put an end to precarity.

Paris, February 8, 2010

SUD Education, SUD Recherche EPST, SUD Etudiant

I don’t post this text as a literary masterpiece or a window into anyone’s subjective experience but rather to give you a sense of the kind of collective political declarations that get made in Paris. This one, as you can see, is co-signed by a veritable forest of symbols, or rather a thicket of acronyms, each one representing a union or an association. In effect, this text is signed by a collective of collectives, one which generally refers to itself in the text as a generic “we,” the “we” of a collective social body, the “we” of a united entity (the whole corps of academic staff) that is nonetheless well aware of its internal hierarchy and fragmentation (between tenured and precarious employees).

Unlike some of the other political manifestos I’ve seen, this one walks a fine line between framing a fight against an external enemy (the government and administrators) and reprimanding its own members for their own continued discrimination against precarious employees. In advocating “changing our own behavior,” it strikes a cautious balance between critique and autocritique. But in spite of this apparent ambiguity in the text’s political target, I’m struck in reading by the sense that the very idea of “precarity” is one that serves to frame the issue in such a way as to automatically claim the moral high ground. For is there anyone who is, or even could be for precarity? Although the particular harms associated with precarious work are amply documented in the research report I described above, I get a strong sense that in this discourse precarity is construed as a self-evident wrong, one needing no further moral analysis. As if precarity set the limits of a political doxa (though perhaps I should emphasize that I say this as a purely analytic statement, not as some contrarian defense of precarious work).

One last thing to note here: it’s a text where we can see legal, procedural and contractual details getting recontextualized as features of a deeply moral, emotional and political landscape. Call it the moralization of the technical: seemingly bureaucratic French notions like the difference between a CDI and CDD (fixed-duration versus indeterminate-duration employment contract) here can be seen to be weighed down, if not indeed rather overloaded, with an intense symbolic significance. I always have to remind myself of this as an ethnographer: what seem like arcane policy details draped in ragged acronym robes so often turn out to be objects of intense concern or attachment here in France. It’s as if, the more academic life gets routinized and bureaucratized and standardized, the more we find, paradoxically, that bureaucratic procedures and impersonal frameworks themselves get re-enchanted and repoliticized and gummed up with idiosyncratic symbolism. Not that this always happens by any means — certainly sometimes the bureaucracy is just used as a technical tool and more or less taken for granted — but I’ve been struck in French universities by the degree to which academic bureaucracy becomes an object of intense disdain and bluntly political critique.

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