Who are the Workers?

Fletcher Martin, Contract Miner, 1947


Who are the Workers?

Author: Joshua McDermott

PhD student in Sociology and Work Forces workshop participant

There’s a long and stubborn tendency among scholars and activist to narrowly define workers and the participants of labor movements as only those workers formally employed by a firm. In recent years, concepts such as “precarious workers,” “the precariat,” and others have been employed to claim to give theoretical salience to a supposedly new type of worker in the developed world whose work is defined by intermittent and unprotected employment. 

In reality, there has never been a neat dividing line between workers and precarious workers, except, perhaps in the exclusionary strategies employed by some forms of trade unionism. From a historical perspective, what today we might identify as precarious workers, informal workers, household workers and the like have always been important, if not central, to labor struggles. In other words, radical worker’s movements have always been comprised of individuals who many scholars, to this day, fail to recognize as workers, due to their lack of formal employment, or the degree(s) of separation of their labor processes from direct commodity production. 

This view is not only empirically and historically inaccurate, but also exclusionary. Through my field work in the cities of the Mano River Region of West Africa, it’s clear that informality has always been a feature of the labor movement in West Africa, where upwards of 90% of workers are either casually employed or self-employed as petty traders. Despite their lack of formal employment (i.e. employment regulated by the state, ensuring a semblance of worker protections), these workers are essential to the functioning of not only their national economies, but the global capitalist economy. 

Pittsburgh’s labor history is no exception. My week-long immersion into the visual and archival history of Pittsburgh’s labor history during the Work Forces workshop only reaffirmed this fact. It was often in the most maligned and excluded portions of the working class that I found the most radical and coherent programs for social change. Indeed, it is on the margins of the working contract where the workers are usually the most vulnerable to mistreatment, but also the most consciousness of the injustices of the prevailing order.

Painter Fletcher Martin’s Contract Miner, stands out as a piece within the University’s art collection that calls for direct acknowledgement of marginal workers, depicting a lone, faceless coal miner, explicitly lacking union protection. The archive’s collection of pamphlets and flyers from black workers’ and communist groups, and from feminist and women’s rights organizations, further attests to the priceless insights and holistic considerations that marginalized workers gave to the history of labor struggles in Pittsburgh. It is through the struggles and actions of the most overlooked and exploited workers that labor activism has often drawn its most profound and powerful lessons, strategies, and victories. 

Labor historians and labor activists in Pittsburgh, and around the world, would do well to remember that. 

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