Precarity is a general term to describe how large parts of the population are being subjected to flexible exploitation or flexploitation (low pay, high blackmailability, intermittent income, etc.), and existential precariousness (high risk of social exclusion because of low incomes, welfare cuts, high cost of living, etc.) The condition of precarity is said to affect all of service sector labor in a narrow sense, and the whole of society in a wider sense, but particularly youth, women, and immigrants.
While contingent labor has been a constant of capitalist societies since the industrial revolution, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued that the flexible labor force has now moved from the peripheral position it had under Fordism to a core position in the process of capitalist accumulation under Post-Fordism, which is thought to be increasingly based on the casualized efforts of affective, creative, immaterial labor. There is scattered empirical evidence in support of this thesis, such as the growing share of non-standard employment on the overall labor force, particularly on new hires. For example, in Western Europe, between a quarter and a third of the labor force now works under temporary and/or part-time contracts, with peaks in UK, Holland, Spain and Italy.
More problematic is the fact that precarity seems to conflate two categories of workers that are at opposite ends of labor market segmentation in postindustrial economies: pink collars working in retail and low-end services (cleaners, janitors, etc.) under constrictive but standardized employment norms; and young talent temping for cheap in the information economy of big cities around the world: the creative class of strongly individualistic workers illustrated by managerial literature.
It also remains to be seen whether the insider/outsider division that economists observe in European labor markets means that the young, precarious, non-voting, and non-owning outsiders have fundamentally conflicting aims with respect to older insiders, who tend to work full-time, long-term contracts, enjoy relatively high pension benefits and who command a disproportionate weight in European public opinion and political debate.
Around year 2000, the word started being used in its English usage by some antiglobalization activists (Marches Européennes contre le chômage la précarité et les exclusions - European Marches against unemployment, precarity and social exclusion), and also in EU official reports on social welfare. But it was in the strikes of young part-timers at McDonald's and Pizza Hut in the winter of 2000, that the first political union network emerged in Europe explicitly devoted to fighting precarity: Stop Précarité, with links to AC!, CGT, SUD, CNT, Trotskyites and other elements of the French radical left.
In 2001 Italian antiglobalization collectives and networks, as they were preparing for the Genoa counter-summit just months away, inaugurated in Milan a new kind of first of may, MAYDAY, spelling it like the international call for rescue, and explicitly centering it on the street representation of the so-called "precarious generation." It employed carnival-like techniques of agitation (allegorical wagons, media subvertising, colorful actions etc.) in imitation of gay prides and love parades of the 1990s. Italian activists meant it as a revival of the wobbly traditions of May Day, and consequently as a break with traditional union representation and social-democratic compromise that had allowed precarity and social insecurity to spread unchecked to reach critical levels in all of Europe, thus repeating the experience of UK and US economies with a few years' lag.
By 2003, the event had grown exponentially in size, and Catalan antiglobalization activists participated as non-neutral observers. In 2004, activists in Barcelona joined the Mayday efforts, as delegations of French Intermittents participated as guests of honor in both mayday parades. The same year saw the launch of the icon of San Precario, patron saint of the struggle against precarity. The religious imagery proved very popular in Italy and elsewhere, and would colonize the mainstream mediascape in the following years. By virtue of all these developments, Mayday 2004 drew 80,000 young protesters from all over Italy. This attracted attention from other parts of Europe.
February 29 is the day of San Precario, the patron saint of precarious workers. S/he was created by the Chainworkers at the Milanese space Reload where the 2004 EuroMayDay was organised with others including the Critical Mass group. The Milan Critical Mass already had its own patron saint, Santa Graziella (Graziella is the name of a bicycle firm).
San Precario was originally convceived as a male saint (Romano, 2004). ChainWorkers then did a hoax in 2005 during the Milano Fashion Week, by using a fictive stylist who was in fact an anagram for San Precario (the Saint's first pubblic appearance was at a Sunday supermarket opening on Feb 29, 2004) called Serpica Naro.
The groups claim that the name functions like a multiple user name or myth such as Luther Blissett and quote the Wu Ming collective in giving theoretical coherence, although it is mostly seen as a Catholic detournement of the concept.
In October 2004, libertarian and syndicalist collectives from across Europe gathered at Middlesex University at "Beyond ESF" (a critical reference to the European Social Forum that was being held in London at the same time) in order to give life to a unified European May Day of precarious and migrant workers: EUROMAYDAY, which involved a dozen Western European cities in 2005, and about twenty in 2006, with Milan, Paris, Helsinki, Hamburg, and Sevilla among the most lively nodes. In 2006, the mayday process was launched in Brussels on Good Friday with a few hundred activists from Belgium, France, Italy, and Germany protesting against pro-business lobbies in Europe: "no borders, no precarity: fuck the new inequality!".
The EuroMayDay network has gathered several times across the EU to discuss in its assemblies common actions against precarity and mobilizations against the persecution of immigrants, and particularly the segregation of undocumented migrants in detention centers all over Europe. EuroMayDay demands the full adoption of the EU directive on temporary workers being blocked by the Barroso Commission, as well as a European minimum wage and basic income. Cyber and queer rights are also part of the mayday deliberations and activities.
A core constituency of mayday has been the movement of Intermittents, the French expression to refer to stage hands and showbiz personnel. In 2002-2005, the Intermittents captured the French imagination and filled the press with their inventive rebellious tactics (e.g. they famously disrupted live TV news programs and the 2004 edition of the Cannes festival) denouncing precarity in the form of cuts to their unemployment benefits (they counterproposed an alternative reform of the system which was so well crafted that put French élites and union leaders in an awkward position).
In the early months of 2006, French youth rejected the CPE, the first-job contract introduced by the government who made it easier to fire workers under age 26. Clashes with the riot police, as it reclaimed Sorbonne from occupying students was the signal that something major was happening, as the university had been the epicenter of social insurgence in 1968. Four decades later, France was again paralyzed by huge student demonstrations and solidarity strikes called by the major French unions, as well as the more militant unions and organizations. With the vast majority of French universities occupied for more than a month, and the whole nation on strike, the Villepin government was forced to withdraw the provision, in a test of force with democracy in the streets that weakened the presidency itself. Le Monde commented that "précarité" was going to be a central issue in the upcoming 2007 presidential elections.
A few months before, France had been rocked by generalized rioting of the French youth of Arab and African descent in its suburban ghettos (cités), who sought to express angst at racial and economic discrimination that they were experiencing from the rest of French society. Although expressions of the same national malaise and social anguish, banlieue rioters and student protesters did not really share tactics and demands. The French explosion of 2006 against precarity was followed a few months later by a lengthy general strike in Denmark to protest against welfare cuts especially discriminatory with respect to young people. All universities were occupied, and the right-wing government was forced to withdraw the provisions that had to do with student subsidies and other welfare benefits for young people, although it retained pension cuts for older employees.
In a different context, May Day 2006 was also a historic day of protest for U.S. immigrants, mostly of Latin-American origin, who mobilized in all major American cities to protest against a punitive anti-immigration bill being discussed in Congress. Hundreds of thousands of people from San Francisco to Chicago celebrated the first of May by taking the streets against increased repression of undocumented immigrants by the Bush administration. Grassroots and community organizing, helped and funded by the progressive wing of North-America's organized labor — which had already been behind the successful Justice for Janitors campaign, narrated by Ken Loach in Bread and Roses, that has organized many legal and illegal immigrants in Los Angeles — were crucial for the media attention and social impact of the demonstrations.
In its English usage, Precarity was first used by Léonce Crenier, a Catholic monk who had previously been active as an anarcho-communist. In 1952 the term was used by Dorothy Day, writing for the Catholic Worker Movement: