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John Krinsky and Maud Simonet

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Safeguarding Private Value in Public Spaces: The Neoliberalization of Public Service Work in New York City’s Parks

This article approaches the special issue theme from the standpoint of urban space and work, but not directly from the standpoint of policing. New York City has been a leader in the neoliberal expansion of governance in public services, with an increasing number of parks being privately developed and privately managed or jointly managed between nonprofit corporations and the city government. This article looks at the coincidence between the proliferation of work contracts in the maintenance of New York City’s parks and the rhetorical justifications on the part of city leaders for increased parks development and better maintenance, and considers the difficulties of organizing collective action and labor rights for parks workers. Where the labor contracts are concerned, three trends are identified: First, work that was once performed by unionized public-sector workers is now increasingly done by a combination of employees of nonprofit “parks conservancies,” contract workers from cleaning agencies (including nonprofit ones), welfare-to-work program participants, people sentenced to community service, and volunteers from “friends of parks” organizations and corporations. Second, the work is beginning to be redistributed, so that “basic” maintenance tasks are being increasingly separated from horticultural work, which is itself becoming increasingly specialized. Third, the increasing use of volunteer work is displacing even lower-level service workers and contributing to the devalorization of maintenance work. At the same time, parks development and maintenance is increasingly justified publicly as important to the growth in value of the city overall, and especially to its real estate and tourism industries. These justifications entail two consequences: First, because private value is central to the justification of maintaining public spaces, private management of these spaces is also justified. Second, these spaces are understood to be appropriate for workers not protected by public-sector, civil service arrangements. Indeed, efforts to organize workers in these workplaces have been roundly opposed by management, and freedom from the constraints of union rights are seen as a strength of these new arrangements.

neoliberal governance, park management, union rights

Citation: Social Justice Vol. 38, Nos. 1-2 (2011-12): 28-47.

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