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Anthropology of Labor Unions

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The Anthropology of Labor Unions presents ethnographic data and analysis in eight case studies from several very diverse industries. It covers a wide range of topics, from the role of women and community in strikes to the importance of place in organization, and addresses global concerns with studies from Mexico and Malawu. Union-organized workplaces consistently afford workers higher wages and better pensions, benefits, and health coverage than their nonunion counterparts. In addition, women and minorities who belong to unions are more likely to receive higher wages and benefits than their nonunion peers. Given the economic advantages of union membership, one might expect to see higher rates of organization across industries, but labor affiliation is at an all-time low. What accounts for this discrepancy? The contributors in this volume provide a variety of perspectives on this paradox, including discussions of approaches to and findings on the histories, cultures, and practices of organized labor. They also address substantive issues such as race, class, gender, age, generation, ethnicity, health and safety concerns, corporate co-optation of unions, and the cultural context of union-management relationships. The first to bring together anthropological case studies of labor unions, this volume will appeal to cultural anthropologists, social scientists, sociologists, and those interested in labor studies and labor movements.

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11 Chapters

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ONE Introduction

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E. Paul Durrenberger and Karaleah Reichart

This collection is a move toward a definition of an anthropology of unions. Questions about unions can only arise in complex social orders with class structures that define incompatible interests between owners of capital and workers. Unions only come into existence when those with privileged access to resources hire others to create value the owners can appropriate for their own use. When those without privileged access to resources organize to identify, promote, and protect their interests, labor unions are born.

Most studies of unions are developed from historical perspectives or are based on national data sets collected by government agencies. Few use the defining method of socio-cultural anthropology: ethnography, which has much to teach us about the nature of unions. The studies in this book bring ethnographic methods to bear on unions. Anthropology is also comparative. The authors in this volume situate their individual ethnographies within a broader comparative framework that tells us what the ethnography of unions can contribute to a broader anthropology of contemporary states.

 

TWO Miners, Women, and Community Coalitions in the UMWA Pittston Strike

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Karaleah Reichart

I think if you really want to get something done, get a woman
fired up and she’ll do it for you. We’ve been followed,
we’ve been harassed and different things. But we can stand
there and take it and look back at them and just smile.

ELAINE PURKEY, JUNE 1989

The Pittston strike in the early 1990s marked miners’ return to contract bargaining and the deliberate attempt of miners and their families to augment the power of the union to secure their economic and political goals. While neither side actually “won” the strike, women played important roles as they formed, dissolved, and re-formed a complex set of alliances and coalitions during the strike.

Women have been a critical organizing force in mining communities since the beginning of bituminous coal mining in the central Appalachian mountains in the 1800s. This chapter focuses mostly on women because social historians have often overlooked their contributions. This represents a trend among many academics to ignore women’s collective action in highly gendered industries such as coal mining. At the same time, the region deserves an integrated ethnographic analysis of the multifarious ethnic and class differences that conflate gender distinctions and complicate social behaviors in the face of economic and political hardship. The contradictory interests of working-class men and women in coal communities have intermingled with ethnic and class differences to produce surprising outcomes. Such puzzling contradictions complicate historical depictions of the class conflict associated with labor organizing in the early twentieth century and raise interesting questions regarding gender and ethnicity in communities affected by extractive industries. The low ratio of blacks to whites in Logan, West Virginia, amplifies class differences in this highly stratified region. While whites are currently more politically visible in regional coal mining disputes, blacks were very influential in early union organizing efforts in coal communities (Trotter 1990).

 

THREE Is This What Democracy Looks Like?

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E. Paul Durrenberger and Suzan Erem

Some see the outcomes of the 2000 and 2004 U.S. presidential elections as failures of democracy. One explanation is that people are widely deceived and tricked into voting against their interests (Frank 2005). George Soros (2008) locates the failure in the postmodern preference for the manipulation of reality over the pursuit of truth. He suggests that in addition to free elections, individual liberties, the rule of law, and the division of powers that define open societies, there should also be standards of honesty and truthfulness. Others call the purposeful manipulation of reality “mind control,” or the control of culture (Durrenberger and Erem 2007). Still others see the failure of democracy as a consequence of a corporate-sponsored cultural revolution that started in the late nineteenth century with the rise of corporations in the United States (Doukas 2003; Fones-Wolf 1995).

__________________________________

The work upon which this study is based was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. We do not mention corporate names because Paul promised not to as a condition of entry to their facilities.

 

FOUR With God on Everyone’s Side: Truth Telling and Toxic Words among Methodists and Organized Farmworkers in North Carolina

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Sandy Smith-Nonini

Moral authority and religious faith have been important components of social struggle during both the civil rights movement and farm labor organizing struggles. From his earliest efforts organizing in the fields, former United Farm Workers (UFW) president Cesar Chavez worked closely with the fledgling California Migrant Ministry (CMM), which assigned staff members to assist with his labor campaign (Hoffman 1987). The new partnership of the UFW and progressive religious supporters involved a gradual shift from charity and service work to social justice advocacy as a central focus for mobilization. This shift was facilitated by several factors, including the late 1960s culture of youth mobilizing for social change, Chavez’s adoption of Gandhian nonviolent organizing techniques, and the Catholic Church’s authorization after Vatican II of liberation theology, with its focus on building solidarity at the grassroots through practices that involved social action to alleviate poverty and other forms of oppression. Even today, after a period of growing influence by Protestant evangelicals and charismatic churches in Latin America, about three-quarters of Mexican American farmworkers grew up Catholic, and the traditions of liberation theology and rhetoric about class solidarity among rural workers dating to the Mexican revolution resonate with many from their pre-immigrant lives in Mexico (Hoffman 1987; Holt and Mattern 2002).

 

FIVE Buying Out the Union: Jobs as Property and the UAW

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Peter Richardson

American companies and government institutions have shunted unions out of a role in regulating the labor process since at least the early 1980s. In a process David Harvey has referred to as accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2003),1 they have deprived union memberships of rights. Dispossessing unions of wages, benefits, and work rules (i.e., rights in the workplace) has been part of a process economists insist is necessary for the American auto industry to return to profitability.2

To provide an extended case study of how workers’ perspectives have changed over time in the face of different waves of buyouts, this chapter takes an ethnographic look at buyouts offered to autoworkers at the Sylvania parts plant outside Detroit between 2003 and late 2006. A focus on change and temporality (including imaginings of the future) brings insight into how persons and social institutions interact and into what is contingent, local, and path-dependent.

The buyouts Detroit auto manufacturers have offered to United Auto Workers (UAW) members have given them varying sums of money for relinquishing the contractual rights their union—the UAW—has negotiated for their jobs, healthcare, and pensions. These are promises the auto companies (here Ford and its spun-off parts supplier, Visteon) have made over the past decades. A pension promise made to a current worker may stretch back forty years, to when that worker first took a job. The buyouts transform what were collective rights the union had negotiated into private, transferrable property people can sell.

 

SIX Approaching Industrial Democracy in Nonunion Mines: Lessons from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin

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Jessica M. Smith

In both popular and academic imaginations, the coal industry is often characterized by strong unions and dramatic strikes. In the decade after World War II, unionization rates in the coal mining industry exceeded 80 percent (Lichtenstein 2002:56). When the center of the U.S. coal industry shifted to western surface mines in the mid-1980s, however, most of the new operations were nonunion worksites.

The surface mines surrounding Gillette in northeastern Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, which currently supply over a third of all coal burned in U.S power plants, played a key role in this shift.1 The last major union drive in the basin took place at Black Thunder Mine—one of the largest mines in the country—in 1987, about ten years after most of the region’s mines were first opened.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork and archival research in Gillette, this chapter traces the historical and cultural factors contributing to the region’s nonunion status. After presenting the history of unionization in the basin,2 it traces the debates surrounding job security and self-representation that contributed to the 1987 defeat of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and its subsequent decline in regional influence. In particular, the chapter highlights the role western tropes of independent yet hardworking cowboys played in the community-wide debate. At the same time that many miners take pride in their nonunion status, he discussion also demonstrates that they have developed camaraderie-filled workplace relationships that resonate with the solidarity commonly prized by unionized workers and activists. Finally, the chapter argues that women miners in the basin have successfully integrated themselves into these family-like work relationships, countering the existing research on women miners that tends to emphasize the difficulties they face in the industry. The Gillette case thus provides a possible example of workers cultivating close-knit, dignified, and respectful work relationships with their peers and many managers without formalized union structures.

 

SEVEN Small Places, Close to Home: The Importance of Place in organizing Workers

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Lydia Savage

In small places, close to home—so close and small they cannot
be seen on any maps of the world. . . . [T]hey are the world
of the individual persons; the neighborhood . . . the school or
college . . . the factory, farm, or office. . . . Such are the places
where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity,
equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these
rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT (1958)1

The challenges unions in the United States face in organizing workers are enormous and should not be underestimated. Recent changes at the national and international levels, such as the Change to Win coalition departing from the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), are indicative of philosophical and strategic differences within the U.S. labor movement. While much of the focus is now on organizing, efforts and resources seem to be concentrated on a speedy certification election and building union membership density. In this chapter I argue that workers choose unionization based on their own lived experiences in “small places, close to home.” I suggest that a single-minded focus on density can easily lead unions away from building deep roots in workplaces and communities. If unions are to organize for the long term and to rebuild the labor movement, it is not enough to understand the relationship between workplace variables and union election outcomes; organizers must also understand how workers’ experiences in their community, workplace, and home affect their decisions.2

 

EIGHT Economic Globalization and Changing Capital-Labor Relations in Baja California’s Fresh-Produce Industry

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Christian Zlolniski

The fresh-produce industry, within which transnational corporations organize production in developing countries that lack strong labor unions employing indigenous and other vulnerable segments of the workforce, raises the question of how economic globalization in this growing industrial sector affects workers’ ability to organize. It also raises the issue of whether the labor exploitation of indigenous and immigrant workers in Mexico and other Latin American countries fuels alternative forms of labor organization not based on class consciousness alone. This chapter explores these and other related questions from the vantage point of the San Quintín Valley (SQV), a region that specializes in the production of tomatoes and other horticultural products for export to the United States and other international markets.

Over the past few decades the fresh-produce industry has served as a primary vehicle for developing nations to expand their presence in global trade and become key players in international commodity chains (Alvarez 2006). In Latin America particularly, the export of fresh fruits and vegetables has become one of the fastest-growing agricultural sectors, often employing migrant indigenous workers connected through transnational social networks (Alvarez 2006; Echánove 2001; Lara 1996; Llambi 1994; Loker 1999; Reynolds 1994). In Mexico the fresh-produce industry has increased dramatically because of the combined effect of foreign demand for fresh vegetables; the expansion of U.S. agribusinesses south of the border attracted by access to land, soft environmental regulations, and cheap labor; and national agrarian policies that have reduced government subsidies for traditional crops, privatized ejido lands, and promoted export agriculture along free-trade agreements such as the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) (Alvarez 2005; Echánove 2001; Echánove and Steffen 2005; Marsh and Runsten 1988; Sanderson 1986; Weaver 2001). In addition to increasing the country’s economic competitiveness, the Mexican government has supported neo-liberal agrarian policies in hopes of reducing poverty, labor migration of rural workers to the United States, and the potential for social and political instability—especially among indigenous workers. After all, indigenous political rebellions in Mexico since the mid-1990s have shown the ability of marginalized workers to respond to the state’s neo-liberal projects (Nash 2001).

 

NINE The Tobacco Trap: Obstacles to Trade Unionism in Malawi

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Marty Otañez

Based on ethnographic data on tobacco farmworkers and trade unionists in Malawi, this chapter analyzes child labor and labor organizing in Malawi’s tobacco sector. Malawi is economically reliant on tobacco growing and experiences high levels of child labor on tobacco farms. Men and women with little or no access to land or wage work agree to contracts with farm owners to grow and sell tobacco on land the owners provide to them.

Black Malawians own virtually all of the country’s tobacco farms and sell at auctions to U.S.-based leaf-buying companies that have prearranged contracts with Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, and other global cigarette manufacturers. Men and women send their children to the fields instead of to school so they can cultivate enough leaf to satisfy contracts. Children and their parents employed in tobacco farming become trapped in a downward cycle of poverty as tobacco farm owners and tobacco companies earn profits from leaf produced with child labor.

 

TEN Concluding Thoughts

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Karen Brodkin

The chapters in this book offer a valuable repertoire of ground-level portraits of the changing nature of the working class and its discontent, as well as some of the many disconnects between unions and workers in today’s era of neo-liberal and global capitalism. But that is not all they do. Some chapters also speak to promising and innovative forms of worker organizing and organization that are coming from some of the lowest-paid, marginalized sectors of the working class. These and less optimistic analyses also suggest arenas of working-class activism that have shown potential for creating working-class social movements. In this conclusion I read both the bad news and the good news in the assembled case studies and link their insights to wider themes in labor and working-class studies. This may serve as a way of thinking about what a specifically anthropological and ethnographic study of labor and working-class activism might contribute to work by other activists and scholars wrestling with the state of the working class in the age of globalization.

 

ELEVEN Afterword

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E. Paul Durrenberger and Karaleah Reichart

While the ethnographic studies collected here are not sufficiently broad or inclusive to comprise a comprehensive report on global labor or labor unions in general, there are sufficient similarities to draw some conclusions. All of the contributors recognize the importance of the global context of labor. Sandi Smith-Nonini, Christian Zlolniski, and Marty Otañez show how relations among corporations, national polities, global markets, and national and local organizations affect possibilities for local unions. Lydia Savage and Peter Richardson describe the importance of the export of manufacturing jobs from the United States. All the chapters show the significance of national policies in shaping the environment for unions, from the way unions have been established in Malawi and Mexico to the importance of the Taft-Hartley amendments to the Wagner Act in the United States. Further, they suggest that local cultural differences such as the strength of religious dominations in the southeastern United States, the ideology of individualism in and about the American West, and the history of unions in the coalfields of the southeastern United States may be significant.

 

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