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The Anthropology of Labor Unions

The Anthropology of Labor Unions

E. Paul Durrenberger
Karaleah S. Reichart
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The Anthropology of Labor Unions
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-043-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)
    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....

  4. TWO Miners, Women, and Community Coalitions in the UMWA Pittston Strike
    (pp. 17-32)
    Karaleah Reichart

    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...

  5. THREE Is This What Democracy Looks Like?
    (pp. 33-54)
    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...

  6. FOUR With God on Everyone’s Side: Truth Telling and Toxic Words among Methodists and Organized Farmworkers in North Carolina
    (pp. 55-78)
    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...

  7. FIVE Buying Out the Union: Jobs as Property and the UAW
    (pp. 79-102)
    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...

  8. SIX Approaching Industrial Democracy in Nonunion Mines: Lessons from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin
    (pp. 103-130)
    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...

  9. SEVEN Small Places, Close to Home: The Importance of Place in Organizing Workers
    (pp. 131-156)
    Lydia Savage

    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...

  10. EIGHT Economic Globalization and Changing Capital-Labor Relations in Baja California’s Fresh-Produce Industry
    (pp. 157-188)
    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...

  11. NINE The Tobacco Trap: Obstacles to Trade Unionism in Malawi
    (pp. 189-210)
    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,...

  12. TEN Concluding Thoughts
    (pp. 211-224)
    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...

  13. ELEVEN Afterword
    (pp. 225-232)
    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...

  14. Contributors
    (pp. 233-236)
  15. Index
    (pp. 237-240)