Review Essay. Labor Unions and the Making of Class in a (Supposedly) Post-Class World

By Brandon Hunter-Pazzara, Princeton University

Books reviewed in this essay:

Peter Ikeler, Hard Sell: Work and Resistance in Retail Chains (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016).

Sian Lazar, The Social Life of Politics: Ethics, Kinship, and Union Activism in Argentina (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).

Pnina Werbner, The Making of an African Working Class: Politics, Law, and Cultural Protest in the Manual Workers’ Union in Botswana (London: Pluto, 2014).

The increasingly precarious position of labor both in the developed and developing world continues to spark interdisciplinary debates and fuel conversations beyond the academy (Ong 2008; Milkman 2014). Unionization of workers is an increasingly important element in these discussions about how to address pervasive precarity and inequality, alongside universal basic income (Graeber 2018), and promotion of worker-owned enterprises (Lewis 2016). Indeed, many anthropologists will be aware of efforts by non-tenured faculty and staff to pursue labor organizing on American college campuses, while graduate students remain mired in struggles for union recognition following a controversial decision by the National Labor Relations Board in 2016 that granted student workers the right to unionize (Columbia University, 364 NLRB No. 90). Recent polling reveals American workers are increasingly interested in joining a union (Saad 2018), and globally, labor mobilizing is experiencing renewed energy after decades of stagnation and decline (Ness 2016). Three recent ethnographies of labor unions open up space to explore these collective organizations more closely; focused on labor union activity in different locations (the United States, Argentina, and Botswana respectively), these books illuminate shared themes of social solidarity and class formation in the face of labor precarity, and reveal the labor union as an important site of cross-cultural exploration.

Why Study Unions?

Labor unions politicize labor, moving the question of how much labor is worth and on what conditions it is to be done into the realm of negotiation and bargaining. This takes place in workplaces and also in the sphere of formal politics, as unions are often allied with political parties and can marshal voters and resources in the service of those parties. Even in their present diminished state, unions remain central political players around the world. Of course, anthropological attention to various sites of work remains a robust and productive area of ethnographic study, revealing the ways in which work can become a site of politics and a social space generative of larger political movements (Willis 1977; Holmes 2013; Plankey-Videla 2012). Yet, despite the perennial focus on “work” and “class” in anthropology, there is a dearth of ethnographic research specifically on unions (as each of these authors note; cf. Lazar 2017; Sanchez 2016; Durrenberger and Eren 2005; Durrenberger and Reichart 2012). These books, by contrast, specifically explore the organizational role unions play in shaping class-oriented politics both inside and outside of the workplace.

Indeed, Sian Lazar traces an intellectual shift away from labor and unions to the 1980s, when scholars began to see social movements as “more about identity than about the structural effects of class” (p. 7). As a result, labor unions were viewed as “outdated.” Among leftist anthropologists, this discursive turn sparked “the search for new political actors,” often outside the ranks of the declining industrial classes, in racial minorities, indigenous groups, feminist movements, queer activists, and the urban poor, as these groups staked new claims of citizenship and inclusion within new political-economic contexts (neoliberal, post-Fordist, late capitalist etc.) (p. 8). Lazar locates the theoretical culmination of this broader shift in Hardt and Negri’s (2004) concept of the “multitude,” which attempted to account for changes in global capital while directing attention to altered labor relations, specifically the growth of immaterial labor—service work, care work, and other forms of economic activity classically seen as “non-productive” (p. 8). However, this new focus also meant that class receded from view, with anthropologists locating resistance in urban struggles against privatization and cuts to social services—campaigns that mobilized millions of people all over the world—or in indigenous movements whose territorial claims and fights over the environment frustrated global capitalism’s spread (p. 9). While these two distinct, place-based forms of political activity countered the material effects of capitalism, scholarly investigations into these phenomena often ignored the question of labor and its categorical relation to class.

The question these works, with their focus on labor and formal unions, present to anthropologists now is whether class can serve as an appropriate category for understanding even “newer” social movements based on identity and place rather than class, and indeed whether class can be a mutable category that might benefit from new theoretical investment. The three authors find distinct but related articulations of class in their interlocutors’ efforts to organize (or fail to organize). Yet for each author, class is not taken as a stable category from which to measure the activities of unions under study but is instead viewed as a process of formation, drawing from E. P. Thompson (1963). Classes thus might yet come into being (in the case of the retail workers Ikeler studies), might be in the midst of formation (among public sector workers in Werbner’s ethnography), or might be encountered with their formation already well underway (for Lazar’s public sector unionists). Labor unions, then, are both representations of distinct class formations for each ethnographer, and the (potential) sites of that formation.

Unions Around the World

Peter Ikeler’s Hard Sell is a qualitative study that attempts to answer one simple question: given the huge number of workers who are employed in large retail chains, their precarious labor position, and their low-pay and benefits, why do we not see more labor agitation, and more labor organizing, among this class of workers? Ikeler answers this question through a comparative study of unionized and non-unionized Macy’s workers alongside non-unionized Target workers, analyzing the “workforce process”, or the structure of the work, and the way that structure shapes the possibility for worker solidarity and organizing. His comparative study gives the reader a sense of how a union contract can alter the structure of labor, and conversely how the structure of work can thwart the possibilities for union organizing. Ikeler draws from observation of workers on the job, in-depth interviews with workers, and historical research on the retail sector to build his argument. In key chapters, he moves the reader through the workforce process, detailing the nature of retail work, examining the “carrots and sticks” employers use to maximize productivity and “suppress dissent,” and tracing the strategies employers use to “de-skill” their workers. In the final two chapters Ikeler moves to the question of class-consciousness and worker solidarity, putting forth a more elaborate idea of class-consciousness derived from a consideration of the workforce process, and concluding on a hopeful note about the possibilities that might exist to improve the situation of retail workers.

Conceptually, each ethnography attempts to re-center class analysis. Ikeler is the most formulaic in this endeavor, following a definition advanced by Michael Mann which describes class identity as a recognition of oneself “as playing a distinctive role in common with other workers in the production process.” (Mann quoted in Ikeler, p. 16). Following Burawoy (1979), Ikeler is concerned with how the organization of work undermines the possibility of class recognition and can instead direct workers to identify with their employer. In comparing unionized and non-unionized workers, he concludes that Target represents the next stage in retail store organization, in which the more autonomous, semi-craft position of unionized workers at Macy’s is replaced with a de-skilling of retail workers and a greater emphasis on workplace cooperation and teamwork. By detailing how work is done in each store, and then comparing it to interviews with employees, Ikeler is able to further refine his thesis by noting the tensions and contradictions within these workplace arrangements and uncovering the broader social field of struggle for retail workers. Class, ultimately, does not stand alone in Ikeler’s theoretical framing, but is understood intersectionally alongside the gender, race, immigration backgrounds, and ages of his interlocutors. Ikeler demonstrates how companies take advantage of these differences between workers to stifle class recognition and union organizing, and yet he sees possibilities to improve the material conditions of workers moving forward through intersectional movement building like the “fight for $15” or the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Ikeler’s ethnography invites anthropologists to critically engage anew with areas of work and labor not simply as places in which workers struggle to make a living, but places in which other political battles are underway and where the very identity of workers is being shaped. The connections between work-life and political consciousness demand further investigation if we are to understand, as Ikeler tries to do in the context of retail, why workers in some of the most precarious forms of employment do not actively resist deteriorating labor conditions. His ethnography suggests that the answer might lie beyond a functionalist explanation that the hardships of precarity effectively suppress political activity, and instead suggests that workplace arrangements and cultures do much more of the heavy lifting in not simply stifling dissent, but in manufacturing compliance. Ironically, what is neglected in this study is the union itself, which is rarely discussed in the ethnography either as an element of worker subjectivity or as a site of politics itself (aside from the mention of its role in workplace disputes). The union, then, becomes no more than an element of workplace structure (via the union contract), a point that perhaps reveals most the eclipse of the American labor union in the public consciousness—as something apart from and distinct from employer-employee relations. The autonomy of the union and its organizational specificity remains worth exploring, however, here and in other contexts where union mobilization is active and the union’s presence in the lives of its members both inside and outside of the workplace is strong.

Such a strong union culture is precisely what we find in Lazar’s The Social Life of Politics, where readers are presented with a rich ethnographic portrait of the internal dynamics of two public sector unions in Argentina, the Union of National Civil Servants (UPCN) and the Association of State Workers (ATE). Lazar’s method is to observe the spaces in which union identity is created, which she locates in union offices, union training meetings and workshops, street protests and demonstrations, and most interestingly, in the homes of union members. While tracing each union’s distinct political culture, Lazar seeks to understand how each union cultivates a sense of militancia, or activist/militant identity, among its membership. Lazar focuses on each union’s practice of contención, or containment, defined as, “the way the group encompasses the individual, through individual therapeutic relations as well as activities of care and political activities of discussion and collective action” (p. 8). After exploring individual union members’ “narratives of character” (p. 18) and their descriptions of their activism, Lazar moves away from individual narrative to the spaces in which union activism is cultivated and expressed socially. She introduces the reader to the educational spaces where new union delegates are trained, and follows the day-to-day activities of a local delegation, interpreting their sociality as a form of kinship. Finally, the ethnography shifts to the spaces in which political activism is enacted, in assemblies and street protests, to demonstrate how militancia becomes fully realized through the attempts of union activists to intervene in the wider social world.

Where Ikeler analyzes class as a form of subjectivity produced through the structure of the workplace, Lazar’s ethnography engages the union as a site of subject formation and a space in which politics is practiced. She turns to the concept of militancia, which she defines as both “a subject position and a philosophy of action,” that “describes a process of self and subject creation” oriented towards a collective cause (p. 52 – 53). The two unions she studies conceive of this cause differently, with the ATE engaged in a broad-based class struggle and the UPCN interested in securing benefits for its members through negotiated collective bargaining. Avoiding the question of whether the two unions are successful in their respective cause, Lazar’s ethnography is about the how they create and reproduce their sense of militancia, and thus, how they reproduce themselves in class terms. “Political organization,” writes Lazar, “should be seen as a collection of processes of more or less consciously constructed collective subjunctivization” grounded in “ethical and political action” (p. 197). Lazar’s theoretical intervention, thus, moves us “beyond a dichotomy of rational choice versus ideological manipulation,” (p. 197) and underscores the applicability of her ethnography beyond the Argentine context. Taking the argument a step further, Lazar’s notion of contención (or containment) comes to denote the emergence of a kind of kinship that is sustained through the “ritual, political, and educational practices,” of each union and supported by the acts of “caregiving and distribution of welfare” between members (p. 202).

Bringing Lazar into dialogue with Ikeler, one might further ask about the work process in public administration in Argentina and how neoliberal strategies of public administration reform and privatization might undermine solidarity and identification with the union. While political organization might be a necessary condition for individual political action, as Lazar convincingly argues, one is left to wonder whether it is a sufficient condition. It is also on this point that Lazar’s presentation of class in the ethnography seems to contradict the initial distinction she makes between class and identity at the outset of the book. Each union’s cultivation of class through education, practice, and relationality ends up looking a lot like other discursive identity constructions, or performances, especially since Lazar’s ethnography gives little attention to the day-to-day working lives of union members and the structure of labor in Argentina’s public sector. If class is “made,” rather than a structural position under capitalism, perhaps there is no contradiction here, just an unnecessary distinction between identity and class we ought to move past. In ethnographic practice, this might require anthropologists to pay closer attention to the way class is created and invoked by our interlocutors, something that is increasingly happening in intersectional terms, as Ikeler argues, and as is illustrated by broader social movements such as the call for a “feminism of the 99%” (Arruzzo, Bhattacharya, and Fraser 2018).

This sort of approach to class at the intersection of other identities and ethical commitments is best reflected in Werbner’s The Making of an African Working Class, where the central aim “is to describe the historical emergence of class identity and class consciousness in an African post-colonial nation,” understood as an “active process, forged in the struggle of low-paid workers for public dignity and a living wage” (p. 1). Deploying an extended case study method, Werbner’s book follows the MWU over two decades, from 1991 to 2013, and it is the product of historical research combined with long-term ethnographic engagement with the MWU. A truly thick description of the MWU, this brilliant ethnographic portrait also raises important conceptual questions for political and legal anthropology. Werbner situates the MWU within the Botswanan political-economic context, arguing that MWU members occupy a kind of labor elite because their union contract provides them employment stability and relatively higher wages than informal workers. Looking at the question of leadership, particularly among female union members, Werbner advances a theory of agency as the “dialogical” outcome of “subjection and creativity,” which she traces through the narratives of female WMU leaders and the “tests and ordeals” they have overcome (p. 40). The result is a presentation of class politics that is articulated through interwoven discourses of gender equality and democratic citizenship, which together aim to “challenge the state’s failure to deliver what [union members] came to regard as basic rights” (p. 40).

Werbner’s study of the MWU widens the ethnographic aperture so as to capture the union as a complex institution whose internal social dynamics and external political and legal maneuvers are both relevant to understanding its constitution and effects. Werbner’s aim is to demonstrate the making of class, which she locates in the material struggle of workers to improve their lot as well as in the law, popular culture, and the discursive practices undertaken by the union to shape its membership and cultivate leadership. “Working-class identity” writes Werbner, “constitutes for workers a narrative of virtue, moral commitment, and self-respect,” articulated in the local concept of seriti, or dignity, and brought into new being through labor struggle (p.  253). Werbner’s nuanced analysis and careful tracing of the union’s development across time allows her to highlight the moments of possibility emerging in the union’s legal battles, how it handles internal frictions, and how individual initiative translates into political leadership. Werbner’s investment in contingency, struggle, and formation moves her far beyond any image of a political sphere populated only by self-interested actors and ideologically manipulated dupes, and instead presents a field of politics marked by the advancement of ethical and moral claims, and shaped over time through the act of struggle (in ways similar to Lazar’s account). Still, what is lost from view are the economic relations of labor itself and thus the role of the workplace, and the act of work, in shaping those relations. While Werbner’s study is keenly attentive to the material hardships that ground MWU organizing, the labor undertaken by workers is largely left unspecified, leaving the reader to wonder if the economic field is simply an effect of politics rather than a distinct space constituted by its own set of entangled relations and symbolic meaning.

Werbner’s ethnography does, however, closely examine legal processes within and without the union, as internal disputes are adjudicated amongst members and as the union itself constantly advocates for its legal rights, defends its members in disputes with the government, and negotiates in a range of forums for better working conditions and pay. Werbner adopts a “post-legal-realist” stance, moving away from a legal realism that would understand legal decision making as representative of relations of power, and legal forums solely as political institutions that serve to mystify such relations of power (while building anew on Gluckman’s model of legal ethnography [Gluckman 1967]). In her framing, the legal indeterminacy that is part of the crafting of legal decisions and of the extension of values such as fairness or equality must be situated within an ethical and moral order that comes prior to law and provides the background from which legal decisions gain their force and legitimacy. Werbner pushes legal anthropologists to be attentive to this reality insomuch as legal victories obtained by organizations, in this case the MWU, reveal law as an important site where justice can be achieved beyond material considerations—such as reversing the government dismissal of striking workers—and in symbolic terms, as reparative of particular ethical and moral harms. The unionists Werbner follows and the judges whose decisions she analyses do not share the cynicism one might encounter in critical legal scholarship, and it is their ability to translate local notions of dignity, fairness, and equality into domestic and international legal orders that places the legal struggle for dignified labor and a living wage alongside other transnational legal movements such as indigenous rights. The longer history of unions attempting to embody these values through political organization, and give legal effect to these values through labor law, provides one explanation of how organized labor has managed to persist, cross borders, and even grow into new industries despite more than two centuries of continuous attacks against unions in just about every country in the world. The specifically legal work of unionization speaks to a deeper moral belief that all work must be dignified and meaningful, a belief that at its heart frustrates economic systems where value is assigned by and through markets that are constantly in flux.

Beyond the Union

The three ethnographies reviewed here present us with an important foundation for the future study of labor unions by anthropologists. Their engagement with such an important political institution in three distinct contexts suggests anthropologists have much more ground to cover if a robust cross-cultural exploration of labor unions is to be established in the discipline. Lazar’s and Werbner’s examinations of public sector unionization, for instance, offer key insights into an overlooked element of the anthropology of bureaucracy. In many countries, public sector union density remains high, and yet anthropologists have yet to account for this fact and its influence on bureaucratic decision making and operation. At least in the case of Argentina and Botswana, public sector unions have played key roles in how these states are organized; one can imagine that in other settings a similar story has yet to be told—for example, India, where the anthropology of bureaucracy is quite rich (Gupta 2012; Mathur 2016). Further, the three unions explored in these ethnographies represent only two distinct sectors of the labor market, private retail and public sector employment, leaving the space open for an examination of labor unions in other important sectors of the economy such as tourism, food service work, healthcare, and higher education. Beyond their potential as starting points for further research, these three ethnographies bring into focus the continuing salience of class as an analytic and a lived, political reality. The turn to unions that these ethnographies explore is not only an effort to wage collective struggle against precarity, but is grounded in deeper ethical and moral commitments that emerge from unique cultural contexts well suited to ethnographic examination. One can already see this dynamic at play in American politics, where rhetorical calls for the “dignity of work,” parallel a significant uptick in strikes, labor mobilizations, and private sector unionization campaigns that openly challenge the (im)moral logic of neoliberalism (Fernandez Campbell 2019). These studies will be of interest to those who wish to learn more about unions as critical political organizations, not least because of their continued persistence in the face of onslaught by government and businesses, and what this teaches us about labor and class-relations as a central battleground for politics.


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