Toward an Anthropology of Labor


As I thought about this panel's goal to commemorate the 2004 hotel workers' struggle by outlining an ethnology of labor struggles, several questions occupied me: How did we get to San Francisco and 2004 without a pro-union position in the AAA? Why, despite important works by many anthropologists, is the study of organized labor and its struggles around the globe still at the periphery of our discipline? How is it that we do not yet have an anthropology of labor at the ready? The answers to these questions are manifold. They have roots in the colonialist history of anthropology and in our related mandate to map distinct cultures rather than the web of relationships between peoples created in the context of global capitalism and imperial expansion. They also include anti-communism and its impact in the U.S. academy. In thinking through this colonial and anti-communist legacy and in trying to imagine an anthropology of labor, three images from David Bacon's masterful body of work particularly inspired me.

The first is from Bacon's review (1996) of Sleeping with Ghosts, a book of photography by Don McCullin. McCullin was a working-class kid who began his career by taking pictures of the mining and factory towns of the British midlands where he grew up. In Bacon's words, McCullin depicted “unemployed miners scrambling over a pile of mine tailings looking for scrap coal, against an empty and barren landscape. A man is silhouetted walking away from the camera, past a tumble-down fence, into a world of factories and smokestacks.” For Bacon, the photographs derive their power from their background. McCullin's view is from afar, so we see capitalism in all its force and destruction. McCullin won his fame in the 1960s and 70s as a war photographer; he covered Cyprus, the Congo, Zaire, and Vietnam. In these photos, McCullin comes in close, focusing tightly on the soldiers and the suffering. What is missing is context—U.S. imperialism, European colonialism, and the politics of the liberation struggles in which the combatants were engaged. As a result the images are depoliticized, and Bacon argues, they therefore descend into cynicism. There is no reason for these events. They are simply brutal; they are “tribal warfare.” Bacon insists that “a tight focus on action and suffering is not enough. That human effort requires an understanding of politics, and identification with the movements of people struggling for social justice.” This essay urged me to reflect on the Boasian legacy of our discipline and on the many anthropological texts about images of native peoples who were (metaphorically and literally) dressed up to appear untouched by capital's expanse. The ethnographic frame was too small; it depicted “cultures,” without the contexts of global capitalism, imperialism, and their attendant struggles. I wonder, then, what sort of cynicism is heir to this history.

The second image that occupied me is from David Bacon's reporting on the 1998 General Motors (GM) strike, when members of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) in two Flint, Michigan parts plants walked out over GM's failure to make capital investments that would secure their jobs—this after they made concessions on work rules precisely to win job security. Within days of their walkout, 150,000 workers from nearly every GM plant in the USA and Canada were out in what looked decidedly like a solidarity strike. But for Bacon the whole story is not to be found in North America but in labor's international connections. Unlike the mainstream journalists of the day, Bacon explicitly notes that the Flint workers' action was not protectionist, rather his global frame places them in solidarity with autoworkers in Seoul, coal miners in Russia, and public sector workers in Puerto Rico, who were at the same time similarly fighting capital and their governments over jobs and corporate investment. Bacon reports that during a visit to the USA just months before the GM strike, a leader of the militant South Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, chided U.S. auto unions for not fighting harder for their own jobs. “You make it more difficult for us to defend our jobs in Korea, because the government and the chaebols constantly tell us to look at America. ‘In America,’ they say, ‘unions don't try to stop layoffs or job elimination.’ ”

Those of us who study organized labor in North America often come up against a body of scholarly literature, as well as pervasive popular images, that cast unionized workers as a “labor aristocracy,” the heirs of imperialism whose struggles are rearguard attempts to protect their privilege. Academics, even those who see themselves as progressive, too often share this distrust of organized labor. In anthropology this has too often meant a turn away from the study of unions in favor of studying peoples who are seen as more dispossessed and, thus, more worthy of our attention. Perhaps, this is one legacy of our disciplinary cynicism. David Harvey's recent writing on neoliberalism, which I find in the main enormously useful, is an important example of just such a tendency. Harvey (2003) sets up a typology of struggles against dispossession in the global north and south, and he finds revolutionary potential in the social movements of the south, but only defensive action from labor movements in the north as they face the loss of their privilege. Yet David Bacon tells us explicitly that the two struggles are interconnected—that workers in Seoul and elsewhere in the global south need workers in the USA to find ways to struggle against capital. One cannot advance without the other.

This point was driven home to me recently when I interviewed Andrew Friedman, a co-director of Make the Road New York, a non-profit community organization in Brooklyn (Kasmir 2008). Together, the non-profit and the retail workers union RSDWU organized employees of stores along a commercial strip in the low-income, immigrant neighborhood of Bushwick; these are the 99-cent stores and other bargain shops that are notorious for not paying minimum wage or overtime. In figuring the success of the campaign, Friedman said that while the U.S. left often criticizes unions for being bureaucratic and for ignoring immigrant workers—well grounded and important criticisms—he has also come to see unions as having resources that no one else on the left has, including experience, money, and staff. Karen Brodkin (2007) makes a similar point in her book on Los Angeles activists. The young people she studied moved in and out of jobs in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) because those jobs paid well, they came with health insurance, and they offered many other resources that sustained a wider movement. This suggests an intimate connection between unions and social movements that makes both more vital. Our work can contribute to strengthening this connection, as I think Brodkin's does, if we stop seeing them in opposition.

The third inspiration comes from Bacon's interview with Bill Fletcher on the occasion of the 2005 AFL-CIO convention, when “Change to Win” split from the AFL-CIO, and the federation passed a resolution opposing the war in Iraq. Bill Fletcher is a past education director of the AFL, who was pushed out because of his radical politics. In the interview, Bacon and Fletcher consider the lingering Cold-War legacy in union education departments. Bacon offers,

Unions rarely ask [. . .] what causes poverty in a country like El Salvador? What drives a worker into a factory that, looking at it from the US, we call a sweatshop? What role does the US play in creating that system of poverty?

Fletcher continues, “We turn education into simply a technical matter. We don't really work with our members to develop a framework to answer” those questions about US foreign policy. In effect, their dialogue is about unions' failure to conceptualize workers in the USA and elsewhere as global subjects. By not pushing U.S. workers to understand the larger world, unions have (unwittingly and wittingly) conspired to make U.S. labor jingoistic and narrowly nationalistic.

Anthropologists are in the business of fighting jingoism, which we call ethnocentrism. We wage this fight in the classroom and through our ethnographic writing, and the major intellectual tool for fighting this battle has been cultural relativism. Fletcher's words remind us that we have a bigger job: to teach and write about the relationships of imperialism that produce our anthropological subjects, both at home and abroad. We also need to purge the Cold-War legacy in anthropology. Just as Fletcher insists that this would make for a better education, and deeper solidarity, among union members, so it would similarly serve our students and readers.

To conclude, I want to distill two pointers for an anthropology of labor from David Bacon's work. First, Bacon reminds us to look up from culture to the web of relationships made by global systems of power, difference, and inequality. I have written with August Carbonella of the promise that a return to Du Bois's writing on race, class, and labor struggles holds for understanding how peoples around the globe are differently marked, racialized, and divided by the uneveness of capital's expanse (Carbonella and Kasmir 2008.) Importantly, Du Bois also accounts for occasions of solidarity that surface despite difference, and he carefully sketches the dialectical relationship between the forces of fragmentation, on the one hand, and moments of solidarity, on the other. The current global economic crisis, like those of the past, will wash unevenly over different populations, and it will create new hierarchies and divisions among and between working classes. We will surely use our voices as anthropologist to document and understand the impact and extent of this crisis. Yet we will be more relevant and we will contribute more to advancing global labor if we do not fall back on old habits of focusing narrowly on the cultural differences that emerge. Rather, we will do better to keep our frame wide.

Second, David Bacon's work invites us to question our reluctance to study and ally with organized labor. In the last years we have made significant progress both in both our scholarship and practice: There have been more conference panels on unions and global labor struggles; we refused to hold our 2004 meetings in hotels that had locked out workers; the AAA formed a Labor Rights Committee; we passed a resolution to support Coca Cola workers across the globe; and we are here today. This is a portentous time for an anthropology of labor, when we on the left have to work harder, be more strategic, get more organized, and be more relevant than ever before. Well beyond the pointers I have suggested here, David Bacon's body of work can inspire and direct us in this effort.