The Abstract, the Concrete, the Political, and the Academic: Anthropology and a Labor Union in the United States

By Durrenberger, E. Paul; Erem, Suzan | Human Organization, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Abstract, the Concrete, the Political, and the Academic: Anthropology and a Labor Union in the United States

Durrenberger, E. Paul, Erem, Suzan, Human Organization

We describe the political structure and dynamics of a labor union local in Chicago and how both interact with the goals and objectives of the members, stewards, union representatives, officers of the union local, and the international. We discuss how the political structure and process were revealed, not because we focused on it but in the process of sabotage that occurred when we attempted a different kind of study.

Key words: unions, organized labor, political anthropology, politics, structure, dynamics


Rick Fantasia (1988:11) points out the distance between peoples' answers to questions on surveys and in interviews and their actions and suggests that we should base our analyses on their "actions, organizational capabilities, institutional arrangements," rather than representations of attitudes abstracted from the contexts of daily life and action. Though he is a sociologist, he makes a case for ethnography.

Bronfenbrenner et al. (1998) provide an accessible summary of the state of the American labor movement. The labor movement is not strong in the United States, not because of worker disinterest, individualism, or some inscrutable difference between the U.S. and Europe-but because of wellorganized, massive, and often violent opposition (Vanneman and Weber 1987; Durrenberger 1992a, 1994, 1995a). The organized share of the workforce peaked in 1946, the year before the Taft-Hartley amendments to the Wagner Act limited union organizing and mutual-aid tactics and empowered employers with new means of opposing unions. The chief factors in labor's decline are structural, such as the flight of capital to low-wage countries and unorganized areas, the shift to a service economy, and the changes of law and administration that have moved unions toward being bureaucracies for handling quasi-legal cases (Durrenberger and Erem 1997a, 1997b).

Bronfenbrener et al. (1998:3) cite evidence that economic factors account for only a third of the decline. Much of the rest is due to the anti-union offensive of the 1970s and 1980s and the allied industry of consultants who work to keep enterprises union-free. Cohen and Hurd (1998) outline a general pattern of worker intimidation that Fantasia (1988) shows ethnographically. Fantasia argues that the bureaucratic routines imposed by Taft-Hartley channel conflict so that solidarity only emerges when workers have to rely on it as a means to oppose employers outside these bureaucratic channels. He argues that in these extraprocessual events, to use Bohannan's (1958) term, solidarity emerges, but under normal working conditions there is no space for it. Thus everyday routine action reflects less interest in unions and organizing than polls indicate (Bronfenbrenner et al. 1998).

Economic and policy changes may set the framework for the decline of American unions, but the unions failed to respond even when they had the resources to do so. Some understood that they could not afford to wait until the climate was less hostile. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) brought many service workers and public-sector workers into the labor movement. In 1995, John Sweeney of SEIU and his slate were elected to lead the AFL-CIO on their promise to organize "at an unprecedented pace and scale." Since taking office they have committed significant resources to this effort (Bonfenbrener et al. 1998).

Bonfenbrener et al. (1998) review the research on organizing and the reasons that much such research is focused on macroprocesses accessible through publicly available statistical material. Most such studies do not include union organizing strategies as variables because these are not included in the available data. Some even theorize that strategy is not significant to outcomes (Bronfenbrenner and Juravich 1998). There are some qualitative case studies, but these rarely include quantitative material or statistical analysis (Sacks 1988; Newman 1988; Fantasia 1988).

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The Abstract, the Concrete, the Political, and the Academic: Anthropology and a Labor Union in the United States


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