Getting by in Hard Times: Gendered Labour at Home and on the Job. (Book Reviews/Comptes Rendus)

By Michalski, Joseph H. | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Getting by in Hard Times: Gendered Labour at Home and on the Job. (Book Reviews/Comptes Rendus)


Michalski, Joseph H., Canadian Journal of Sociology


Meg Luxton and June Corman, Getting By in Hard Times: Gendered Labour at Home and on the Job. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001, 326 pp.

What has been the impact of economic restructuring on Hamilton steelworkers and their families over the 1980s and 1990s? How have women coped with the changes, both as paid employees and in the sphere of social reproduction? How do these working-class men and women alike make sense out of the changes that they have experienced, i.e., what are the personal narratives and styles of discourse that are used to justify and defend their own socioeconomic positions? These are the questions that inform the core Luxton and Corman's analysis.

The issues are addressed entirely from a Marxist-feminist perspective, particularly through the authors' discussion of social reproduction, or "the activities required to ensure day-to-day and generational survival of the population" (p. 29). Much of the book assumes a critical perspective in examining the inherent tensions embedded in the relations of production and the exchange of labour power via-a-vis the unpaid domestic labour required to sustain the family unit and to enhance the capacity of family members to maintain their labour force attachments. The core arguments are not new, but the authors present some interesting recent data to help confirm their main thesis: the household as the site of social reproduction subsidizes industrial capitalism primarily at the expense of women.

Luxton and Corman develop several additional arguments through their case study of Stelco's Hilton Works plant in Hamilton, Ontario. The work explores the social reproduction thesis in detail, as the authors sharply critique the mutual incompatibility of the social organization of the domestic sphere and the requirements of paid labour. Since most families have been organized around the ideals of nuclear and heterosexual commitments, the individual steelworkers and their partners were not often able to articulate alternative visions for how such informal or unpaid work might be organized differently. Instead, women have continued to serve as "a reserve army of unpaid labour, expanding and contracting their domestic labour in reaction to changing state and business practices" (p. 6). The impact of neo-liberal restructuring has been to intensify the class, gender, and race inequalities among the working class, as individuals and their families turned inward to protect their declining standards of living.

The empirical support for their arguments stems mainly from interviews with 187 cohabiting couples conducted in 1984, followed by in-depth interviews with 30 of these individuals ten years later. In addition, interviews with several women steelworkers provide another layer of analysis. The authors draw upon these interviews to investigate the capital-labour relationship, first by focussing on the daily routines and experiences of the workers. Luxton and Corman are most compelling in their treatment of the workplace culture, as the authors present evidence of racism and especially sexism as dominating everything from language to the lunchroom walls. The follow-up chapter describes the restructuring process of the 1980s and 1990s that threatened job security, undermined workers' confidence in achieving long-term stability, and helped consolidate further management's control over the workplace.

The second half of the book presents a gender corrective to the predominantly Marxist framework. One chapter concentrates on the struggle to juggle paid labour and domestic labour demands, followed by an in-depth look at the gendered division of labour and individual strategies for maintaining the household. The authors conclude that most men continue to benefit from the prevailing arrangements, both through their unequal earning power and the extent to which women assume greater domestic responsibilities regardless of their own employment status. …

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