I co-convened a really excellent panel at this year’s American Anthropological Association meeting, on trade unions in different contexts. It went very well indeed, and we are talking about how we might take it forward. We welcome any comments, collaborations, etc. Here is the panel description, and list of papers:
Labor, Law, and Cultures of Mobilization: (Co)producing Anthropological Narratives of Struggle and Inequality
Convenors: Sian Lazar and Pnina Werbner
In the face of growing inequalities and the widening chasm between a tiny, privileged elite and the ’99 percent’, labor organizations worldwide have had to struggle to claim the moral high ground and find common cause with other social movements. In the global wave of public protests since 2011, labor organizations have played a prominent role, from North Africa to Wisconsin, and from Southern Africa to Latin America. Their struggle to defend their rights and their members’ jobs and pay has been carried out in multiple spaces: workplaces, homes, streets, and courts. They contend with conservative judges, anti-labor politicians and legislators, and negative perceptions of unions among workers and the general public.
The challenge for public anthropologists studying these social processes has been twofold: first, to record the events as they unfold, foregrounding anthropological strengths in the study of vernacular culture alongside a more comparative social analysis of organizational dilemmas and shared cosmopolitan notions of labor rights and equity, as these animate labor struggles; second, to conduct fieldwork in a politically charged social field, in which the narratives produced are equally those of activists and their opponents, and where anthropological commitments to disciplinary ‘objectivity’ are necessarily inflected by and embedded in wider ethical commitments.
This session draws on contemporary political anthropologies of social movements and the law, exploring the role of the law in union campaigns and the forms of subjectivation that develop in the interaction between labour organisations and workers. The ethnographic literature on trade unions has to date largely focused on the Global North (e.g. Fantasia and Voss 2004; Lopez 2004; Collins 2012; Durrenberger and Erem 2005, Durrenberger and Reichart 2010, and Mollona 2009). With a few exceptions, such as De Neve (2008), Donham (2011), and Werbner (2009), anthropologists have rarely directly engaged with trade unions in the Global South; much of the work on organized labor in the Global South being directly tied to questions of the globalization of the world economy (e.g. Collins 2007; De Neve 2008). This panel complements and extends this literature with a focus on more directly political questions of mobilisation, subjectivity and organisation for economic justice.
The session includes papers from Southern Africa (Botswana, Swaziland and South Africa), Latin America and the Caribbean (Argentina and Trinidad) and India; and divides its focus between public sector workers and those in informal industrial spaces. Papers will discuss both union activists and those whom they seek to represent. We will explore the different organizational and campaigning strategies utilized by unions, including the balance between street and courtroom as spaces of protest. We will analyze the relationships between workers and unions in particular contexts, and the significance for union mobilization of specific political subjectivities as ‘working’ or ‘middle’ class, ‘professional’, and ‘home-based’, ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ worker, ‘civil servant’ or ‘entrepreneur’. The session speaks to debates about the continuing relevance of labor-based mobilization for economic justice, rights and well-being in a contemporary political context that often downplays the very real impact of labor-based mobilization across the globe.
Legal Mobilization, Legal Skepticism and the Politics of Public Sector Unions in Botswana. Pnina Werbner, Keele University
Women’s Work and Working Women: Strike Discourse and the Politics of the Second Shift. Kate Griffiths-Dingani, CUNY Graduate Center
Temporalities of law and activism in Argentine collective bargaining. Sian Lazar, University of Cambridge
Mobilizing tradition: Swazi workers’ struggles between spontaneous action and customary ideologies.Vito Laterza, University of Pretoria
The Labour of Suffering: Poverty, Embeddedness and the Idea of Class in the Indian Informal Economy. Andrew Sanchez, University of Kent
From Dispossessed Industrial Workers to “Microentrepreneurs”: The Parlous Politics of Homeworkers in the Global Economy. Rebecca Prentice, University of Sussex
Discussant: Laura Bear, LSE