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Introduction Hope for Labor in a Neoliberal World E. Paul Durrenberger DOI: 10.5876/9781607326311.c000 Background In August of 2015 an international group of anthropologists along with a few sociologists convened at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, to discuss our work on the national contexts of the unions we had been working with. These included Manos Spyridakis from Greece, Gadi Nissim from Israel, Julia Soul from Argentina, Christian Zlolniski, who has worked in northern Mexico, Maria Eugenia de la O from Mexico, Staffan Löfving from Sweden, Christopher Kelley from Switzerland, Alicia Reigada from Spain, Darcy Pan, who worked in China, Alpkan Birelma from Turkey, Steven Payne, who has worked in the United States and Brazil, as well as me and Suzan Erem, who have collaborated on two decades of work with unions in the United States. There was extensive discussion of each paper, and longtime academic and labor activist Biju Matthew acted as a summarizer and discussant. This book is the result of that workshop, funded by the National Science Foundation Anthropology Section. 4 E. Paul Durrenberger Participants in the workshop were not only different nationalities, they were different ages. There were young colleagues such as Emma Braden, Darcy Pan, Steven Payne, Chris Kelley, Alicia Reigada, and Alpkan Birelma. The more senior members set an example of collegial discussion that we hope will guide all of our work in the future. Every participant mentioned feeling alone in his or her own country and a kind of relief at finding others pursuing the same kind of work, people who were not faltering at the idea of taking sides in an unequal struggle to tell the stories that bring hope for the future of that struggle. For a brief moment we filled a room with ethnographers and told our stories, discussed them, and compared notes. Nobody was looking for a job or rushing to an interview; nobody was trying to please a dean. It was liberating. For this we thank the NSF Anthropology Section. All discussed the consequences of neoliberalism in their countries, especially as it has affected labor organizations, the focus of this workshop. This collection of labor research and analysis from around the world is meant to illustrate the complexity, strength, challenge, creativity, cynicism, and hope of workers’ struggles today. It is a tall order for a small book, but one contribution to what I hope will become a body of meaningful anthropology of and for working people no matter where they live, what language they speak, or what work they do. What I’ve Learned about Unions in the United States In an introduction to the workshop I summarized what I have learned about unions in the United States over the past two decades. First, consumer debt turns workers into indentured servants of the capitalist class. When Suzan and I were working with a Teamster local in Chicago, there was a meeting to take a vote to authorize a strike in case the negotiators needed to use that tool. The vote failed. The older drivers explained it was because the younger ones had to make payments on their houses, their cars, and their credit cards and could not afford to miss a paycheck. Younger workers confirmed that. Consumer lust, as Chinese anthropologist Pung Ngai (2005) calls it, makes people into slaves, because without the ability to strike, unions have only the ability to maneuver, not the ability to change the political or economic system. 5 Introduction: Hope for Labor in a Neoliberal World Second, most American union locals are typically highly centralized and their members are uninvolved. As sociologist C. Wright Mills found in the 1950s in the United States, we also found almost half a century later—union members use the union to pursue individual interests, not class interests, and some union leaders have come to identify with the employing class more than the working class for which they’re supposed to fight. Third, most union staff and officers were also concerned with the personal interests of members, not class struggle. But I learned that when you have to be constantly vigilant to maintain the rights you have negotiated for members, when you have to have an army of quasi lawyers taking on management case by case, worker by worker, worksite by worksite, there’s precious little left for class struggle. Each day is its own struggle. Thus the demands of servicing subvert the goals of organizing. It can become overwhelmingly discouraging or...


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