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The Gift of Labor The Town, the Union, and the Corporate State in the Demise of the Swedish Car Industry Staffan Löfving DOI: 10.5876/9781607326311.c002 “Our role is also to make the company prosper, because that gives work.”­ —Håkan Skött, leader of the Saab factory’s workers’ council in Trollhättan, Sweden, from 2010 to 2011 “Gifts, and other pre-capitalist exchanges, were given in the anticipation of repayment; hence, they were partially planned, interested, and obligatory, and they generated an inequality that indebted the receiver to the giver.” —Sharryn Kasmir (1991:8) The call for a comparison between national contexts of union organizing, as issued in the labor studies literature, is usually based on the assumption that differences are mere expressions of one underlying and globally encompassing transformation of the relation of state to capital, captured by the notion of neoliberalism, and not of ontological or true exceptions to the rule of labor commodification. The dismal fate of “the Swedish model” is often 62 Staffan Löfving evoked as a case in point. In times of manpower redundancies, as mechanisms to shift labor market risks from the individual to society, labor unions played a crucial role for the emergence of the Swedish, corporatist, welfare state project of the twentieth century. The declining bargaining capacity of labor unions is now widely regarded as an indicator of a neoliberal triumph over this social and political experiment (see, e.g., Bergholm and Bieler 2013; Garsten, Lindvert, and Thedvall 2015). In this chapter I will discuss my experiences of an ongoing ethnographic study among downsized workers in a context of American, Dutch, and Chinese corporate takeovers of Swedish automobile manufacturing during the last decades.1 In one traditional auto manufacturing town, a repressive, neoliberal austerity has now become the norm. This austerity is intended to “activate ” individuals to seek or create job opportunities on their own (cf. Peck and Theodore 2000; Garsten and Jacobsson 2004). The union that represents these workers has been walking a tightrope between sacrificing their pet subjects in order to keep the company in place and pushing for workers’ rights, fearing that this will be used as an excuse for the corporation to move the factory. The weakening of a once powerful, state-supported union in Sweden suggests that this is just another example of the global, neoliberal attack on labor. But in an attempt to dig deeper into the history of this particular place, this chapter offers an analysis of perceptions of “employment as emplacement” and the specific, cultural construction of a certain power of the employer to sustain life through the gift of work. This leads to a critical revisiting of the Swedish model in its original twentieth-century version and to a challenge of its supposed quality as a way to recognize workers as people rather than market commodities. I explore the possibility that the union’s complicity with the firm to accumulate capital has a much longer history than the critique of neoliberalism commonly admits. My story begins with the unemployed who are, in this local view of reciprocal labor relations, no longer of the place. Unemployment and Scapegoating: What the Gift of Work Has to Do with It “‘Hey, you! Black bastard! Why are you still here?’ I yelled at him furiously, shaking with anger. I could barely control myself.” This boisterous biker, with tattooed arms and a gray ponytail on a bald skull in the café of Folkets 63 The Gift of Labor Hus (the People’s House) in downtown Trollhättan did not hide his contempt for the “blacks” of his town. The “black bastard,” it turned out, was a Somali immigrant whose path had crossed, apparently more than once, that of the racist, who now, in a group of mates and surrounded by the usual clientele of this café—students, unemployed people of different ages, and groups of elderly killing time over coffee and gossip—emerged as a resolute citizen speaking truth to power. Well, at least to “blacks.” The people around his table grunted approvingly, and the others continued on with their business as if this were a commonplace remark. Not an eyebrow was raised. To the regret of many of its nearly 60,000 residents, the town of Trollhättan is presently infamous for two things. After the December 2011 bankruptcy of its major industry, Saab automobile manufacturing, it was host to the highest unemployment rates in Sweden. It is also regarded as a...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781607326311
Related ISBN
9781607326304
MARC Record
OCLC
1000128725
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-26
Open Access
No
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