- Working Construction: Why White Working-Class Men Put Themselves – and the Labor Movement – in Harm’s Way
The question of whether and how race, class and gender are produced through social institutions has been a central focus of feminist and critical race studies. Simultaneously, scholarship in labor studies has called for detailed analysis of the consequences of declining unionization in the United States. Kris Paap's compelling ethnography adds to these literatures and argues that occupational norms and practices shape experiences of gender, race and class. In the tradition of Job Queues, Gender Queues: Explaining Women's Inroads into Male Occupations (Reskin and Roos 1990), Working Construction is a study of how racialized hetero-masculinities are negotiated and reproduced within and through work. This book goes beyond most research on the gendering of occupations, however, and examines the causes and processes behind discrimination through a compelling analysis of how and why white working-class masculinities, affirmative action, and the strength of the labor movement are all intimately tied up with each other.
Working Construction is based on the two and a half years Paap spent as a full-time carpentry apprentice at three companies in the upper Midwest. Paap argues compellingly that engaging in participatory research on the experiential effects of inequality is essential to understanding the consequences of hostile and discriminatory work environments. However, there are tangible consequences to this in terms of data collection. This book would have benefited from additional data in the form of selective interviews (with union leaders, other workers or other "affirmative-action" hires). The effect of the limited data was compounded by the lack of both detailed information about each job site, company and work tenure, or what data was actually collected and analyzed. [End Page 865]
Despite this limitation, Paap develops a nuanced analysis of the shared positioning of women and men of color (who constitute almost all the "affirmative-action hires" in construction work) as the foils against which white working-class men constitute and reinforce their identities. Working Construction builds a complex argument about the social and physiological production of racialized genders as responses to the structural and social constraints experienced by workers. Starting with an interrogation of how construction workers make sense of gender, race and discrimination in Chapter 3, Paap examines the production of gender through manual labor (Chapter 4), the costs and benefits of intentional enactments of normative racialized masculinities (Chapter 6), and the strategic deployment of identity as justification for discriminatory practices (Chapter 5). Paap highlights the social costs and wages of construction work for white, working-class men and the differences she found across construction companies (which varied in their tolerance for sexist and racist behavior and enforcement of safety policies). From these findings she concludes that the sexist, racist and homophobic performances of white working-class masculinity common in construction are not simply displays of personal prejudice but situationally specific responses to the lack of job security and declining union power that mark construction work. She demonstrates that it is this increased vulnerability, coupled with a culture of hyper masculinity and the legacy of gender and race discrimination in the industry that leads workers to put themselves and their fellow workers in harms way.
While Working Construction offers an insightful analysis of how the loss of union strength and job security affects gender and race in the workplace, it is only in the last five pages of the book that Paap draws theoretical connections between workers' lack of security and the fate of the labor movement. It is here that supplemental data from the unions would have been particularly useful. In addition, Paap's ambitious effort to understand how the experiences of women and men of color in construction are shaped by the same structural forces sometimes falls short. For example, there is meager examination of the interaction of race and gender as discriminatory experiences and the reader is often left wondering how to make sense of multi-faceted...