The Reindustrialization Of The U.S.: An Ethnography Of Auto Workers In The Industrial Rust Belt
Since the 1980s, the capital-intensive U.S. auto industry has faced entrenched, structural challenges competing with international firms. Although these issues cannot be resolved in the long-term by reducing labor costs, management has consistently sought to use international competition as a justification for undermining the job protections gained by unions over the course of the 20th century. Prior to 2007, these efforts resulted in limited success. But in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, auto manufacturers finally gained support from the federal government to both 1) cut worker protections and 2) pursue technological retooling. These dramatic changes, which were posed as saving the auto industry, were penned in the 2009 Modifications to the 2007 National Agreement and later in the 2011 National Agreement. This dissertation, based on 24 months of ethnographic research at a General Motors auto plant in Buffalo, New York, focuses on workers themselves as a means to understanding this watershed transition in the auto industry. The existing literature on the auto industry addresses the development of production models and technology as well as labor-management relations and institutional change without engaging directly with workers. In focusing on the rank and file, this study follows the methodological choice of Ely Chinoy and Ruth Milkman, who both placed auto workers at the center of their respective studies on the impact of early 20th century mass industrialization and the 1980s transition to "lean production" models in the U.S. A major advantage of this approach is that it more accurately represents a key component of the labor process in analytical models, while demonstrating more specifically how labormanagement relations are interlinked with wider industry developments. This study also privileges data over prevailing ideas about the attitudes of workers or the effects of technology upon work. As in Milkman's study, the workers at the GM plant in Buffalo do not share a single perspective. Findings show that a federally mandated process of "reindustrialization" in Rust Belt labor markets created a generational schism in the industry such that workers hired after the bailout were subject to a radically transformed set of work rules, prospects for advancement, and job security. The research examines the meanings of work for these two generations, finding that they were further divided into several groups based on structural contingencies specific to both the industry and the plant. In spite of a wide array of opinions about work after the bailout, the older generation largely viewed the changes in terms of failure, while the new hires were largely grateful for union membership. Such contradictory views reveal the disparity in cultures of work between auto plants and the service industries that comprise the bulk of employment alternatives today. As unions continue to lose ground to contractual rhetoric, the gap narrows between union and non-union industrial workplaces in terms of worker protections. Concomitantly, the study shows that the implementation of new technologies has not had a uniform effect on job reduction or deskilling. A nuanced look at the impact of new technologies grants an opportunity to understand the complex interplay of work, capitalism, and new technologies from the perspectives of the workers themselves. Overall the study shows that understanding the transition instigated by the bailout requires a lens of specificity where cultures of work emerge from the complex articulation between plant dynamics, regional labor markets, company policy and industry trends. Ultimately, it is by attending to the voices of the rank and file that researchers can assess the implications of the bailout for the future of industrial work in America. This study contributes to the sociology of work in the U.S., as well as to theories of the state, working class culture, new technologies, and capitalism.
Reindustrialization of the U.S.; Shop floor ethnography; Auto industry in the U.S.
Makki,Fouad M; Katz,Harry Charles
Ph. D., Development Sociology
Doctor of Philosophy
dissertation or thesis