About Our-Life-At-Work

How it all came about. Back in 1992, Bob Pleasure, who then headed up the George Meany Center’s National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland, invited me to teach a class in anthropology as part of their college degree program geared to union leaders and activists.  It was easy to say yes.  His invitation immediately brought to mind my memories of teaching what was then called “continuing education” at a small Catholic college in the Chicago area some fifteen years earlier.  What a contrast these working men and women were to the young, shy and often distracted undergraduates I taught during the day!  Tired from a day at work, these older students in continuing education came to class to learn and be heard.

The course I taught back in the 70’s was an introduction to organizational behavior.  The fun part was hearing about the students’ work lives and how they coped with supervisors, customers and other workers. In sharing their stories, they discovered their job, with all its stresses and quirks, was not unique, that their experience had much in common with the experiences of their classmates who worked in similar jobs.  After all these year I still remember discussions about working in customer service or as a lineman for AT&T or as someone who works for “the city”. I thought a similar approach built on life experiences just might work for a cultural anthropology course at the National Labor College.

The National Labor College. The College Degree Program at the National Labor had a unique structure to accommodate the busy lives of the union leaders and activists it attracted. The program included one week of classes each semester at the College followed by out of class assignments.  Labor leaders and activists would take a week’s leave and drive or fly from all over the country to Silver Spring, Maryland to attend.  In my first year in 1992 I had a class of 12 students from 9 International Unions (three from the Electrical Workers, IBEW) and the Tennessee AFL-CIO.  They came from New York, New Jersey, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Ohio, in addition to nearby Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

During that week on campus, students were together 24 hours a day – sleeping in the campus dorms, going to class, reading and completing assignments and hanging out at the bar, their student union you might say.  Each semester, students would catch up with students they hadn’t seen since the past semester to share laughs, stories and talk about what was going on in their lives, their union, and the country.

Anthropology of Work. For the class at the National Labor College, which I taught from 1992 to 1997, I decided to introduce anthropology through my favorite readings as an undergraduate, including the classic, The Forest People (life among the Pygmy people of the Ituri Forest).  I selected articles on kinship, language, politics, economics, and cultural change from one of the more popular compilations. I included the deservedly famous Tally’s Corner, a book describing streetcorner life in early 1960’s Washington D.C. and For We are Sold, I and my People,  a timely book for the 90’s about work life in the maquiladoras, the factories in a free-trade zone in northern Mexico noted for low wages and unhealthful living conditions.  I also included a piece I wrote about life in a migrant labor camp in New York State in 1968, based on my first-hand experience as part of a research project supported by the Ford Foundation. Lastly, I included Royal Blue: The Culture of  Construction Workers, by Herbert Applebaum.  As their last assignment, I asked the students to write an “ethnography” or description of an occupation or workplace they know well and to draw on class discussions and readings.

Dignity in seeing their lives in print. The students, a number of them local union presidents with over twenty years in their trade, had not come just to fill chairs in a classroom.  They were there to squeeze whatever they could out the experience and speak their mind.  My challenge was to show how anthropology could contribute to their understanding.  And it was good for me that it panned out.  But, it was far from easy.  I distinctly recall an IBEW member’s reaction to reading Royal Blue, a description of building trades culture.  He said something like, “I know all this. Nothing is new to me.  So what’s the point?”  A brother in the trades then piped up, “For me, reading it made me feel like I was recognized. That it was worth writing about.”  And, in fact that was the reaction of most who read Royal Blue and wrote their own ethnographies describing their work life and the work life of those they knew.  There was dignity in seeing their lives in print.  They now wanted to tell their story.

And what stories they were!  I learned more than I could have ever anticipated about occupations that I knew next to nothing about.  Each of the ethnographies they wrote over the six years I taught the course was a window into a world of work that each student, in his or her own way, had to learn and adapt. I do believe that many of them were sincere when they told me the following semester how much it meant to them to write their ethnography.

I told myself then that, one day, I would compile their papers and in some way share them with others, particularly others with some attachment to the labor movement, to give them a chance to see what their fellow unionist had to say and just possibly provide some encouragement for others to tell their stories as well.  So, twenty years later now, in 2012, I began by reading all the ethnographies again. They didn’t disappoint.

A time capsule of occupations from the 1960s through the 1990s. It’s been between fifteen and to twenty years since these papers were written.  Many of the writers’ descriptions of life in their industry and on the job cover the prior twenty or thirty years. In some ways, then, these papers are a time capsule of occupations from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s.  The ethnographies provide a helpful reminder that the changes in the workplace that were occurring in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, are very much with us today, such as advancing technology, the deskilling of occupations, and the growth of women in the workforce.  But, these ethnographies are not about these trends specifically.  They are about workers and their unions coping with, adapting to, challenging and championing these changes that have been, for the most part, brought to them by management.

The ethnographies are based on their personal experience as participants in the work culture.  It’s an insider’s perspective.  Some of the writers noted that the class assignment gave them an excuse to interview some of their fellow workers about their own experiences.  The ethnographies also benefited from the broad experience that many of the writers had in their industry. After spending many years in their occupation, many had moved on to union positions that provided them access to other related occupational subgroups that they might not have known much about as a rank-and-file worker.

It’s not just what they say, but how they say it. The ethnographies are most compelling because they speak with the unionist’s own voice, not that of an outside observer. The writers make rich use of the language of their industry and trade to describe aspects of their work lives.  The give descriptions and, most importantly, they tell stories, much as a cultural informant might tell to an anthropologist.  In many ways the writers here are more like the “key informants” that anthropologists traditionally rely on. But, like any good anthropologist, they raise issues and they ask questions, in their case such questions as, where does the “work ethic” come from? or, why is one group at work recognized as the “prima donnas”?

With pride. I also want to call the reader’s attention to a theme that screams out you when you read these ethnographies. So many of the writers here care deeply about the work they do and take tremendous pride in doing the job right.  They tell us that “quality” is “job one” for them, but not for management.  You will hear about how workers will do their job their own way instead of management’s way at times so that it can be done better and faster. They tell how they may need to get around the formal rules so that the work can be done at all, and how they may even collude with their immediate supervisors to get results.  These ethnographies provide many insights into the relationship of workers to foremen in the trades and supervisors elsewhere. Also, these ethnographies provide an unsurprising contrast between skilled tradesmen and factory workers regarding the strength of their identification with the work they do.  The tradesmen are keen on making and maintaining their stature and these ethnographies say much about how they nurture and defend their trade on the job.

Occupations and workplaces. Over the five years I taught the class at the George Meany Center I received 41 ethnographies covering a range of occupations and workplaces. Ten of these are in manufacturing including one aluminum plant, three bakeries, a Levi Strauss plant, an Armstrong tile plant, a Rubbermaid plant, a Firestone/Bridgestone tire plant, a food processing plant, and a dental equipment company. The building trades are well represented with fifteen ethnographies:  electricians (7), plumbers and steamfitters (3), wire technicians, iron workers,  glaziers, roofers, bridge painters, and boilermakers. Six are in service related occupations including food and beverage workers, retail grocery workers (2), nurses (2), and flight attendants.  There are also ethnographies of railroad workers (2), police officers (2), printers, letter carriers, legal secretaries, a phone billing center, and a radar station in Alaska.  Those ethnographies not yet on the Our Life at Work website will be added in the coming few months.

 Why make these ethnographies available?  First, I believe I owe it the students, the labor leaders and activists who took the time out of their busy lives to work towards a college degree at the National Labor College and to write their stories.  Their voices should be heard.

Second, if I were an electrician, flight attendant, letter carrier or if I worked in a bakery, a steel plant, or a nursing home, I would love to read what one of my co-workers has to say about the job back in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.

Third, my hope is that these articles will encourage others to write their stories, and to send them to Our Life at Work to share with others their experiences, what they have learned, and even how it has shaped their life. Like the students I taught so many years ago, I think many will be surprised that there are people out there who  will find their story interesting  — interesting because it is so similar to their own experience or different in ways they never imagined. But most importantly, it is interesting because it is a story told by people who do the work  and know their job and workplace from the inside out.

There are millions of Americans who get up every morning and go to work to help support themselves and their families. Work is where most spend a big chunk of the lives, and, sometimes, giving up their lives. It’s likely true for you as well. Let others know.  Our Life at Work was created as a way for people to share their stories and comments.

A special thank you. I would like to offer a special thanks to Herbert Applebaum for his book, Royal Blue. His description of the culture of construction workers was an invaluable aid to many of tradesmen and women who wrote about their own trades in these ethnographies.  His insights on apprenticeship, dangers on the job, identity and autonomy, and more gave the students a framework for understanding and describing the own lives and work.  Most of all, his description of pouring concrete, the “thousand yard pour” in constructing a sewage treatment plant, clearly inspired many of the stories told by tradesmen in the ethnographies included here.