Society for the Anthropology of Work




Conrad Arensberg Award Nominations


The Conrad Arensberg Award was established by SAW in 1991 to recognize lifetime achievements in the anthropological study of work.  Please contact Michael Blim ( if you would like to suggest a nomination.


The Anthropology of Union Locals


By Pete Richardson (U Michigan)


What is a union?  How does it function everyday?  What are the rights and obligations a union brings to the workplace?  How are unions shaped by government regulations and by their relationships with companies? Most important of all, how does solidarity work? 

Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life has been exploring work, family, and the role of the union at a struggling auto plant in the Detroit area.  Unions are both occupational and class organizations.  Through collective representation and action, unions mediate between markets and workers.  Working within evolving, global economic institutions, and at the vanguard of the 1930s unionist movement for living wages and workplace democracy, American autoworkers today find themselves being dispossessed.

            In this environment, the institution of the family pervades union relationships.  The ethnography I am conducting in the plant, at union meetings, and in the community has reinforced how critical metaphors of the family are at the workplace.  At union meetings the constant use of “Brother” and “Sister” - affirmations of siblingship that transcend race, age, and gender – began to seem important to me.  Paternalism was widely used as a model for relations of production between companies and managers.  Why not see union brother and sisterhood as a kind of relatedness embedded in practical activity, with rights and responsibilities quite distinct from paternalism?

Breaking down the conceptual wall between “work” and “life” reveals many interesting confluences.  The workplace and the home are central spaces of American life.  Why would they not resonate with each other?  Indeed, how could we ever attempt to understand such complimentary institutions apart from each other?  New kinship’s focus on everyday exchanges (for example of labor) as the substance of relatedness lends support to the idea of looking at the union as a kind of jural family, where rights and obligations based on a social imagining of siblingship take precedence.  Intergenerational union families and familial unions reproduce each other in the industrial heartland.

The question today may be how to bridge the gap between unions positioned to represent workers locally, and unions that are able to have a voice in global economic institutions.  Here, aHHereHn understanding of cross-border organizing is a necessity (with a role for the anthropology of work), but so too is an understanding of how we valorize occupations.  As we supposedly move into a new economic epoch, the role that unions will play remains to be seen.  What is certain is that this role will reflect the solidarity mustered by workers, a solidarity that will require an imagination that exceeds that of the dismal sciences and technology.


[Pete Richardson is a post-doctoral fellow with the Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life and the Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Michigan.  He has worked as a commercial fisherman, bouncer, DJ, and at a sawmill, where he was a member of the Western Council of Industrial Workers.]


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