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Class, Politics, and Representation in the Wake of the UK’s Summer Budget

This time last year we published a virtual issue of the journal to mark Gareth Stedman Jones and Jane Wills’ Antipode RGS-IBG Lecture. Entitled ‘Class, Politics, and Representation’, it brought together 22 papers (making them open access) on the making of working class life; productions of space through class struggle; changes to trade union organising; the importance of extra-workplace institutions; the production of scale; issues of labour migration; what we might call ‘problematic politics’; the limits to agency; workers’ moral geographies; representations of the working class and their ends; and much more.

Following yesterday’s summer budget here in the UK – in which our Conservative government laid out plans for a ‘living wage’ (on the scare-quotes see here), cuts to welfare (but also corporation tax), public sector pay restraint, and changes to HE funding, among other things – we think it’s well worth revisiting the papers: labour geography, new working class studies, discourse analysis, social movement studies, and a bit of historical-geographical materialism casts as much light as ever…

Class

We couldn’t not open with Andrew Herod’s ‘From a geography of labour to a labour geography: Labour’s spatial fix and the geography of capitalism’–a seminal essay that gave rise to radical geography’s ongoing project to analyse how, and with what consequences, workers “seek to make the landscape in their own image…to create particular spatial fixes appropriate to their own condition and needs at particular times in particular locations…” (p.3, 17). Some of Herod’s earliest contributions to ‘labour geography’ appeared in Antipode, one of which sparked a constructive discussion, pushing Jane–in her co-authored ‘Unions and the politics of deindustrialization: Some comments on how geography complicates class analysis’–to consider “the considerable geographical variation in the vulnerability and responses of capital and labour to the pressures of competitive intensification” (p.60).

Capital, they argue, isn’t always–and everywhere–as strong/flexible/mobile as it appears in many accounts. And the accompanying discourse of inexorable labour de-radicalisation and acquiescence ought to also be questioned: what role do, say, working class culture and tradition, or formal institutions and political parties, play in the re/making of economic geographies? The nature of labour’s struggles for survival and reproduction shouldn’t be presumed; they can’t be deduced, or ‘read off’, from capital’s strategies. Together with Herod’s comradely reply, this dialogue represents a significant contribution towards thinking on class in geography, exploring the different ways in which workers interpret, and struggle to change, their place in the world.

Jane’s paper, ‘Uneven geographies of capital and labour: The lessons of European Works Councils’ looks at the challenges and opportunities facing trade unions as they develop strategies fit for a globalising economy. It considers “the persistent tension between local and/or national interests and transnational sentiment among workers” (p.488). In this case, Jane argues that the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house only if used creatively, if, for example, union representatives appropriate the spaces of capital, repurposing them as “important nodes in a network of labour organisation” (p.503), places from which the map of labour can be drawn and redrawn.

Continuing in this vein, in ‘Geographies of trade unionism: Translating traditions across space and time’ Jane anatomises the “uneven development of trade union organisation and tradition” (p.352-353), taking into account migration (migrants often bring ties to unions, they carry culture, customs, reasons for acting), processes of learning (the demonstration of tactics that work) and generational differences (are unions ‘of our own making’ or always already made?), thinking through how these ‘translations’, between places, over space and time, shape workers’ responses to change.

From compounded to fragmented labour: Mineworkers and the demise of compounds in South Africa’ by Andries Bezuidenhout and Sakhela Buhlungu complements Jane’s papers. Their investigation of the South African mining industry from the ‘colonial and apartheid moment’ (up to 1982), through the ‘moment of resistance’ (1982-1987), to the ‘moment of liberation’ (1987 to the present) charts the development of labour compounds and ebb and flow of union power. Unions appropriated what were spaces marked by unrest and violence, nurturing seeds of solidarity. Compound infrastructure was put to new uses and extant discourses were developed, but this has not been unproblematic and the organising model might well need rethinking.

In ‘The geography of union organising in low-paid service industries in the UK: Lessons from the T&G’s campaign to unionise the Dorchester Hotel, London’ Jane considers the challenges facing ‘traditional’ union organising in low-paid service industries in the UK. Where hours are long, conditions poor, and staff turnover high, unions ought to be considering “efforts to re-scale organisation beyond the workplace” (p.155). Solidarity could be forged with community groups and social movements, faith organisations, and anti-poverty and social justice campaigners, recognising the diversity of workers and the problems they face: “union-led campaigns would be orchestrated at a larger geographical scale, across occupations and/or economic sectors, finding activists from across workplaces and drawing in allies from further afield” (p.157).

The limits to traditional union organising are explored further in Jane Holgate and colleagues’ paper, ‘Geographies of isolation: How workers (don’t) access support for problems at work’. What and to whom do ethnic minority workers turn to for help and representation when they have problems at work? Not just unions. Support in the UK comes in many forms: from the Citizens Advice Bureau, Law Centres, and other third sector organisations, from colleagues, family and friends, from community centres, faith groups, political parties, etc. Respondents give many reasons for not turning to unions, and in these neoliberal times of ‘personal responsibility’ help beyond them can be hard to find. Add language barriers, racism and sexism to the mix and the problem looks formidable indeed.

Nina Martin’s research, presented in ‘The crisis of social reproduction among migrant workers: Interrogating the role of migrant civil society’, takes us across the Atlantic, looking at the role of Chicago-based civil society organisations in the social reproduction of migrant workers, in assisting them in “navigating the landscape of substandard work” (p.128). These institutions regulate, so to speak, the informal economy, enabling it to function: where pay is low and conditions poor they fill the void and make workers’ survival possible. A crisis of social reproduction is displaced, transferred to civil society, ‘outsourced’ to them, and whatever their stated purpose and intentions, they manage it, making ‘getting by’ possible.

Politics

Classes struggle, but the papers above suggest that when workers ‘seek to make the landscape in their own image’ it’s anything but straightforward. (As David Harvey said in Spaces of Capital, “Marxists looking to class relations find neighbourhoods, communities, regions and nations”.) Below we have a selection of studies committed to looking at this complexity, concrete analyses of concrete situations that draw out the ironies and paradoxes, conflicts and tensions, dilemmas and contradictions of class politics.

In ‘British jobs for British workers? Negotiating work, nation, and globalisation through the Lindsey Oil Refinery disputes’ Anthony Ince and colleagues argue that “insufficient attention has been made to the ways in which agency can produce exclusionary and differentiated spaces of organising”, calling for “engagement with politically ambiguous struggles” (p.2). Labour geographers, they note, have thus far been largely ‘for’ workers’ agency, and ‘contentious’ struggles–which we mightn’t wish to fully support–haven’t received the critical engagement required if we’re to learn from them. Their paper analyses both activists’ self-representations and media discourses, as well as the differences within and between them, looking at the debates that raged around the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’.

In ‘Labour’s geography: Capital, violence, guest workers, and the post-World War II landscape’ Don Mitchell makes a different but not unrelated argument. Labour geography’s ‘impulse’–its desire to put workers’ agency ‘at the heart’ of historical-geographical analysis–is vital. However, there is the danger “of overestimating the degree to which workers can make their own spatial fixes”, a tendency “to overemphasise when, how often, and the degree to which, workers create an ‘active community’ out of a ‘mutuality of the oppressed’” (p.566). One could be forgiven for thinking that labour politics is all about sustained success, for underestimating the repeated failures. Sometimes the pressures on agency are too great, the limits to it insurmountable; “labour geography must be tempered with a sober, materialist assessment of labour’s geography…” (p.567).

Sam Scott’s essay, ‘Labour, migration, and the spatial fix: Evidence from the UK food industry’, explores migration as one of capital’s ‘spatial fixes’ to its perennial crises. Scott sees migration, the ‘importing’ of labour, as regulating low-wage labour markets, as one of the factors in “[t]he key issue beneath the worker agency ‘exceptions’ [that one finds in the labour geography literature]…the way in which controls over workers have grown and workplace regimes have intensified” (p.1095). His case is seasonal food production in the UK where the increasing presence of the ‘good migrant worker’ has enabled the growth of controls and intensification of labour processes.

In Robert Bridi’s ‘Labour control in the tobacco agro-spaces: Migrant agricultural workers in south-western Ontario’ we hear from workers willing to endure low wages, long hours, and less than ideal conditions given a lack of opportunities at home and the perceived benefits of remittances; in any case, state regulation limits union representation and the consulates responsible for worker welfare seem quick to help deport ‘trouble-makers’. The workers are compelled and/or coerced to accept their lot, but as Bridi sees it there’s also consent. They play a kind of ‘game’; there’s ‘relative satisfaction’ to be found in hard work, the mastery of skills, gaining strength, garnering respect, and so on, and the workers are readily interpellated as ‘rugged individuals’. The repressive role of this satisfaction, its role in the production of consent, shouldn’t be underestimated.

For a complementary analysis, see Jill Harrison and Sarah Lloyd’s ‘Illegality at work: Deportability and the productive new era of immigration enforcement’, which looks at the production of migrants through US immigration policy and practice, and the productivity of this: ‘illegal’ migrants are often indebted, the ‘deportable’ fearful, and thus in many ways they’re ‘ideal’ workers, ‘compliant workaholics’ (we might say that it’s not a matter of the border or the law ‘working’ but, rather, of it putting people to work).

Problematising labour’s agency: Rescaling collective bargaining in British Columbia pulp and paper mills’ by Brendan Sweeney and John Holmes examines a union local that made concessions to an idle mill’s new owner, agreeing to pay and conditions different from those in other mills throughout the province. This local ‘success’ had consequences at the regional scale when mill owners pushed for an end to province-wide, centralised collective bargaining. While unintended, this outcome would arguably have been anticipated, and thus rather than damn these defensive actions as short-sighted (or, worse, write the workers off as ‘dupes’), Sweeney and Holmes turn to work on the conflicts and tensions between place and class, between commitment to community and a more abstract class solidarity or ‘interest’. Labour geography should be about the possibility of progressive agency, to be sure; but it should also be about its difficulty.

Elliot Siemiatycki agrees. His paper, ‘Forced to concede: Permanent restructuring and labour’s place in the North American auto industry’, considers the ‘Detroit Three’–Chrysler, GM and Ford–from the turn of the century to the wake of the recent financial crisis. In hard times the union line in the US and Canada has changed from ‘no concessions’ to ‘necessary changes’ and then, with the arrival of conditional government bailouts, ‘stakeholders making sacrifices’; relations have become less adversarial, ever more cooperative and all about ‘problem solving’ as the industry undergoes ‘permanent restructuring’. The moment has been seized by capital, then, but this wasn’t inevitable. Siemiatycki sketches out some of labour’s shortcomings, concluding with a look at its prospects; by soberly facing the realities workers cope with and defend against, and their failures in doing so, labour geography has a role to play in these.

In ‘Scales and skills of monopoly power: Labour geographies of the 1890-1891 Chicago carpenters’ strike’ Robert Ross looks at an ingenious, if not unproblematic, struggle. Workers sought to produce an urban scale labour market, vigorously–sometimes violently–maintaining the borders of the city in order to limit competition and in doing so control the price at which labour power qua commodity sells. Their employers had deskilled the labour process by introducing machinery; scientific management served to minimise the number of workers required; and the pool of workers was widened further when the railway system expanded. Rather than taking whatever price they could get for their labour power, workers struggled to increase monopoly power, (re)producing scale to make price. In practice, this meant picketing railway stations and intimidating non-unionised, out-of-town workers–a process often marked by racism and nationalism.

Representation

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gareth’s work on the city, irregular and precarious labour, underemployment, the working poor, and inequality looked back to a world very different. Today, perhaps, Victorian society feels closer to us, more familiar. As he notes in the 2013 preface to Outcast London, the language of a ‘feral underclass’, the ‘undeserving poor’, has returned, with contempt trumping empathy (‘chavs’; ‘poverty of ambition’) and anger and resentment riding high (single mothers and housing; migrants and public services): “When I originally embarked upon Outcast London, the plight of the underemployed, of the casual labourer, looked like part of the bleak prehistory of the 20th century…in the light of the pattern of economic development over the last 40 years, it now seems it was the condition of full employment underpinned by a reliable framework of social security that was to prove provisional and exceptional.”

Tom Slater’s ‘The myth of “Broken Britain”: Welfare reform and the production of ignorance’[1] takes on the discourses Gareth identifies, examining how “emotive terms, phrases and concepts” have been deployed by conservative think tanks, media, and political parties “to manufacture doubt with respect to the structural causes of unemployment and poverty, and to give the impression that ‘welfare’ is a lifestyle choice…” (p.3). Slater argues that ignorance has to be made and maintained–and knowledge of how things are, and could be, lost and forgotten. His target is the rhetoric of ‘Broken Britain’; a topsy-turvy discourse that takes consequences to be causes and has been perniciously promulgated to ‘deflect’ reality, vilifying those who aren’t working as ‘shirking’, ‘skiving’ rather than ‘striving’.

Michael Ekers sees a similar pathologising and demonising of the unemployed in Canada, and like Gareth looks back from the present to anatomise the “ideologies, representations, and practices that contributed to the derision of the unemployed” (p.1120), that is, how and with what consequences the unemployed were ‘produced’ in the past. In ‘“The dirty scruff”: Relief and the production of the unemployed in Depression-era British Columbia’, though, Ekers is careful to demonstrate how the unemployed are not only produced but also productive, looking at how some organised against the further erosion of welfare provisions, made collective demands, and forged connections with trade unions and other groups.

In their paper, ‘Class, agency, and resistance in the old industrial city’, Andrew Cumbers and colleagues develop a nuanced sense of agency, one sensitive to how working people, and those un-/under-employed, cope with change (and respond to it creatively), how they defend against it (and struggle for progressive alternatives), while fully taking the measure of the very real constraints faced. Their case is Glasgow, an ‘old industrial city’, and they deploy work on resilience, reworking and resistance to explore practices of ‘getting by’ (informal networks of ‘care and concern’), ‘redistributing resources’ (more formal organisations) and ‘self-valorisation’ (projects linking wages and conditions to public service provision and welfare, such as the living wage campaign).

The political economy of class compromise: Trade unions, capital-labour relations, and development in north east Brazil’ by Ben Selwyn blends together insights from new working class studies and global commodity chains analysis. The approaches, as he sees them, are complementary: the latter helping us envisage workers’ ‘structural power’ (that is, the potential which consists in their location in the economic system); the former helping us envisage worker’s ‘associational power’ (that is, the potential which consists in their organisation, education, culture and so on). To realise structural power, associational power must be developed; without the latter, the former might well remain unexercised, or be exercised but not realised.

New working class studies–the study of not just class position but ‘working classness’–are explored further in ‘Thinking through class and gender in the context of working class studies’[2]. Linda McDowell considers how we might better represent class, arguing for “…a scholarship that sees class through the lens of gender and race relations, that constructs class not as categorical positions but as active, ongoing and negotiable sets of practices that vary across time and space, and that accepts that class relations, and ‘the economic’ more widely, must include overall ‘ways of living’, including social relations within the home and the community as well as the workplace as more traditionally understood” (p.21), acknowledging that this is, of course, ‘easier said than done’.

Jane’s ‘Mapping class and its political possibilities’ sketches out four ways in which geographers might achieve this by ‘mapping’ class in new ways: the first differentiates class in a number of ways (for example, in academic accounts we seldom see teachers, doctors and nurses, social workers, fire fighters and police officers, and those who clean, maintain and run offices, shops and the like[3]); the second thinks through ‘intersectionality’, the gendering, racialisation and so on of class; the third has its focus on representation, on popular, media and policy discourses of spatial divisions of consumption and reproduction; and the fourth is all about politicisation and the production of political subjectivities (the ways in which class can become significant, the conditions of possibility for class politics[4]).

Endnotes

[1] This paper is a part of the symposium, ‘Grammars of Urban Injustice’, organised by Gordon MacLeod and Colin McFarlane.

[2] This paper and the next one come from ‘Geography and New Working Class Studies’, an intervention symposium which has its roots in an Antipode-sponsored RGS-IBG conference session. The term ‘working classness’ is symposium organiser Alison Stenning’s; for more on new working class studies see symposium contributor Tim Strangleman‘s work.

[3] Though see the special issue ‘Cleaners and the Dirty Work of Neoliberalism’ edited by Andrew Herod and Luis Aguiar.

[4] See also the special issue ‘Space, Place and the New Labour Internationalisms’ edited by Peter Waterman and Jane Wills.

The papers

Andrew Herod (1997) From a geography of labor to a labor geography: Labor’s spatial fix and the geography of capitalism. Antipode 29(1):1-31

Jane Wills, Ron Martin and Peter Sunley (1994) Unions and the politics of deindustrialization: Some comments on how geography complicates class analysis. Antipode 26(1):59-76

Jane Wills (2001) Uneven geographies of capital and labour: The lessons of European Works Councils. Antipode 33(3):484-509

Jane Wills (1996) Geographies of trade unionism: Translating traditions across space and time. Antipode 28(4):352-378

Andries Bezuidenhout and Sakhela Buhlungu (2011) From compounded to fragmented labour: Mineworkers and the demise of compounds in South Africa. Antipode 43(2):237-263

Jane Wills (2005) The geography of union organising in low-paid service industries in the UK: Lessons from the T&G’s campaign to unionise the Dorchester Hotel, London. Antipode 37(1):139-159

Jane Holgate, Anna Pollert, Janroj Keles and Leena Kumarappan (2011) Geographies of isolation: How workers (don’t) access support for problems at work. Antipode 43(4):1078-1101

Nina Martin (2010) The crisis of social reproduction among migrant workers: Interrogating the role of migrant civil society. Antipode 42(1):127-151

Anthony Ince, David Featherstone, Andrew Cumbers, Danny MacKinnon and Kendra Strauss (2014) British jobs for British workers? Negotiating work, nation, and globalisation through the Lindsey Oil Refinery disputes. Antipode DOI: 10.1111/anti.12099

Don Mitchell (2011) Labor’s geography: Capital, violence, guest workers, and the post-World War II landscape. Antipode 43(2):563-595

Sam Scott (2013) Labour, migration, and the spatial fix: Evidence from the UK food industry. Antipode 45(5):1090-1109

Robert Michael Bridi (2013) Labour control in the tobacco agro-spaces: Migrant agricultural workers in south-western Ontario. Antipode 45(5):1070-1089

Jill Lindsey Harrison and Sarah E. Lloyd (2012) Illegality at work: Deportability and the productive new era of immigration enforcement. Antipode 44(2):365-385

Brendan Sweeney and John Holmes (2013) Problematizing labour’s agency: Rescaling collective bargaining in British Columbia pulp and paper mills. Antipode 45(1):218-237

Elliot Siemiatycki (2012) Forced to concede: Permanent restructuring and labour’s place in the North American auto industry. Antipode 44(2):453-473

Robert B. Ross (2011) Scales and skills of monopoly power: Labor geographies of the 1890-1891 Chicago carpenters’ strike. Antipode 43(4):1281-1304

Tom Slater (2014) The myth of “Broken Britain”: Welfare reform and the production of ignorance. Antipode 46(4):948-969

Michael Ekers (2012) “The dirty scruff”: Relief and the production of the unemployed in Depression-era British Columbia. Antipode 44(4):1119-1142

Andrew Cumbers, Gesa Helms and Kate Swanson (2010) Class, agency, and resistance in the old industrial city. Antipode 42(1):46-73

Ben Selwyn (2011) The political economy of class compromise: Trade unions, capital-labour relations, and development in north east Brazil. Antipode 43(4):1305-1329

Linda McDowell (2008) Thinking through class and gender in the context of working class studies. Antipode 40(1):20-24

Jane Wills (2008) Mapping class and its political possibilities. Antipode 40(1):25-30

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This entry was posted on 9 July 2015 by in News.

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