Shaping the Ideal Worker: Power, Gender, and Responsibility on the Production Line in Appalachian Kentucky
AuthorHayes, Lauren A.
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction or presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
EmbargoRelease after 01-Jan-2024
AbstractFactory work is simultaneously considered an icon of capitalist production and a symbol of the American dream. Nostalgia for the days of a reliable and permanent factory job often shape political discourse and media discussions about work in the United States. Manufacturing workers currently occupy a tenuous position in the new economy. Current configurations of labor value promise an empowered work experience through collaborative management practices, less rigid hierarchies, merit-based promotions, and opportunities for independent or flexible work. However, structures of production increasingly hold workers individually accountable for unpredictable schedules, the management of high-tech machines, and their own self-development and employment security. This tension frames my analysis of the ways that manufacturing workers at multiple levels of hierarchy negotiate new responsibilities and labor value in the midst of neoliberal work reforms. Specifically, I explore the implementation of a workplace culture change project at an auto parts manufacturing corporation located in Appalachian Kentucky that merged lean production practices with neoliberal values of individual responsibility. The Appalachian region has endured a history of corporate exploitation and misdirected development efforts that clustered wealth, opportunity, and employment on the metropolitan edges of the region and that continue to attract industries offering low-wage, labor-intensive, and precarious jobs. These circumstances necessitate labor mobility and have caused waves of de-industrialization and persistent experiences of unemployment and poverty in the region, often construing Appalachia as a symbol of economic despair in the popular imagination. A current confluence of trends including an increasing acceptance of worker flexibility, the growing use of high-tech machines in manufacturing, and the Appalachian region's sustained decline of the coal industry frame this dissertation's exploration of the ways that current manufacturing practices shape workers' experiences of mobility and gendered divisions of labor. Ethnographic and linguistic data gathered in 17 months of fieldwork at GIA show how this company’s reform process was implemented and naturalized (a) at the administrative level by linking local cultural narratives of mobility, migration, and work ethic with a growing acceptance of flexible labor and (b) on the factory floor through ideals of individualized high-tech machine operation, informal forms of work solidarity, and the negotiation of ideologies of gendered work skill. The analysis demonstrates how working people confront the precarious social and material conditions precipitated by both local processes of globalization and individualizing neoliberal regimes of work with creative social and linguistic strategies. I also show how such systems sustain themselves through local discursive frameworks and the everyday negotiation of power relations on the factory floor in ways that reproduce class relationships and forms of labor mobility as well as the social and economic marginalization of entry-level manufacturing workers in Appalachia.
Degree ProgramGraduate College