Engaged Anthropology Grant: Evren Dincer

While a doctoral student at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, Evren Dincer received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “The Reindustrialization of the U.S.: An Ethnography of Auto Workers in the American Rust Belt,” supervised by Dr. Shelley Feldman. In 2017 Dr. Dincer received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Situating Auto Work: Engaging with Community in the Rust Belt,” 2017, Buffalo, NY.

Thanks to the grant provided by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, I spent eight weeks in Buffalo, New York in the summer of 2017 between June 20 and August 16. During this stay, I accomplished two goals: revisiting my field site and organizing an international conference.

As for the first goal, I revisited the plant I conducted my original fieldwork, General Motors’ Powertrain Plant in Tonawanda, a suburb of Buffalo. I held a total of eight meetings with workers, union leaders as well as members of management to share my findings. These meetings occurred at the union hall (3), company management suite (1) and at the plant (2). I also organized two meetings outside the plant at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations’ downtown Buffalo offıce. During these meetings I shared my findings focusing exclusively on three issues:

1. The issue of generational transition that occurred on the shop floor and its current trajectory. The generational transition in the unionized auto industry constituted the backbone of my dissertation. It basically explains the dynamics of workforce change in a protected labor market, which is largely called internal labor market in the literature. In the post-2008 crisis this meant the gradual replacement of the aging workforce with higher wages and extensive benefit packages with a younger workforce with less pay and limited healthcare. I shared the details of my findings in these meetings and we discussed the trajectory since I left the field site in 2015.

2. The second issue was the issue of space surrounding the plant, which is another central element of my dissertation. The trajectory of organized labor and their everyday lives in the Rust Belt is a critical issue to understand the shop floor relations as well as the larger context of organized labor today. During our meetings I shared findings from my work as well as from the literature on the Rust Belt to enable a better understanding of the condition of work today.

3. The third issue was NAFTA, which was a highly contentious issue at the time and continues to be so today. I had addressed competitive pressures in my dissertation, therefore parts of our meetings focusing on NAFTA featured discussions on NAFTA’s effects on the auto industry in the U.S. and its competitive nature. Workers, especially in the context of Trump’s victory, were quite sensitive to the role of Mexico. Given that about 40% of the UAW (United Auto Workers) represented workers who voted for Trump in 2016, it was difficult yet important to address the trade relations between the two countries.

Regarding the second goal, I organized an international conference on economic development in Buffalo.[1] In my dissertation, one of the central points and contributions to the literature on labor was to highlight the key connection between the shop floor and the socio-economic urban environment it is surrounded by. Labor-management relations in the unionized sectors were traditionally defined by internal labor markets which defined job progressions, formal pay and fringe benefit policies. Such policies shielded the internal labor market from outside effects for decades, such isolation was best visible in the auto industry until the 2008 Recession. However, following the recession the generational transition I mentioned above took place, and I showed how it was only possible with a long-term and in depth economic deterioration in the Rust Belt in general and the Buffalo metro area in particular. This conference, therefore, focused on the issues of economic development in Buffalo since the Great Recession in 2008 to help my interlocutors at the plant and outside to better situate their experiences and economic position with respect to the urban environment they reside and live in.

The grant provided by the Wenner-Gren Foundation helped me share my findings, reconnect with my interlocutors, and organize a professional workshop. However, it also helped me observe some of the recent developments (particularly the collective bargaining process in 2015 and the national elections of 2016) and the effects of these developments on labor in the U.S. today.

[1] The conference took place on August 14 and 15. The first day featured three sessions and took place at Cornell University’s downtown Buffalo premises, while the second day featured one session and took place at UAW Local 774’s union hall. The link to the program, titles and the list of participants can be found here: http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/buffalo/worker-institute/events

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