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Entangled Worlds of Labour: The Advance of Flexible Capitalism in Eastern Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Worldsoflabour (Entangled Worlds of Labour: The Advance of Flexible Capitalism in Eastern Europe)

Reporting period: 2019-08-01 to 2021-07-31

Project number: 792833
Project acronym: Worldsoflabour
Project title: Entangled Worlds of Labour: The Advance of Flexible Capitalism in Eastern Europe
Period covered by the report: from 01/08/2019 to 31/07/2021

Entangled worlds of labour tackles the conundrum of flexible capitalism in East-Central Europe by investigating the incorporation of the Romanian car industry in global commodity chains and its impact on labour regulation, working conditions, and the social fabric around the factory. My research focused on the case of an automobile factory located in the Southern part of Romania, in the city of Craiova. The car factory was opened in 1981 as a joint venture between the French automotive company Citroën and the Romanian socialist state, then taken-over by the South-Korean conglomerate Daewoo in the 1990s. In 2007, Ford became the factory’s main stakeholder and the factory got rapidly expanded. For decades now, the factory has been the most important employer and the biggest taxpayer in the otherwise deindustrializing region of Oltenia, being now placed in a position of “too big to fail” and central in local networks of political clientelism.

The central aim of the project was to offer a historical account of the advancement of flexible capitalism in the Romanian car industry in the last five decades, focusing on its impact upon workers’ biographical openings and imaginaries of the future. This aim translated into three specific objectives: to map the global production networks in which the Romanian car industry has been part of and the associated transformations in the field of labour regulation since the mid-1960s; to reconstruct the generationally specific life courses and the associated possibilities of imagining a “future” for the workers in Craiova, from late socialism into the present; and to analytically relate these generational narratives to technological changes, shifting managerial ideologies, and an increasing flexibilization of labour in other locations.

My findings suggest the following preliminary conclusions. First, against of a superficial reading of “socialism” against “capitalism”, a series of continuities mark the functioning logics of the shopfloor at the factory in Craiova. I argue that these logics are not as dissimilar as previously conceptualized in the literature on the region and can be understood only in relation to the global dynamics of capital accumulation within which Eastern Europe has been absorbed as cheap and controlled labour in the last forty years. Second, workers’ biographical possibilities are rooted in another set of continuities: stubbornly reproduced kinship structures. These structures link the workplace and the home in two fundamental ways: multiple generations from the same household working in the same factory, with familial dynamics extended to the shopfloor; and families pulling financial, temporal, and affective resources for counteracting precariousness and making (inter)generational “futures” possible. Third, a fracture does emerge though at the level of work/life nexus. As the place of wage labour in the universe of social reproduction changes, as visions of “tomorrow’s good life” become blurred and unsustainable, a barrier gets erected to the possibility of mutual understanding between the mobile, fragile generations of today and the more stable late socialist generations, who could refer to a path to “the future” in a linear way. My observations show that radically different generational experiences and the corresponding fracture in future imaginary affect workers’ positioning in every negotiation of the collective contract, in every cat strike attempt, and in any conversation that concerns shopfloor hierarchies or the moral economy of wages. And fourth, the forms of shopfloor conflict encountered during my fieldwork are heavily impacted by the delegitimizing of class as a coagulant of labour’s political imaginary.
I conducted ten months of ethnographic fieldwork in Craiova between September 2019 and July 2020. I collected sixty life history interviews for gaining access to the biographical imaginary of four generations of the men and women who have been employed at the Craiova-based factory between 1981 and 2020.In addition, I conducted additional interviews with engineers, factory managers, production coordinators, and suppliers to reconstruct technological changes, shifting managerial ideologies and practices, and the increasing flexibilization and precarization of labour in Craiova.In order to trace the commodity chains in which the Romanian car industry was caught over the last fifty years.

Until now, in addition to being the foundation of my second monograph, two other papers have been published:
- “It was Quiet”: Pandemics as Normal Life in a Southern Romanian Town”, in Corona and Work Around the Globe, edited by Andreas Eckert. Oldenbourg: DeGruyter (2020).
- “Prolegomena to a New Global Labour History for Eastern and Central Europe”, Historein 19 (1) (2020).
- “Go West: Ruptures, Continuities and Consolidations between Socialist Flexibility and Capitalist Dynamics in the Long 1970s”, special issue ‘Introduction. Ruptures, continuities and consolidations in global economic processes since 1945’, edited by Patrick Neveling and Robert Heinze, Journal of Global History 17 (2) (2022).
The resulted monograph, Entangled Worlds of Labour: Generational Imaginaries and the Advance of Flexible Capitalism in Romania will build on the case of the joint venture between Citroen and the Romanian state, and on the postsocialist trajectory of the industrial unit in global commodity chains, to investigatea long-term historical process that had a deep impact on the possibilities of building a future for several generations of workers.

The knowledge produced during the Fellowship deepen and broaden our understanding of the challenges of globalisation in the realm of production and reproduction of labour. It will foster knowledge transfers at European and national level at a time when institutional actors, as well as academics and the publics have recognised the need to better understand issues of precarity, flexibilization of labour, and women’s and youth’s fragility behind movements of capital, behind the emergence of new transnational production networks, and behind the dissolution of old ones. By focusing more concretely on the ways in which transnational companies affect the fields of employment and gender equality along the production chains, the publications resulted will bring new insights in the domain of the European Union policy and will provide a qualitative contribution to the efforts of reframing labour markets developments and reforms, as well as an opportunity to include a new type of gender analysis into the European Commission’s Gender Action Plan, especially with regard to the effects of trade liberalisation, contributing to making women’s unequal access to formal employment more visible. In the domain of labour relations, my findings offer the trade unions a new angle that could lead to the improvement of their activity as translators between the real experience of work and the negotiations between labour, capital, and the state. The results will deepen the unions’ representatives understanding of legislative effects, negotiation practices in other locations, and global tensions.
“The new labour code, the reinvention of slavery” Source: Author’s own photo, Craiova, April 2020