Group B Seminar: Agency, Workers and Strategy.

On May day 2006, thousand of so called illegal workers demonstrated a pretty real and tangible form of agency by marching and calling for rights, better pay and conditions and the creation of legal routes to work in the USA. Many were hispanics (the flag above is Mexican alongside the stars and stripes), but did the ‘busboys’ march or were the too busy showing what good workers they were?  Image have been ‘liberated’ from Wikipedia for emancipatory purposes.

The question for class discussion on Monday October 24th and the essay are the same:

In what ways do the workers in Gomberg-Muñoz’s (2010) study ‘effectively shape their work environment through their collective agency’ (297)? What are the constraints upon the agency of these workers, as undocumented Mexican immigrants? You should also refer to at least one other additional source (see readings in course booklet).

What does the concept of agency refer to here? There is a discussion about this on Page 297, and the expression used is that agency cannot be ‘reducible to empowerment’…what do you think this means? Does it mean that agency may be a relative attribute? Also is agency purely individual or something collective and social?

The core ideas of the piece are discussed in the abstract. What does the author mean by ‘every day strategies’…… also notice the unusual argument that the workers studied both resist and yet also reproduce stereotypes about Mexican illegals…(this is said in the conclusion, page 303). What does the author mean by an image of a ‘willingness to work’…in what way is the ‘hard work ethos’ central to their ‘everyday strategy’?

What do you think of the busboy story about the cooler restocking? Is it a good example of how they show their willing to work? Can you think of how Irish workers (or student workers) might do something similar or is it just a Mexican or immigrant thing? In the article there was a reference to ‘white busboys’….how were they (allegedly) different.

In what sense does this ‘hard workers/no trouble’ image confirm Mexican illegal stereotypes,,,and what stereotypes might it unseat?

What does the author think about cultural explanations of the Mexicans work ethic?

There is a discussion about ‘impression management’ on page 297…what does this mean…and why might there be limits to creating an impression…how are impressions formed..can they be easily changed?

There is a discussion on page 298 of macro-economic changes in the US labour market…have these changes constrained and enabled the Mexicans? What does this tell us about the concept of agency?

Why do the busboys not ever complain to management and why do they volunteer for extra work……does that approach work for them? Has it been an effective everyday strategy?

There is a discussion of opportunity hoarding…on page 299 and the example of Alejandro on page 300…what does this mean…in what ways does it give the Mexicans a wider agency? In what ways does it maybe undermine a wider agency of all illegal workers in the USA?

To what extent do the workers police each others’ work? There is an interesting discussion on this at page 300. There is also evidence of them sharing and collaborating…what is the significance of this for the concept of agency?

There is a discussion on future plans and the attractiveness of Union jobs…in what way is this revealing of the limits of their agency?

More generally do you accept the author’s argument that the they are able to ‘contend and negotiate their identity’….is that really a form of effective agency…is it even agency…and are they even negotiating and contend…maybe rather than show the presence of a minimal agency what the article shows is the absence of any meaningful or effective agency…..their everyday strategies are ultimately ‘strategies of surrender’ rather than resistance?

It is interesting that she does not seemingly explore why the workers here have no possibility of organizing strategies of resistance, or even open and quite radical things like strike action for better pays and conditions. In fact both Italy and the USA have seen organized strikes by illegal workers, although its far from clear if these were effective. See: and see also

It would be interesting to know what the workers thought of such a one day ‘guerilla boycott’ strategy-did they even know about it? Did they participate? Would they have considered it even? The article does not explore agency in this conscious political sense.

Does then the article’s concept of agency and strategy not veer dangerously towards a minimalistic conception of the capacity to understand, organize and improve social and economic conditions? It may be that illegals can not empower themselves but does servility work as a strategy in the long-term?



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