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Beverly Silver Award Statement

Beverly J. Silver, Johns Hopkins University, was honored with the 2005 ASA Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award for her book, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870. This comprehensive theoretical and empirical analysis of labor movements establishes a new research program for the study of labor that takes seriously both history and geography. Silver shows how the historical trajectory of labor movements since the late-nineteenth century has not only been shaped by, but also has shaped global economic, social, and political processes.

Silver opens her inquiry by asking whether labor movements worldwide are in a terminal crisis, as has been widely argued. In order to answer this question adequately, she argues, we need to recast labor studies in a longer historical and wider geographical frame of analysis than usual. She also proposes that we move beyond static conceptualizations of “the working class” (be it 19th century craftworkers or 20th century mass producers), and instead employ a dynamic framework in which working classes and workers’ movements are seen as being recurrently made, unmade and remade in a complex inter-action with the “creative-destructive” processes of historical capitalism.

Focusing first on the world automobile industry, Forces of Labor follows the movement of capital to successive new sites of productive expansion (and new working-class formation and protest), from 1930s Detroit, to Turin in the late 1960s, and Sao Paolo, Port Elizabeth, and Ulsan in the 1970s and 1980s. The book compares the dynamics of labor unrest in the quintessentially twentieth-century automobile industry with these same dynamics in the quintessentially nineteenth-century textile industry, and then uses these historical analyses to isolate the key features of newly emerging leading industries, and to explore what these might presage for the future of labor and labor movements. Finally, Silver embeds this examination of labor and global industries in a world-historical analysis of the ways in which global political processes have shaped and been shaped by labor over the course of the past century.

Silver’s concise, yet sweeping study, brings together a global and historical analysis of political economy with a finely tuned presentation of the particular ways that workers resist their commodification. What emerges is a new perspective that integrates the agency of the working class into our understanding of the dynamics of global capitalism.