Tales of the Kefir Furnaceman

• • • A Roving Ethnographer’s View From the Factory Floor

The constant threat of danger had the slightly comic effect of endearing him to his comrades—at least in Hungary. "I am not a competent worker," he admits. "One of the most interesting things is how skilled workers respond to somebody as incompetent as myself. In Chicago they were disgusted. In Hungary they thought it was rather charming and they would come round and help me. In Russia they were also disgusted."

Fortunately, the October Revolution brigade took a shine to him. When he couldn't stomach the lumps of pork fat his mates carved up for meals, subsisting instead on cartons of diluted yogurt, they christened him their "kefir furnaceman." (They also dubbed him Jackson, after the globally iconic Michael Jackson.) The camaraderie was sealed before a visit by a state dignitary, when the workers were ordered to paint their slag drawer bright yellow. Burawoy could only scrounge a black brush and proceeded to paint the group's shovels black. When a supervisor demanded an explanation, he replied haltingly that he was, well, helping to build socialism. A comrade shot back with gallows humor: "You are not building socialism, you are painting socialism, and black at that."

The metaphor became a potent one. Workers in the plant, Burawoy found, were forced to paint over waste and favoritism spurred by meddling managers. When Burawoy and Lukács, who studied management while Burawoy tended the furnace, reported this to the plant's officers, they took it icily. "We argued that in a socialist economy there's a lot of uncertainty, with shortages and the like," Burawoy says. "The only way to handle that is to have flexibility on the shop floor. We accused management of continually undermining the workers' autonomy." Management was outraged. "They said do the study again. We gladly did it again."

illustration by Tim Lane

Lenin Steel Works jettisoned most of its employees and was bought by a Slovakian company in 1997, one of many factories in eastern Hungary sputtering as the global market sucked capital from the region. "There I was with my nose to the machine, while the whole fabric of state socialism was crumbling," Burawoy says. So he set the controls for the last great socialist destination on the map: "I got on the next plane out of Budapest and I went to Moscow."

Foiled again. "I went there in June 1991, and by August the place disintegrated," he says. "Everywhere I went, everything collapsed after me. Now my friends won't let me go anywhere. China? Cuba? They say no. You're staying in the Arctic Circle." There's work to be done, anyway, and the living is cheap. Though Burawoy has received grants from the MacArthur and National Science foundations, he often covers the bills himself. "I just go there," he says. "It doesn't cost much to live in Eastern Europe. It's my summer holiday. It's like going to Club Med."

Alas, those slag-strewn beaches of Burawoy's dreams have almost all been privatized or sacked, which in Russia's Komi Republic amounts to the same thing. This turn of events happens to comport well with his career: "It's a big problem working on the shop floor when one is 53." For the last decade he's been returning to Syktyvkar, a heavily forested outpost that was thick with labor camps until the 1950s. "In this part of Russia, they've never seen a foreigner, let alone an American, let alone an American professor who wants to work on a shop floor," he recalls of his first visit to the Polar Furniture Enterprise. "This was all too much."

Burawoy proved the least of their worries. As the Soviet Union imploded and a seedy merchant capitalism sprang up, workers' wages toppled, then vanished. Some of them got paid in butter, others in wood. Burawoy returned in 1995 to find most of the factory in darkness; the plant was soon liquidated. He has now been tracking the fate of Polar's employees, focusing on the household and gender. "Men become increasingly marginalized as their industrial jobs disappear," Burawoy explains. "Their life expectancy dropped to 59 during the first years of the post-Soviet period. Russian society as a whole has been re-peasantized."

This summer means more work in Syktyvkar with colleagues Pavel Krotov and Tatyana Lytkina. His tireless ethnography might lead one to believe that Michael Burawoy is simply in love with labor. But no, he says. Though it may be madness, there is methodology in it: "I don't love working on the shop floor. I'd be much happier just sitting in my office. But there is very little research of an ethnographic kind on Russia. Most of what's written doesn't really touch people's day-to-day existence, I'm afraid to say."

Besides, a little humility helps in the machine shop of the modern university. "It's good to be humiliated from time to time," he says, recalling his chagrin on the factory floor. "It's quite healthy. I think all of academia should have to do this sort of work."

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