From solar capital to insurgent reproduction: San Joaquin Valley construction unions & Latinx organizers harness California's socioecological fix

Authors: Keith Brower Brown*, UC Berkeley
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Energy
Keywords: social reproduction, labor, immigration, renewable energy, California
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 43
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


California has become a global icon of capital-switching to renewable energy, driven on the winds of state and federal policy (Knuth 2019). The San Joaquin Valley, defined by Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) and George Henderson (1998) for its entrenched white landowners' hegemony, seems an unlikely geography for this capital flow to be turned to insurgent ends. Against such odds, San Joaquin Valley building trade unions and Latinx organizers have turned this capital flow towards their own ends of dissident social reproduction.

In their geography of socio-ecological fixes, Ekers and Prudham (2017, 2018) call for attention to how such fixes may open novel contradictions and political openings. Based on ongoing, long-term ethnographic research in the region, I argue that San Joaquin Valley construction unions have leveraged a key contradiction in a socio-ecological fix: capital's need for expanded workforce reproduction.

With successful fights at local and state levels to require union-trained construction labor for booming utility-scale solar and an $80 billion high-speed rail project, organized labor has won control of key links in the chain of social reproduction (Jones, Phillips, & Zabin 2016). In turn, this transformed reproduction has tripled union membership in certain locals, reshaped political formation, and become a crucial support for undocumented and second-generation Latinx organizers advancing on left electoral and policy gains. Seeking wider lessons for harnessing socio-ecological fixes to liberatory ends, I assess this case through theories of political formation beyond the workplace alone, within a broader terrain of social reproduction (Willis 1977, Chari 2004, McAlevey 2016).

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