Working-Class Masculinities in the Logistics Industry

Working-Class Masculinities in the Logistics Industry

Working-Class Masculinities in the Logistics Industry

640 426 Haude Rivoal

Far from working-class stereotypes of manhood, some logistics workers develop a “respectable” popular style of masculinity. But the intensification of the labor process makes this a difficult feature to maintain and often captured them in these stereotypes.

This article has been written up using the results of my PhD, which I defended last year (Rivoal, 2018). I studied the links between capitalism and masculinities thought logistics. My work was based on an ethnographic survey into a big company, Transfrilog, the European leader in refrigerated logistics. I worked in this company for three years and I was in charge of professional equality between men and women. Also, I worked in warehouses where I was hired, undercover, as a worker, for several months.

There is a specific interest behind looking at working-class masculinities in the logistics sector. Not only because logistics is particularly relevant to this topic due to it being a male-dominated industry (Alimahomed-Wilson, 2011), but also because working-class masculinities are often linked to normative, homogeneous and essentialist discourses about workers. So far, sociology and history have mostly focused on virilist practices of workers, often understood as 1. a defensive strategy (Molinier, 1997) or 2. as the search for an ideal of masculinity and self-esteem forged from the “missing” financial, economic and cultural resources of popular classes (Beasley, 2008). In France, the recent debates on the transformations of masculinity have mainly focused on off-the-job practices, like sports (Oualhaci, 2014), youth (Coquard, 2018) or domestic work. This leaves the study of working-class masculinities to the stigmata of manhood and strength, but also to a masculinity of excess and physical exertion, as well as the idea of ​​conservative and reactionary behaviors (especially towards women or politics).

However, many gender studies today show that there are almost as many forms of masculinities as there are men (that is why we use the plural when talking about masculinities) and especially that all masculinities are not synonymous of manhood. This was one of the main findings of my recently defended PhD, which aimed to demonstrate that some logistics workers develop a “respectable” popular style of masculinity. In other words, a masculinity more in “conformity” with the norms of middle classes, in the same way Beverly Skeggs demonstrated with women (Skeggs, 1997). The “legitimacy” resulting from the incarnation of this masculinity, allows these men to distinguish themselves from the most precarious fringe of the working class. It also allows them to distinguish themselves from marginalized masculinities or to distinguish themselves from women.

It seems important to remember here that masculinity and femininity are related. We can’t understand “masculinity” without its relations to equality, but mostly of domination or hierarchy with femininity (Connell, 1995). For example, if some men accept to work in very difficult conditions, it is partly because doing a “man’s job” can be valued, that is to say, a job that a woman can’t do. But we cannot consider this kind of working-class masculinity as something immutable. In this article, we will try to understand the plurality of working-class masculinities as well as the hierarchy between them.

Becoming “respectable”

We can distinguish three criteria to understand what constitutes a “respectable” or legitimate “popular masculinity” (which could also be associated with “complicit masculinity” if we use the categories defined by Raewyn Connell): 1. seniority and organizational capital (in other words, the legitimacy or the professional authority you get through your work); 2. a more inclusive (less dialectical) relationship with women; 3. distancing oneself from hypermasculine stereotypes (the exaggeration of male stereotypical behavior, such as an emphasis on physical strength, excessive behaviors, etc.).

  1. Workers’ jobs in logistics are precarious jobs, which require few qualifications, other than physical endurance under very demanding conditions (repeatability of gestures, refrigerated environment, staggered hours, etc.). The desire for greater respectability and for becoming permanently involved in employment, requires some men to renew the codes of masculinity in order to establish a professional legitimacy (to be recognized as a professional who is not only able to engage his body in the work but also to master trades skills). As these workers are morally and emotionally more involved in their jobs, they are more likely to consider their work as a springboard for social mobility that will allow them to change job (become a driver for example) or “get into the offices”.
  2. A “respectable” popular masculinity also expresses itself in a more inclusive relationship with women. The idea that women have no place in warehouses is not usually what you hear during workers’ interviews. I have never met a man openly hostile to women working in warehouses, especially because all workers I’ve met come from a two incomes household or are in a single-parent family. This means that few workers doubt that two wages are better than one. But this relationship to the sexual division of tasks has not only rhetorical effect. This relation to women’s work can also be applied to the daily lives of workers, especially to non-working practices.

For example, Michel, one of the truck drivers I met, was investing a lot of time and money in training his daughter for the beauty contest that took place in his village. His wife could not leave the office before 9 in the evening. So, it was Michel who took his daughter to meetings to prepare for the contest or “to go shopping” when she needed accessories (like flower crowns, glitter, etc.). Also, he regularly meets up with the mothers from his village to discuss the terms of the contest. At work, when Michel was talking about this contest, he was far from being mocked by his colleagues. Instead, he lets others see that he is a “good father”, invested in family life. This confers him and allows him to gain respect both from his colleagues, as well as from management, who see  that he is a reliable man from this unprecedented responsibility. This is one of the reasons why the management gave him the responsibility of a new truck, offered by the head offices of the company.

But we can also suppose that if Michel subjects himself to this kind of transgression of sex roles, it is because his daughter embodies the stereotypes of hyperfemininity through her actions, which reassures everyone about the place of men and women in society. It is not uncommon to note that a diffuse misogyny can coexists with a much more respectful view of women, sometimes even with the same person. Louis, for example, one of the workers I met, did not hesitate to point out that his job was “too hard for women” and to hold a speech about equality when I explained the topic of my study to him. Egalitarian discourses do not necessarily call into question sexist practices. Nevertheless, it reveals that a certain number of men (especially young men) insist on gendered stereotypes at work less than others (especially elder ones).

  1. Another factor of a “respectable” working-class masculinity expresses itself by distancing oneself from stereotypes associated with hypermasculinity. This control of an excessive manhood can be understood in light of the feminization of the workforce (especially with the feminization of middle and top management). It can also be understood in light of general evolutions in the model of hegemonic masculinity and the diversity of professional skills that are required in companies today.

Today, as Stéphane Beaux and Michel Pialoux point out (2002), you don’t need to act “like a man” to be a good professional, you must have dynamism, enthusiasm, “the sense of initiative, the taste for responsibilities, a certain sense of dialogue, etc.”[1]. The definition of strength has changed in comparison to a more traditional masculinity, where physical endurance was like a “moral property” (Schwartz, 1990). The acquisition of this capacity involves a new relationship with the body, less into demonstrations of strength. It allows 1. to prevent health risks, to manage wear and to preserve a “body capital” largely undermined by pathogenic jobs but which also allows 2. to acquire a new social status, that of “old” (meaning holding on over the long term – which could be as little as a few months) and therefore eventually to consider professional developments in this industry.

 Plurality and hierarchy of working-class masculinities

It is not uncommon today to see warehouses in which virilist behaviors can be repressed by the management or by workers’ collectives themselves. I was able to benefit from it, being the only woman working in some warehouses, not necessarily in a protective or paternalistic position but also to remind a colleague of his professionalism. The world of work is not only the place where one learns “how to be a man” but a world where you learn to control your masculinity. Thus, we note that some forms of rejection of stereotyped masculinities, often associated with the lower fringes of the working-class. It is also linked to a desire for an upward mobility, obtained by the force of the wrist, as well as the discovery of practices of the middle-class that benefit from education and from the sharing of domestic tasks. For employees, some of whom are at the margins of the labor market and whose fear is to reconvene precariousness, investment in employment is the guarantee to stay away from the most vulnerable fringes of the working classes. It can be considered that this respectability is a way to distinguishing oneself from the most precarious versions of oneself (in other words, from the one that is part of virilist practices, in a role of “bully”) as well as ensuring a place in the gender hierarchy (in other words, distinguishing itself from women).

This respectable masculinity that could be described as “hybrid” makes it possible to understand the articulation of a dominated position and the different resources available to them to find margins of autonomy and valorization. It also allows us to understand that there is a hierarchy between complicit masculinities and marginalized masculinities. Being a man is not enough to be dominant, you have to be it “right”. The incarnation of this “respectable” masculinity rests on an elective self-understanding that a “working-class aristocracy” is carried by values of professional and moral excellence. This “working-class aristocracy” arises in comparison with less stable workers, often young and racialized, appreciated by the management for their malleability and endurance but who carry a certain number of stigmata (which appears in a number of interviews with the middle management): brutality, indiscipline, indocility, lack of autonomy, lifestyle of excesses, etc.

However, this study shows that even though some men embody a legitimate or respectable working-class masculinity, most of workers find it difficult to give up a position of domination that commits them to maintain certain gender and/or class stigmata. This brings us to the final point in explaining how masculinity issues fit in with a productive organization to lock up workers in a certain identity of gender and/or class, but also to keep women and some men in marginalized positions.

Masculinity issues and the logistics industry

It seems important to explain the context of the survey more precisely at this stage. Transport and logistics providers are evolving in a highly competitive market. This competitivity is accentuated by an ideal of a just-in-time flow of goods, which means, the flow of goods without interruption. This ideal of just-in-time has consequences on the organization of work and on workers. It implies: an intensification of the flow, computerization of management methods, a fragmentation of working collectives, etc.

In order to respond to the constraints of the flow, managers and head offices, despite some health prevention practices, always strongly value ​​speed and “banging in”. This valorization is concretely translated by obtaining productivity bonuses (schematically, the faster you go, the more parcels you make, the more money you earn). It aims to increase the productivity by mobilizing workers by the promise of a supplementary salary, which can be relatively important (for incomes that hardly exceed the minimum wage). The middle management is well aware that the objective characteristics of workers’ occupations in warehouses leave little room for other types of behavior than those involving some forms of brutality, especially in commitment to the body. As proof, managers allow some expressions of virilism in the warehouse both marginally and punctually (it is precisely spending behaviors or certain forms of physical or verbal brutality – raising ones tone, insulting each other abruptly, etc.) In this sense, we can say that masculinity, the way it is built, does not depend only on individual resources, but it is largely shaped by work itself.

We always imagine the dominant (both from a gender and class point of view) as a homogeneous group, focusing on the effects of their actions (in this case on the sidelining of women), forgetting that they are themselves caught in a web of injunctions where they unceasingly are forced to prove their value. This value passes by perpetuating performances of a manly ethos to answer the productive injunctions, which sometimes lead to an increase in backlash against women (Alimahomed-Wilson, 2011) and often locked workers into a certain identity of gender and class.

It goes without saying that a job as a worker in a frozen warehouse where the temperature is below – 25 ° is a repulsive job, carried out by the most precarious fringe of the working-class, mostly racialized and/or unskilled, and that it is often linked to the urgency and the need for a salary (Benvegnù, Gaborieau, 2018). However, the recruitment of this workforce is not exempt from some a selection that focuses on physical criteria. The body in this case is a variable in the recruitment of the workforce. If Leon, a former team leader of a warehouse prefers workers from Mali, it is “because they are beefier than the French” and he continues “we love them big arms“. The black body and more generally the dominated body can be at the same time valued, admired aesthetically (“they had arms like that“) but also reduced to its most pugilistic use (“they don’t think. You say “load”. Boom, boom, they’ve loaded it“). It allows us to understand how the organizational processes of human resources works through which they prefer to recruit a certain type of man (young men, strong and/or who will easily integrate into a collective male workforce and share their sociability) rather than women who might disturb it. This partly explains the stagnation (see a decrease) of the female workforce in some warehouses over the past decade as well as the maintenance of the coherence of this masculine organizational culture.

To conclude, this survey shows that the transformations of work did not solve the question of the feminization of jobs but moved the analysis of hierarchies between employees within the class of men itself (especially within the working-class where we can distinguish between several forms of masculinities). This survey also shows that the workers’ masculinities and the values ​​associated with them are not constructed in a system of opposition to a hegemonic order. Physical strength and manhood emulation remain necessary to respond to productive rates, even though some men are various registers of masculinity, sometimes contradictory “between cadence and caution” in the words of Nicolas Jounin. That leads us to take a closer look at the variety of masculinities, shaped by work itself but also by the labor market and its needs.


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[1] Original quote: « la virilité a très largement perdu sa valeur sur le marché interne du travail ouvrier où d’autres valeurs sont louées (le « dynamisme », le savoir-être, le sens de l’initiative, le goût des responsabilités, un certain sens du dialogue, etc.) »