Research Findings

Some warm bodies: How boomtowns reproduce worker inequality

April 13, 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a lot about work. The figure of the essential worker, for example, has keenly illuminated how categories such as race, gender, education, and (dis)ability shape and maintain our work opportunities and burdens. Similarly, and through what many have called “the great resignation,” we’ve observed that more than a few US workers are reimagining the relationship between formal wage labor and their physical and emotional well-being. Workers are inviting us to learn (more) about how work and money—in a neoliberal and hypercapitalist economy—do and don’t align with states of flourishing.

In a recent article, I examine these lessons alongside a group of workers with whom I conducted fieldwork in a North Dakota oil and gas “boomtown.” Between 2015 – 2018, I made seven trips to an area known as “the Bakken” and observed firsthand how the concept of work was guided by a formulaic narrative of wages + opportunity = economic well-being. What I also observed was that this formula was shaped by modes of discriminatory thinking and behavior that unevenly distributed both security and precarity.

Workers in the Bakken hustled. Whether cleaning rooms, hauling sand, or managing a fast-food counter, workers routinely sacrificed creature comforts and personal well-being for paychecks that were considerably higher than the national average. (McDonalds and Walmart were paying close to $20 per hour, for example, and they were always busy). But there was an irregularity to this hustling, in that not all of its iterations led to self-sufficiency.

I initially went to the Bakken with questions about gender, i.e. about how an influx of masculine workers would impact the region’s gender relations. The immediately apparent labor landscape was equally compelling, however, and so I began asking women about why they’d come to the area and what they were doing to earn money. I quickly learned that even with above average wages, the Bakken’s high cost of living precluded the kinds of debt relief and cash accrual for which most people were coming to and working in the region.

This meant that people like Daisy, a social worker, Betsy, who worked for the chamber of commerce, and Claire, an environmental engineer who monitored fracking sites, could not afford to remain in the area were it not for their husbands, whose incomes were uniformly higher and who, as oil and gas workers, were more likely to be furnished with free housing and other amenities that made it possible for these couples to come out ahead.

This economic arrangement was complemented and stabilized by a gendered division of labor, where men were strongly preferred for work in the extractive industries and women were steered toward (underpaid) socially reproductive labor, such as cooking and cleaning in a man-camp, providing health care and social services, or selling coffee from a trailer called “Boomtown Babes.” Physical strength and bathroom access were commonly voiced rationales for these patterns, but so was the (implicitly discriminatory) fear—expressed by people of all genders—that women would “tempt” partnered men if they were allowed to labor alongside of them for long hours on a rig.

This classically sexist pattern of economic dependency, and my access to people working across many sectors of the economy, led me to start asking questions about how these structures reproduced themselves, particularly in a context where workplaces were, at least on the surface, courting “all warm bodies.” How did hiring decisions get made and what were the day-to-day situations propping up these easily observable and inequitable divisions of labor?

At the time of my fieldwork, news reports about gender in the Bakken were quite sensational, replete with stories about sex trafficking, high paying sex work, and sexual violence. And while some of this was true (notably for local Indigenous women), the far more mundane reality was that most women, alongside anyone whose relationship to physically demanding work was at all compromised, were being discriminated against in some very familiar ways, ways that contrasted brightly with the discourse of a “jobs boom.”

This led me to wonder about failure and, while shadowing Daisy one day, I asked about who might not “make it” in the Bakken. “People who can’t work,” she replied. Though this might sound like an uncomplicated statement about ability, my interviews revealed that the “can’t” of Daisy’s reply was highly structured by the “won’t” of regional employers: employers like those who asked Kate to relocate from Montana, but told her, once she’d arrived, that her would-be coworkers “didn’t want to work with a woman.” Or like Rachel, who, though she herself was discriminated against at her first rig job, was reluctant to hire women into similar positions out of a fear that they would “get … out there and … start crying.” Or like the corporation for whom Gary worked, who rescinded their company housing within days of him sustaining a work-related injury, sending he and his wife Anita back to Arizona on a charity-subsidized bus. Or like the small business owner who racially and sexually harassed Maverick when she was reluctant to perform additional—and after hours—manual labor tasks at her bookkeeping job.

Each of these people trouble the figure of the economically productive worker, which itself troubles an economy organized around its fictions, in that they reveal how contingently “worker” maps onto anyone’s experience. People get injured, they get anxious and harassed, and they come to work in bodies and with levels of energy that are often at odds with the demands of a workplace. Bakken residents characterized the local culture as for and about workers, but workers were understood to be able-bodied, primarily masculine, uncomplaining, and nimble. People for whom any (or multiple) of these dimensions was either compromised or nonexistent were far less likely to “make it.”

My research provides ethnographic support for contemporary arguments that “jobs” should not be the sole or even central solution to the structural inequalities made starkly evident by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, we must agitate for feminist, anti-racist, disabled, and queer narratives about work that trouble easy distinctions between categories of workers and that radically reimagine productivity. We must also ask serious questions about whether and why anyone should feel the need to pursue work in an economy as damaging and dangerous as fossil fuel extraction in order to meet their material needs.

The fictionalized nature of the “all warm bodies” mantra in the Bakken attunes us to the practices and strategies through which only certain bodies are allowed to labor. It also underscores that some lucrative forms of work are practiced by a very specific identity–that of a white, able-bodied, self-regulating and socially reproduced cisnormative man. Work, like every other social experience, is intersectionally stratified and inequalities are generated and maintained by both social structures and interpersonal interactions.

My interviews and observations in the Bakken reveal discriminatory attitudes and practices through which workers are unevenly rewarded and penalized and through which productivity is shot through with forms of devalued difference. Though the focus of my research was gender and (dis)ability, forms of workplace discrimination are constrained only by the limits of peoples’ identities, lived realities, and hierarchical imaginations, with racial discrimination being one of the most salient and enduring in the United States.

In sum, in a work world structured by ranked difference, identity dimensions such as those explored in my research will always shape the degree to which anyone can meet their material needs through work. 

Read more

Christine Labuski. “Weeding out the weak: Labor, gender, and disability in a fossil fuel boomtown” in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 2023.

Image: Christine Labuski

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