We’re writing a paper on the Kiruna case. We’ve been going at it for quite some time and although we’re nudging it forward, we never seem to remember that each paper is a quagmire.
And, as soon as we’re writing, we don’t blog. Why? Because you wouldn’t be interested in the writing process perhaps. Or perhaps we don’t know how to write about our own writing process…
One try: we start with an original idea (from our point of view), carefully drafted, and planned out on a hand-sketched piece of paper. Then, off we go to writing! But then, always, a quagmire and a computer hard drive full of ‘previous versions’. It is as if nothing good could come out of a smooth and rational writing process, and that we never seem to learn and just surrender to this fact. Writing is art, writing is struggle, writing is never smooth, writing is pain and pleasure, and it always, always, always becomes something else!
We could probably apply the same conceptual and methodological ideas going in to the paper on the Kiruna case (inspired by some writings on Actor-Network Theory) on our own writing process. The paper, this singular paper, to paraphrase Annemarie Mol (2002), will be more than one but less than many, full of difference but in some way or another it hangs together.
Present state of the paper: version 27, and counting. We’ll be back.
As noted in the Storyteller-posts, we’ve started to read interviews related to the Kiruna mine. This awoke a discussion between us on how much we should allow theories and concepts to guide our reading. On one hand, lets just read them and trust our reading. After all, we know what we’re interested in. Don’t we? On the other hand, lets fine-tune a coding scheme based on an extended view of labour process theory and ship it all into NVivo. Order in the project! On top of that, reading interviews is fun but really deceptive, isn’t? A full-senses conversation once upon a time reduced to 15 pages of text…
In principle, we’re in favour of the first alternative. In principle, social science is in favour of the second alternative (one clue: Robert Yin’s case study book, on today’s date, has 120615 citations in Google Scholar). Given our bias then, we agreed on a rather simple and open ‘coding scheme’ (for now without NVivo), reminding us to make notes in the texts of the following themes or categories(?):
Context – background descriptions (historical or contemporary) of how it is to live, work, be in Kiruna; how the mine unites and/or pulls Kiruna apart
Labour process – knowledge/skills, technology/technology development, influence/autonomy, identity/subject, global/local, boundaries (time/space, mine, work, society, nature)
Method – when methodological issues are explicitly drawn into the conversations
Stories – highlight all stories that, for whatever reason (don’t have to be labour process connected), have a strong impact on us
These very broad themes are – and should be – amorphous and we try to read the interviews parallel to each other, reading, talking, reading, talking, now and then write a storyteller post so that you’ll get a feel for our material and where we are in the process. So, to be continued.
We met storyteller #7 for the first time in a hotel lobby in Kiruna. He is an experienced miner, a man, presently working above ground. After talking to us for a while, he concludes that our research strategy is wrong.
– Actually, you’re doing this the wrong way, I have to say. If I were you I’d first go around and observe (inside the gates), first get an understanding (of the context of work) and then start interviewing. Because, here you are, you don’t have a clue about how it is, how it looks, what can happen. So come out, an ordinary day, and see. Then you know about different areas, that’s how it looks, how greasy it can be. With your approach, you have to memorise (what I am telling you) and then realise it when your out-there. It should be the other way around! Interviews seem perfect AFTER you’ve been out running.
The morale of this story is that any kind of social science research implies going in and out of moods. Being in a mood, and throughout life, in different contexts, going in and out of moods, is a precondition for human lives. And of course, this is a lived experience that is totally left out in social science textbooks, conferences and PhD education. Different moods imply different conversations, different writing, different analysis, different reading, different, well, you name it. So, here follows a rather moody text about different moods in our project – so far.
At first, we passionately ”wrote” the project (i.e. research applications). Passion, then, was the primary mood. Then when entering the field in Kiruna, we fell in love with the project. Love at first sight, actually. Call it “the Kiruna people effect”, all the stories they told, the way they did it. The mine and the people are deeply, historically, connected, and so are our interests in the project, changing power relations and the labour process.
After that we got into a sort of “nitty-gritty” mood; visiting the site, trying to understand the complexities in rather familiar ways (eg. very loose conversations, normally called interviews in the genre of social science) and in unfamiliar ways (eg. shooting film, taking photos, writing blogposts, making music). The prime mood in this stage was joy.
Then all of a sudden, we stumbled upon problems: we were denied entry to the mine. The mood here was a mild shock. The post-shock mood, at first, was of the kind that “this will be solved”, a mood best called pragmatic. Working in this mood for a couple of months, eventually realizing that this will most likely not be sorted out, led to a post-shock sadness (on some days, even a bit anger) mood. The project continued, but was seriously changed as we could no more observe and take part in the daily work in the mine, and also losing out on the top-management perspective.
However, sadness turned to a need to change plans. We entered into a sort of a strategy mood and started to focus on broader categories of people and society. These had been on our “radar” and in our plans, but now we took time and effort to meet and engage. New meetings, new people, brought back some of the initial passion and love (meeting new people up here always do!), but experiencing difficulties meeting more employees of the company (as we’re always honest with them about how top management approaches us, employees get a bit worried, even though they would like to meet us), there is always a semi-dark cloud of hanging over the project.
This is where we are today, reflecting on our research process in a hotel room in Kiruna (where we are right now). Time has therefore come to start taking stock of what we have, partly in order to start writing up, partly to return to the field with analyses.
Working life in the mine is not turbulent at the moment, not at all, but due to the current re-organization it’s very precarious, uncertain, insecure, unreliable, unsure, unpredictable…
This is not only the case for blue collar workers and white collar workers in service positions who are unsure of where employments will be cut (cause there’ll be cut downs), but also for managers, particularly middle managers. At LKAB in Kiruna, we’re told, all current management positions are made provisional, temporary, until further notice. One middle manager wrote to us about these precarious times, paraphrased: “Nobody knows who will end up where. The confusion is total.”
Talking to suppliers, even they feel these precarious times. One supplier told us that it’s like everybody is waiting, like a wet blanket over the town. We heard about a sub-contractor for the first time asking a contractor if it was possible to put the invoices on hold for a while.
Again, what happens in the mine, how the labour process is managed, always spills over into society. From the inside and out.
It is also interesting how the thesis about precarious work (as in Guy Standing’s “The Precariat”), often linked to the increasing use of different short-term employments creating a new class of people having to deal with chronic uncertainty, sneaks into a work environment that to a significant degree is permeated by permanent employments. From the outside and in.
Visiting Kiruna means several hotel nights. Hanging out at the hotel, it becomes quite obvious that Kiruna, although very unique, is a familiar site in that: immigrant labour is very visible in the service part of society. Hence, at the hotel, the cleaners we meet and greet are immigrants, the breakfast staff is more mixed.
So what? Besides an observation, most likely relevant to many other service institutions in our society, what does this have to do with organizing rocks? Remember that we are in Kiruna with the purpose to grasp the labour process and changing power relations, and that we explicitly attempt to be open to what can account for as being part of the labour process. Hotels in Kiruna, as we see them, are to a large extent ‘infrastructural hubs’ for people that are in a work relation with LKAB and the Kirunamine, including us, although not paid by the company. So, the answer is that it has something to do with organizing rocks as the – racially structured – labour process at the hotel functions as a support structure to the labour process of the mine. Separate, yet together.
Talking about this also sparked our thoughts about race and the mine. We’ve learned that the racial structure is prevalent in the mine as well. Immigrants have service positions, especially cleaning service below and above ground. If native cleaning staff is to be found, we were told by a manager, we probably need to visit Förvaltningskontoret (FK; the admin house at the gates) where clerks and administrators work. We have yet to meet an immigrant worker inside the gates (if someone reading this could help us get in contact with one, or several, we’d be very grateful).
We have been traveling to Kiruna for more than a year now and this thought came to us now. So easy to see, yes to see, but so easy to neglect. So, even if racial structures sometime are rather easy to see, they are at constant risk of being suppressed by researchers such as us (and others) and thus remain uncharted territory.
One issue related to the labour process at MCA and to life in northern Saskatchewan that has received a lot of attention is health and well-being.
In a CVMPP report from December 2014, the effects of the uranium industry’s health and wellness programs on direct employees of AREVA and Cameco are studied (predominantly based on surveys; gaining generalizability but losing context). Reading the report with my visit to MCA as a sounding board, there are three spaces in which health and wellness are dealt with: (i) on site, at work, (ii) off site, off work, and (iii) in-between.
On site, at work, it is about the actual workplace and life on site, and what stands out are automation, good food and the risk of cancer. The report says that: “Modern mining operations are less physically demanding than in the past and this decrease in physical exertion, along with living at an industrial site where there is a good variety and supply of prepared foods, can result in weight gain and associated increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers. […] …a shift to mechanized and computerized processes.” (2014: 2-7) Further: “Most RSN workers in the uranium industry, though active, feel that the physical demands of their jobs are only ‘intensive sometimes'” (2014: 7-1).
Modern mining, that is, is becoming more automated and less physically demanding, combined with an on site life with extensive and inviting choices of food. The image of the miner, hollow-eyed, down-to-the-bones marked by the mine, withers and an image of a sligthly overweight office worker emerges. During my days at MCA, there were a lot of physical, after-work activities (weight-lifting, raquetball, basketball etc.) to in some extent compensate for this. The food is an issue, however. Although there’s no pop (läsk in Swedish) in the cafeteria, my experience is that it was quite easy to put together rather fat, sugar-intensive and fine-tasting plates during (and between) meals. Diabetes is also a problem in the north. Besides offering a lot of physical activities on site, one of Cameco’s responses was to market a so-called “Heart Smart plate”, but from what I could pick ut on it seemed to be a difficult sell. Many workers on site joked about gaining weight at work. I can understand them.
Also related to work in the uranium mine is the risk of cancer due to exposure to radiation. In the report it is early on stated that “current exposures are so low that it would be practically impossible to correct for the effects of smoking and residential radon exposure” (2014: 2-4). The rate of cancer is lower for men and similar for women in northern Saskatchewan compared to in southern Saskatchewan. Tied to the healteffects of automation, some of the work tasks being automated also had the effect of minimizing the risks with workers’ contact with the uranium mined. One example is the loading, where the driver steps out of the vehicle and uses a joystick to control the vehicle by distance when scooping the uranium.
Off site, off work, it is about life in the communities. The report says that: “The proportion of residents in northern Saskatchewan indicating “very good” or “excellent” mental well-being is the lowest among northern health regions/census divisions in Canada” (2014: 2-16). It also states that injuries (off site, off work) are the leading cause of death in northern Saskatchewan and that suicide is the leading cause in that category (the highest rate is among men in their twenties). The rates of heavy drinking is also higher in northern compared to southern Saskatchewan. In CVMPP’s socio-economic report from 2013 it is also stated that: “The community well-being index (an indicator of overall community well-being, including income, education and housing) indicated, overall, that scores were higher in Saskatoon, Air Ronge and La Ronge than the other case study communities and the north as a whole. This disparity in community well-being, as evidenced by this indicator, appears to be widening over time.” (2013: 15)
Off site, off work, there are real health and well-being challenges for many communities. Reading about this raises my curiosity for the in-between site/work and off site/off work.
In-between, it is about the connections between the health programs and life in the northern communities. The CVMPP is a testimony to the necessity of highlighting these connections, but to some extent this is weak in the reports. The 2014 report says that: “Although there is broad recognition and awareness of health programs offered at McArthur River and McClean Lake, the majority of respondents reported that they have not changed their personal attitudes or behaviours as a result of the programs” (2014: 3-6). But, it also states that there are some positive health and safety effects of the programs on their community life (c.f. 2014: 6-9, 6-10, 6-11, 7-4, 7-5).
In the report, the path forward is not clear and maybe that would have a been a task too grand for a single report. It might more be a way to facilitate a further discussion, but there seems to be a basic (and very common) assumption in that increasing participation in capitalistic life enhances health and well-being. Citing statistics from the government of Canada, the report states that: “There is a growing body of evidence to support the idea that income and social status are the most important social determinants of health” (2014: 2-4). To some extent this is debatable, but to a large extent this is more complex.
LKAB’s core process seems to be taking place below ground (and there are about 500 kilometres roads underground in the Kirunamine) and above ground at the closely related plants. This is what the company refers to as the ”red-line”, basically coinciding with what is happening ”inside the gates”. The control of the red line is crucial as all disruptions to the red line are very costly. But if the labour process is at the centre of analysis and not production per se, where does the red-line really begin and end? Are there any forks in the road that we need to take that deviate from the company’s? We know that the company has an own office in Shanghai, China, in order to be closer to their Chinese suppliers and that the iron ore pellets produced in Kiruna are exported via the harbour in Narvik, Norway (and the trains are runned by the company). Certainly, this must be included in the red line, but we have a strong feeling of still missing out on lot of other relevant labour process paths…