Working culture: the agency and employment experiences of nonunionized workers in the surfboard industry
This paper examines the agency of nonunionized workers employed in the surfboard industry. Informing a labor geography approach with cultural economy theory, the paper contributes to the progression of labor geographies beyond the confines of unionized labor-management relations. Using ethnographic methods with 135 workers across thirty-five workshops and three hubs of production (O'ahu, Hawai'i, southern California, and east coast Australia) I reveal how cultural values and logics powerfully shape labor relations in the surfboard industry. Under labor-intensive systems of craft-based, customized production, workers handle most aspects of business themselves: taking orders, designing, making, and exchanging finished products. Workers use deliberate, targeted actions to create agency and achieve stable, well-paid jobs anchored in vibrant surfing locations. Over the last decade, however, standardization, international competition, and managerial ambitions to upscale for export have instigated pervasive shifts to automated, capital-intensive production. Computer automation is transforming the scope, scale, and conditions of work. Human skills have been replicated, work hours have declined, and wages have stagnated. Against an increasingly precarious employment backdrop, workers' strategies to achieve positive change remain perceptible. But workers' agency is now being hampered by the laid-back, subcultural values pertaining to commercial production and workplace relations.