Material Determinations and Workers’ Identity: An Analysis of an Argentinian Steelworks
By Mariana Stoler
As sociologist Michael Burawoy has said: “The production of things is simultaneously not only the production and reproduction of social relations but also the production of an experience of those relations.” Each production process and all of its characteristics, as distinct forms of the consumption of the power of labor, will impact the experience of the social relations of production, creating specific forms of identity – both collective and individual – among workers.
In Establecimientos Metalúrgicos Santa Rosa, the third biggest steel factory in Argentina between 1960 and 1981, the experience of a dangerous production process was a key element in the building of workers’ subjectivity. As is the case in every steel factory, elements such as heat, toxic gases, and heavy machinery create a physical understanding of work. In this text, I analyze how the characteristics of such a production process affected workers’ subjectivity and determined their identity and their frames of sociability both inside and outside the factory. Santa Rosa was a dangerous work environment, particularly due to the high temperatures of the furnaces. Its workers, however, did not see this as problematic. If conscious work is what makes us human, how did this physical experience of labor affect the self-constitution of these workers? The analysis of this production process will help answer this question.
Santa Rosa steelworks
Establecimientos Metalúrgicos Santa Rosa steelworks, located in the neighborhood of La Matanza, a suburb in Buenos Aires, was one of the nine semi-integrated steelworks in Argentina. It was founded in 1943 and was stimulated by the import-substituting-industrialization process that began as an answer to the fall of the prices of the primary goods that Argentina sold on the international market. In the process of industrialization with local resources, the metallurgical industry became essential for supplying the necessary equipment. As a result, Establecimientos Metalúrgicos Santa Rosa’s workforce increased, growing from 200 workers to 1,000 in almost a decade. The Peronist government (1946–1955) assisted this growth as it focused on the development of the national market. The process was deepened by president Arturo Frondizi (1958–1962).
In 1965, Establecimientos Metalúrgicos Santa Rosa started an expansion plan thanks to the opening of the first integrated steel mill in Argentina (SOMISA) in 1960, which provided cheaper steel to the local steel industry. As a result, Santa Rosa became one of the most important companies in the country. It was the biggest factory in the area, occupying about 32 hectares and employing almost 3,000 workers.
Santa Rosa’s production process comprised the following sections: Steelworks (Furnaces), Rolling, Steel-Stretching, Heat Treatments, Wire-Drawing, and Steel-Cables. As its main production was special steels and products of high added value, the Steelworks (Furnaces) and the Rolling sections were central for the factory process. All the steel used along the production process was made, formed, and profiled in those sections. In the Steelworks section, the steel was melted in large furnaces at very high temperatures. Then, the hot metal was poured from the ladles into molds.
Working in Furnaces was very dangerous, as this former worker remembers:
In Furnaces there is the ladle that could hold, I don’t know, tons and tons of steel. One time, they couldn’t close it and it started to splash hot metal, and it burned some comrades… I had to donate blood, plasma. When they were pouring the hot steel from ladles into molds, and they couldn’t close the ladle and it overflowed and the steel began to splash… The steel, once it touches a cold area it flies everywhere, it is like a bullet, you must run away… These guys didn’t have enough time.
It was very important that workers could tolerate the heat for several hours. As another former worker explained, the owners of Santa Rosa had this in mind when they hired:
They looked for people in Entre Ríos [the Argentine countryside], from the country, so they could tolerate the heat, because the 2,000 kilos ingots, earlier, were hooked by hand… You hook and take the red-hot ingot with your hand … So back then, people could not tolerate it, they worked for a month and they left, they could not stand it. So, the employer brought workers from the countryside, hard, tough people, so they could work … That is why they searched for workers there, in the countryside, they were the ones who could tolerate the most … My father was one of them, he came from Entre Ríos and began to work and within a month he wanted to leave. My father used to work at the coal mine in Entre Ríos, burning out coal, nevertheless, he wanted to leave Santa Rosa.
Material determinations and cultural meanings
Workers believed that hazards and work accidents were an intrinsic part of this production process. Therefore, the heat that every worker experienced in all the production sections with furnaces was not seen as a problem:
Roberto: Steelworks is red hot; the steel is melted and it runs like water. In the summertime, you need to be inside a refrigerator … because of the heat.
Mariana Stoler: It made you sick…
Roberto: Some guys got sick, I bore it.
This perception of the physical understanding of work shaped the constitutive characteristics of the workers’ identities. Those workers who better tolerated the heat and its consequences demonstrated their bravery and masculinity among their comrades. When working accidents occurred, they were seen as a tragedy but, for most of the workers, it did not generate anger or outrage. The danger was the core characteristic upon which a set of positive personal attributes were built. Being a worker was constructed, among other ways, through specific corporeal acts and experiences: The body came to bear cultural meanings built inside the factory.
As Santa Rosa steelworks was divided into two areas – one hot and one cold – these cultural meanings affected the relationship between workers and constructed a hierarchy among them. But the heat was not the only element that determined the division. The hot area was the heart of the factory, it held a strategic position in the production process. If for any reason this area could not work, the whole factory would stop. Thus, the workers of the hot area’s production sections held important bargaining power with the management and played a leading role among their comrades.
The production was also differently organized in these two areas. For example, in Rolling – part of the hot area – the work was collective; all the workers collaborated in the manufacturing of the final product. The ingot that came from the furnaces was descaled and formed to the profile of the finished product along a 200-meter line, where each worker contributed to this process.
In Steel-Cables, a cold area section, each worker worked alone. The production process was individual, each worker produced one cable at a time. The layout of this section shows that one worker was present per machine. This distribution hid the fact that the steel cables, made with the steel coming from Furnaces, were produced collectively, determining worker’s perceptions of the manufacturing process.
A moral understanding of hazard
Why did these workers transform the hazards they experienced on their jobs into positive personality attributes that conditioned their relations? Historian Edward P. Thompson argued that the moral economy of the poor was constituted by a set of social norms and obligations that established legitimate and illegitimate practices. In this sense, I believe that it is possible to find a set of elements in Santa Rosa and in Argentina that collaborate in the construction of a moral understanding of work and of hazards.
First, the working class played a key role in the reproduction of capital accumulation. In the second half of the 20th century, the purchasing power of the working class was crucial for social, political, and economic stability. The growth of the consumption of lower-income sectors was a key element in the Peronist movement’s proposal for a more equitable distribution of wealth.
Second, in this context, collective bargaining became determinant in the construction of the workers’ subjectivity: The worker was seen as a seller of labor. Consequently, workers built their identity around the image of “breadwinners”, a concept that combines gender, economics, and productivity as conditioning factors. Therefore, when Santa Rosa’s workers took hazard as intrinsic to their job, they believed that they were making an effort, a sacrifice, to bring home “the bread”. For this reason, the dangers of the job were not perceived as problematic. Rather, the real issue was getting proper remuneration for it. The workers of every section with furnaces received a bonus on their wages called “calories”. The “calories” were related to the amount of time that a worker was exposed to heat and to how much heat he bore. In addition, the “calories” allowed these workers an earlier retirement than their peers in the cold area.
Third, the paternalistic role played by the employer in the relationship with workers became the guarantee of their progress and prestige. The moral comprehension of work ruled workers’ relationships with the employer, engaging them in a shared feeling of prestige as long as the company kept growing and that growth was reflected in the salaries. This was related to the possibility of climbing the ladder not only inside Santa Rosa but also within the metallurgical industry. It was also related to the fact that these workers earned a higher salary than other workers in the area, and to the importance that the steel industry had for the national economy and development. As seen in figure 5, the employer highlights in this advertisement the contribution of steel production to Argentinian independence.
Fourth, this image of Santa Rosa contributing to the national development relates to its surrounding neighborhood. When the factory opened in 1943, there were only a few houses in the area and the streets were not paved. As the factory grew, its workers began to build their houses in the proximity. The workers’ countryside origins and the good wages paid by Santa Rosa contributed to the construction of their identity as workers and to their notion of citizenship, as they built their neighborhood without direct assistance from the government. A group of colleagues from the same section would get together on their free day and help one of the members of their group in the edification of his house. This action empowered Santa Rosa’s workers in their individual and collective development, reinforcing the social rules and the cultural meanings built inside the factory, and moving and reproducing them outside the workplace.
Finally, the “breadwinner” identity was also supported by the employer’s paternalistic attitude, which erased the frontiers between the factory and the workers’ houses. The employer, among other things, provided the workers and their families with special medical attention, as the wife of a former worker of the Steelwork section remembers:
He had a workplace accident because they used a lot of acids, and the acids had splashed. He was working in the fire [Furnaces], it splashed… I don’t know how to explain it, it went to his legs … and the acids started burning the flesh, internally. And they had to make a graft. It was a very hazardous area because it was next to Steelworks where they melted the steel … [The enterprise] paid for the surgery, everything, they took very good care of him. There was insurance that if he dies… the family would receive good insurance…
Santa Rosa became the workers’ caregiver, deepening the bonds between workers, their families, and the enterprise. This had multiple consequences in the construction of the workers’ subjectivity, as it extended the social characteristics of the production process to the workers’ families. As is possible to observe in the previous testimony, the worker’s wife did not question the hazard of her husband’s work but, instead, she highlighted how the employer took “good care of him”.
Furthermore, Santa Rosa’s workers were idolized in the family visits, which the employer organized frequently, as the former worker’s wife argues:
I entered the factory very few times … they organized tours, for the families who wanted to visit the factory. I went twice … There was a tour on special days for the families to watch how the work there was. It was beautiful.
The workers’ families entered into the production space, dressed in safety equipment, and observed the factory, watched their relatives working, and were honored by the employer with a meal and gifts. This was the recognition of each worker’s labor: His family watched him earning his salary, an element that differentiated them from their neighbors.
The physical experience of work determined the construction of a moral understanding of hazards that was structured around the notion of “breadwinner”. During Juan Peron’s first two presidencies (1946–1952 and 1952–1955), labor was dignified as an important contributor to national development. The prototype of the Peronist worker was a male industrial worker, as figure 6 illustrates. Therefore, the material configurations of the productive process and the Peronist ideology determined workers’ experiences in a gendered dimension. The ability to tolerate the heat and the wage increment associated with it were seen as masculine, and as positive attributes.
However, although there was a hierarchy between workers due to the characteristics of the production process, workers from the hot area did not read their cold department workmates as feminine. They treated them as younger brothers who must follow and obey what their big brothers say. It was especially clear in the workplace union organization. This could also have been a consequence of the cold area’s more individualistic production process. Similarly, cold area workers did not feel emasculated because of the lack of heat in their area. They earned higher wages than other (metal and non-metal) workers in the neighborhood, which made them share the notion of prestige built by the management and their comrades in the hot area.
The physical understanding of work is a key element in the construction process of workers’ bodies and subjectivity. The material conditions of the productive process induce the worker’s body to become a cultural sign. In the Santa Rosa steelworks, the heat was the element around which the relations of production were arranged. The production sections with furnaces were strategic. Bodies that could best tolerate heat were especially important to the employer. Meanwhile, the danger of heat was interpreted as a positive element, giving value to those bodies. The heat became the element that established a hierarchical order among workers, conferring special respect to those who had to deal with it.
This interpretation of heat was determined by other elements that intertwined and contributed to the construction of these workers’ subjectivity. The structural importance of the working-class purchasing power along with the active participation of Santa Rosa’s workers in the development of their neighborhood, and the paternalistic role played by Santa Rosa’s management, also converged in the construction of a perfect worker: Someone who was productive, who valued the family, and who was a team player.
To be precise, social elements – both inside and outside the workplace – had converged to elaborate a specific interpretation of heat in Santa Rosa steelworks’ production process. This interpretation printed on the workers’ bodies a gendered comprehension of the work experience. Certain characteristics of work (e.g., the use of strength, tolerance to very extreme working conditions) were associated with a particular body, the masculine. This resulted in a gender construction that was supported by other elements (e.g., family, class) that, in turn, also determined their identities. The management’s paternalistic strategy, which highlighted the masculine role of workers as “breadwinners”, also helped to create a social tolerance to the dangerous production process.
 Michael Burawoy, Manufacturing Consent. Changes in the Labor Process under Monopoly Capitalism, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979, 16.
 The impact of the Great Depression of 1929 and the Second World War led to a fall in the prices of primary goods that Argentina exported. This, together with the impossibility of obtaining new foreign credits, generated a shortage of foreign exchange. As a result, imports were strongly reduced. In this context, Argentinian authorities stimulated the country’s industrialization to replace what was previously imported using the profits obtained from the sale of agricultural products.
 Jorge Shvarzer, La industria que supimos conseguir. Una historia politico-social de la industria argentina, Buenos Aires: Editorial Planeta Argentina, 1996, 176.
 “Roberto” interviwed by the author, La Matanza, May of 2019. Author’s translation from Spanish.
 “Valentín” interviwed by the author, La Matanza, May of 2019. Author’s translation from Spanish.
 ”Roberto” interviewed by the author, La Matanza, May of 2019. Author’s translation from Spanish.
 This idea is based on Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”, Theatre Journal 40, no. 4, 1988, 519–531, here 520.
 I want to thank Rick Halpern for suggesting the concept of moral economy.
 Thompson verified a legitimizing notion in almost all 18th century communal activities. He argued that women and men in the crowds believed that they were defending traditional rights or customs supported by the consensus of the community. Edward P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century”, Past & Present, no. 50 1971, 76–136, here 78 and 79.
 Natalia Milanesio, Cuando los trabajadores salieron de compras. Nuevos consumidores, publiciad y cambio cultural durante el primer peronismo, Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 2020, e-book, 42.
 Although the term “breadwinner” could be applied to a man or a woman, as the act of breadwinning involves “one’s financial contribution in relation to his/her spouse’s or partner’s”, here I use a more traditional definition in which this term “can be defined as the extent to which a man provides financial support to the family”, Jiping Zuo and Shenghing Tang, “Breadwinner status and gender ideologies of men and women regarding family roles”, Sociological Perspectives 43, no. 1, Spring 2000, 29–43, here 31.
 Lisa Roth, widow of the former Santa Rosa worker Miguel Roth. Interviewed in La Matanza, November of 2005, Universidad Nacional de La Matanza, Secretaría de Extensión Universitaria, Junta de Estudios Históricos de La Matanza, Archivo de la Palabra, Fondo: Archivo de la Palabra Municipal, Código: 07. Author’s translation from Spanish.
 During the Peronist periods, the rural worker was also dignified with new legislation such as, for example, El Estatuto del Peón.
 Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”, 522.
Carla Aguilar Cunill and Ignasi Brunet Icart, “Masculinidad y trabajo industrial. Una exploración de sus vínculos”, Lan Harremanak, no. 40, 2018, 115–137, accessed 09.09.2020.
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Michael Burawoy, Manufacturing Consent. Changes in the Labor Process under Monopoly Capitalism, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
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Mariana Stoler is a social historian who specializes in the study of labor and unions in the second half of the 20th century. She holds a Ph.D. in Contemporary History from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Her research focuses on Argentinian unions, factories, and workers’ identities in an attempt to understand the processes where subjectivities are built.
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Citation: Mariana Stoler, Material Determinations and Workers’ Identity: An Analysis of an Argentinian Steelworks, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.06.2021, http://trafo.hypotheses.org/29740.