The Precarity of Solidarities via Technologies of Control: The Case of Chrome Plating in California

Nov. 2023


The labor and environmental social movements have routinely been drawn into governance relationships under the dominant regulatory regime of command and control in the United States since the 1960s (Kazis & Grossman 1983; Obach 1999). From scrubbers in smokestacks to computer models, these technologies have mediated regulatory compliance, decision-making, participation, representation, enforcement, and resistance to conditions of production. However, when state agencies take up the gambit of environmental justice (EJ), how, why, and to what effect do these technologies mediate the relationships between the two social movements? What happens when workers face the dissolution of their industries as a result? Through the case of the proposed ban of Hexavalent Chromium in California, this paper yokes together technology-driven mediations between labor and governance agencies and the interests of workers and environmental justice activists. Through participant observation, I find that state-driven technologies splinter solidaristic relationships between workers and the environmental justice movement. When these solidarities are weakened, an accelerated impetus for alternative control technologies promises to buttress worker precarity, obscuring empirically emergent and embodied best practices to live in toxic worlds while minimizing risks to workers and EJ communities. These findings problematize the longstanding jobs vs. environment stalemate, which has presented working-class jobs and environmental health as antagonistic goals. Contributing to how STS might inform governance structures that aim at a just transition, this paper suggests ways to think about the conditions of the precarity of the relationship between workers, environmental justice activists, and regulatory technologies.