Illustration by Andreea Moise
Material, social and political implications of work in and beyond Galați, Romania
Gerard A. Weber, Ph.D.
In the last greater than thirty years, the work lives of blue-collar people in Galați, Romania has fundamentally changed. After decades of state-guaranteed employment, many starting in the 1990s were forced into early retirement or made redundant when industrial units were privatized and restructured or closed entirely. Local options for training and re-employment in the industrial sector were few, forcing many to either migrate outside Romania for work, or accept positions in the city with many disadvantages, including low wages, limited benefits, rigid work schedules and inferior working conditions. Embracing an approach applied by Rothstein during 40 years of study in Mexico (2014), this contribution, which is based on a research interest of almost two decades in Galați, looks at the influence that the working lives of members of the working class have had on their material circumstances, social relations and political attitudes. The account explores the impact of changes in work on budgets for housing, health care, education and other basics within working-class families, with particular emphasis on the challenges fiscal austerity in the post-communist era has imposed. Transformations of social life within working-class families in Galați are also addressed. The social fragmentation generated by the need to migrate for a viable job is analyzed, as well as the influence of work in Galați on kinship and community relations at the local level. The political ramifications of job insecurity include mistrust of civil servants and a sense of abandonment by society, which can undermine the full consolidation of democracy in Romania.
Gerard Weber is an anthropologist and associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, an institution predominantly serving a Hispanic, immigrant and working-class population. He has carried out research in Galați for about two decades, concentrating on the material, social and political ramifications of changes in the post-communist period on working-class retirees and members of their families. He can be contacted at Gerard.Weber@bcc.cuny.edu
Andreea Moise is an illustrator and graphic designer, but she believes that “visual explorer” describes her better. She keeps her eyes wide open, collects fragments of reality and her inner world, distills them and transforms them into something new. Her work is primarily conceptual, but she also experiments with textures, colors and composition. Common themes in her illustrations include the unconscious, identity, and self-discovery. You can view her work on Instagram and at andreeamoise.com.
Daniel decided to become an actor so that he could experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit in one’s lifetime. He collaborated with Bulandra Theatre and the Monday Theatre @ Green Hours and attended many national and international festivals. Since 2013 he plays in projects written, translated, or directed by himself and produced by his Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association which he also founded. Daniel doesn’t know if this is the way to approach new forms of artistic expression, what’s certain is that he distances himself from the old ones.
A sabbatical in 2019 gave me the opportunity to return to Galați, Romania. Among the many social gatherings in which I participated that year was a party held in recognition of the 50th birthday of Ion , a working-class man I have known for many years. The event had most of the elements one would anticipate on such an occasion: close-knit family had coalesced, together we sang “Happy Birthday” to Ion, a sumptuous cake, pastries and drinks were shared. For me, an American anthropologist who has done research in Galați for nearly two decades and had for many years in the 1990s lived in other parts of Romania (teaching English in public schools), the celebration reminded me of the rich ceremonial life that exists in the country, of which I have countless, fond memories. Yet there was one feature of the event that marked the extent to which life had changed in Romania over the years I had been there: Ion received video calls from two family members who could not be present given that the need for a living wage had taken them to great distances, one to Italy, the other to the United Kingdom. Of course, their calls were received with great joy, the barrier between Ion and his loved ones briefly lifted. Still, the bliss seemed only temporary, once the contact ended, the kilometers separating us being reimposed. Not wanting to spoil the generally convivial atmosphere, I did not ask anyone how they felt about the absence of the two, not to mention that of other family members who were likely not present as well because work obligations had kept them away. At one point, though, Ion conveyed his sentiments to me on his own, likely due to the fact that one of the callers was his own son. “It’s like your roots have been pulled out from under you,” he admitted dejectedly.
The party illuminated just one of the many effects of changes to the work lives of blue-collar men and women in Galați that I have observed over the years. In this presentation, I offer a very brief explanation of those changes and present two additional ethnographic sketches that further illustrate the impact they have had on workers in Galați. In doing this, I draw upon an approach to anthropological research on work that Rothstein has used in over four decades of ethnographic study of working-class families in Tlaxcala, Mexico  . In her scholarship, people’s work experiences are analyzed for the insights they provide into material conditions, kin and communal relations and political matters. Work, in other words, is a lens through which one can learn about the political, economic and social conditions and transformations going on in a society, according to Rothstein. Here, I adopt a similar outlook on work.
Characteristic of anthropologists, I have relied heavily upon participant-observation in order to learn about work and many other elements of life in Galați. This has included engaging in informal interactions with people in a broad range of everyday settings. In addition to participating in numerous family festivities like Ion’s birthday, I have sat with families over meals on more prosaic occasions; lived with a retired, working-class couple on many visits to the city; joined friends over beer or coffee at local cafés; gone to church services upon invitation; chatted with friends and strangers on park benches; visited people in hospitals; gone on fishing trips and a great deal more. Through such authentic interactions with people – occurring in the same place over repeated visits – unique insight is gained into people’s concerns, aspirations, needs, frustrations and more. Like other anthropologists, I have interwoven those glimpses into life in the city with knowledge gained from life history interviews and other research methods. All told, a rare perspective on what it has meant to be working class in Romania following the end of socialism has emerged.
Work in Romania has changed profoundly since the revolution that ended communist rule more than 30 years ago. The guaranteed positions that existed under that regime are long gone. For members of the working class, this transformation has been particularly jarring. The production facilities where they dedicated years of hard labor were in many cases entirely shuttered, as occurred with the Wire, Nails and Chains Company and the Mechanical Company for Hydraulic Equipment. Other industrial plants underwent privatization and restructuring, including the colossal steel mill, constructed in the socialist period and now called Liberty Steel, the sale of which was arguably the most consequential given the large number of people at the time employed there. Many of those workers and those at other facilities accepted either early retirement or modest compensation packages without any assurance that professional development and gainful employment could be found locally. One outcome of this change has been the migration of a significant portion of the blue-collar labor force to other parts of Romania and abroad, those who have stayed or who have returned being left with relatively few options in the industrial sector or limited possibilities for employment in hotels, restaurants and cafes; security services; delivery; public transport; taxi driving; domestic work; elder care and other services – some of that work in the informal sector.
The work that is available, both in Galați and beyond, presents characteristics that are disadvantageous to employees, demonstrating how the neoliberal turn in capitalism that began in the 1970s  has been applied with particularly destructive force in Romania in the post-communist era . Wages have long been too low to meet people’s need for staples, health care, education, utilities, transportation and other essentials, the period of escalating inflation that has followed the global pandemic only causing even more strain. Pensions and other entitlements have been limited, making it increasingly difficult for people to plan for a comfortable retirement and fulfill material needs and meet social obligations, such as honoring the deceased, a time-honored cultural practice called pomană that can be costly. Prolonged working hours and poor working conditions can be other drawbacks. All of this stems in part from a concerted effort by employers to diminish workers’ ability to participate in collective bargaining. Despite impressive efforts by organized labor to draw attention to the plight of the working class – such as when the “Social Rights Caravan” organized by the Cartel Alfa Trade Union Confederation traversed large parts of the country in the spring of 2021  – the improvements achieved were insufficient.
The repercussions of these labor market changes on blue-collar families have been multidimensional. The experiences of Bogdan, a working-class man in his thirties, and his retired parents, bear witness to this. Like many others, Bogdan left Romania in the 2000s to work in Spain, anticipating that he could earn a decent salary, but ending up in an underpaid job with prohibitive living expenses, shortcomings compounded by the partial overlap of his stay with the global financial crisis that began in 2008. As a result, after a few years he returned to Galați and moved back in with his parents, finding a job in private security services. The income earned from the position has, however, been derisory compared to the grueling working hours and high pressure. Due to his low income, he has been unable to afford his own home, which may have affected his chances of meeting a partner and building his own family, and budgeting for everyday expenses has been a challenge. Partly because of this, Bogdan’s mother has been driven to work in the informal sector, her pension from about three decades of hard work in a factory not enough to satisfy all the family’s expenses given that his father has not himself been able to work after retirement due to health problems. Making matters even worse, concern she has had for her son has extended beyond the here and now – Bogdan’s future prospects have been a source of apprehension too. He is “sacrificing” himself, she told me, contributing to the public pension system with no certainty that there would be funds when he retires. Meanwhile, the burden Bogdan has borne with his schedule and the demands of the job could be having detrimental effects on his health, a possibility that medical anthropologists and other health researchers should be on the lookout for especially in light of the protracted gutting of the public health care system in the post-communist period. As if all this were not enough, Bogdan’s mother has lost faith in business leaders, believing that they are out for themselves, which in her view was manifested in how tightfisted they were with compensation. This objection was not an unusual one, numerous others expressing a similar degree of distrust in employers and referring to them with cynicism. Such grievances are akin to those leveled at political leaders and public authorities, showing widespread dissatisfaction among members of the working-class with people holding power in Romania, a sentiment that, in the long run, could make authoritarian populism attractive given that one of its stated purposes is to “drain the swamp.” Politicians and decision-makers in Romania should, therefore, be aware not only of the material and social implications of the changes to the employment ecosystem in the post-revolutionary period, but also of the threat these transformations may pose upon efforts at fully consolidating democracy in the country.
The work histories of a retiree named Ștefan and his children further illustrate the impact changes in employment prospects have had on the working class of Romania. When we met in 2019, Ștefan was over 60 years of age. He had had a career of about two decades at the steel plant, but became one of the many victims of the layoffs following its privatization. This pushed him onto the local informal labor market, forcing him to make ends meet with temporary, modestly paid jobs. But less than a decade after trying to support his family this way, he suffered a mental health crisis. Although it allowed him to qualify, at the age of 50, for a pension, the amount he earned was small. Given this, he frequently spoke about the difficulty he faced managing essentials, the cost of food, rent, gas cylinders, heat, water and a mobile phone regularly filling our conversations over beverages at cafes that year. To make the situation even more difficult, Ștefan’s family fell apart. His marriage disintegrated in the 1990s due to domestic strife fueled by the bleak economic climate of that decade, and his children ultimately headed abroad for work. Contact with them was very rare, and they sent no financial support as they themselves seemed to be struggling to make ends meet. This meant he had to face his marginalization on his own. The cost of living was not the only source of stress in his life, however. Counterintuitively, the various tactics he employed to try to improve his situation were as well. They included doing day labor in construction, renovation, agriculture and delivery, work that could not be counted on and that was often very exhausting. Ștefan regularly waited for phone calls in the morning to find out if there was an opportunity for the day. He spoke of carrying 40-kilogram bags of cement up ladders in scorching heat, spending hours harvesting grapes and delivering large sacks of potatoes, at one point saying “I don’t know if I can take this anymore.” And the pay was exploitative – from working in construction for a few hours a day, for example, he earned 20 lei (c. 4 euro), too little to even buy credit for his mobile phone. Yet local businesses were aware that they could attract retirees to carry out such activities, as in many cases pensions were small and any extra income mattered to them. Reflecting this, at least one of the local newspapers in Galati often had job ads in 2019 for electricians, gardeners, bricklayers and other positions that were explicitly targeted at retirees. Although the pay offered, usually 100 lei (c. 21 euro) for a day’s work, was more than Ștefan ever described earning, the amount was still not spectacular and may have been conditioned on having certain qualifications. All this explains why, at one point when Ștefan talked about the transformation of his society since 1989, he described it as an “unraveling,” one which had left him marooned, thereby contrasting sharply with what he had anticipated the revolution would bring.
The ethnographic vignettes presented here of the impact that changes to employment in the post-revolutionary era have had upon the working class of Galați are only the tip of the iceberg. I have had numerous other conversations with working-class people in the city that have helped me understand the ramifications of work on their lives. A fundamental conclusion one can draw from this brief presentation is that people’s work lives are compelling windows onto other areas of life because of the central role work plays in every society across human history. This is perhaps particularly evident when it comes to the material conditions in which people live, my research showing time and time again that blue-collar work in Galați most often cannot provide essential goods, the cost of which has been increasingly oppressive on account of chronic underfunding of the public sector and privatization of the economy. The social fallout also surfaces clearly and perhaps most frequently, as we have seen, in the separations endured by families owing to labor migration and onerous work schedules. The lack of a fair employment system has also disrupted the maturation of the democratic system in Romania, weakening people’s trust in leaders, making them potentially susceptible to seduction by anyone who charismatically promises quick fixes, even if in an aggressive and inhumane way, as we have seen in the United States and many other countries in recent years.
 Frances A. Rothstein, ”I Found Work! Forty Years of Research on Work in Rural Mexico”, Anthropology of Work Review, no 35, issue 1 (June 2014):40-44.
 David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
 Cornel Ban, Ruling Ideas: How Global Neoliberalism Goes Local, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
 Radio România Actualităţi, O nouă zi de proteste sindicale în Capitală, 17 februarie 2021.