- Play title: Sweat
- Author: Lynn Nottage
- First performed: 2015
- Page count: 114
Sweat by Lynn Nottage is set in Reading, Pennsylvania. The play tells the story of a town undergoing deindustrialization and the resulting negative effects on the local residents. The main characters are middle-aged, factory workers named Cynthia and Tracey, but we also meet their respective sons, Chris and Jason, around whom crucial scenes revolve. Nottage explores the lives of black, white, and mixed-race Americans in a job market that becomes increasingly competitive. The events depicted in the work take place in the years 2000 and 2008. Each scene in this two-act play begins with a summary of news stories, mainly related to national politics and the stock market but also covering local events in Reading. The style of the work is realism which reflects that Nottage went to Reading and “spent two and a half years interviewing residents” (Crompton). The themes of the work are deindustrialization, friendship, competition, powerlessness, racism, and violence. The climactic scene of Sweat exposes how the rage stirred up in small communities as a result of job losses and shattered dreams rarely finds a healthy outlet.
Ways to access the text: reading.
The full text of Sweat may currently be sourced online via the following webpage -https://coldreads.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/sweat.pdf
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Reasons to read Sweat.
21st-Century, American workers.
Nottage looks at the plight of American workers in an era of increasing globalization. The example of Reading, Pennsylvania, is one which reflects a broader debate in modern economies. The fundamental question is how workers should, or even can, respond to an ever-changing industrial landscape? In Sweat, the example of NAFTA is used to highlight what may occur when old boundaries between countries disappear due to new, trade agreements. Should companies continue to pay their staff good wages if they have the option to relocate and employ a much cheaper workforce? What Nottage scrutinizes is how the threat of such action erodes the beginning, negotiating position of American workers. However, the playwright avoids a simplistic good guy/bad guy scenario and presents readers with the messiness of real-life situations. There is also no ‘good-ole-days’ in Sweat, only work conditions that remain forever in a state of flux. What the play does explore is the proposition that unskilled workers have long since lost the battle.
Sweat depicts a long-standing group of friends & workers who must respond to sudden deindustrialization in their region. What begins as a fight between factory-workers and factory-bosses slowly transforms into worker versus worker. This shift in focus is from a hierarchical dispute with industrialists on top and unskilled workers at the bottom, to the divisions that appear laterally between workers. The lesson one learns is that when workers’ job security is taken away then interpersonal competition increases exponentially. Former friends become enemies and latent prejudices begin to surface. It is open to interpretation in the play if this is presented as a natural consequence of the hot-house environment of industrial unrest or if it is something that may be orchestrated by certain actions of selfish industrialists. In either case, Nottage depicts the ugliness that people face when forced into dog-eat-dog competitive circumstances.
Dismantling the American Worker:
“You’re dealing with vipers. The game’s changed! They’ll lock you out” (Nottage 91).
Lynne Nottage’s Sweat addresses the interlaced topics of deindustrialization and interpersonal conflict. Through the playwright’s technique of alternating between past events from the year 2000 and present events in 2008, she depicts how the factory workers lose not just their jobs but how their entire lives undergo negative upheavals. In a way, the deindustrialization of the city of Reading is a lesson in how to dismantle an American worker. The stereotypical image of a factory-floor assembly line becomes the space where workers’ lives are disassembled. In this essay, I will look at the issues that underlie the doomed future that Nottage depicts. There are two primary relationships that must be investigated to understand Sweat and they are the relationship between employer and worker, and then between worker and fellow worker. The first of these relationships is relatively easy to understand because it is based chiefly on financial profitability. Nottage references NAFTA and this informs the increasingly globalized nature of doing business and the pressures and opportunities that companies encounter. The second relationship, namely worker and fellow worker, opens a far more complex discussion. The big question in the play is why the workers’ demands fail? Are they outmanoeuvred and ultimately sabotaged by wily industrialists or does their infighting fatally fracture the united front that would be required to secure their futures? In order to comprehend the situation depicted in the play, one needs to look to the psychology of cooperation, competition, and conflict while also paying attention to factors like NAFTA. Nottage depicts the fall of the unskilled American worker but within her play are clear messages as to why this happens.
In the context of an escalating, industrial dispute, and fractured friendships between fellow workers then language becomes a natural focal point in a dramatic representation. The characters in Sweat are plain-speaking which is a realistic depiction of factory workers. In fact, the language of Nottage’s play is deceptively simple because what she actually achieves is a vivid articulation of all the points of conflict between industrialists and workers, and indeed, between workers and fellow workers. Plain language clearly and efficiently delineates the conflict at hand. Nottage is not afraid to use derogatory terms in her work when they will give a reader/viewer an immediate understanding of the emotions and mindsets of characters. Uncensored language also reveals the fault lines in relationships like old grudges, prejudices, and suspicions. The cool, assured, authoritarian voice of the industrialist is never heard in the play because there is no specific representative of Olstead’s factory and therefore we only learn of the changes to the factory’s operations via the workers’ narratives. The dividing wall between the office staff and the worker on the factory floor is not just an architectural reality, or a perception, it is a very real block in lines of communication. Nottage emphasizes how workers are abandoned by their employers, pushed out, and eventually, locked out. The inability of the factory floor workers to truly engage on a one-to-one basis with their enemy is a salient point in the play. The Olstead family, while known to the workers, never appear on the work floor anymore and certainly do not engage in direct negotiations with workers. The anger that workers rightfully feel when confronted with demands for pay cuts may only be unleashed on trade union officials or fellow workers – all of whom have essentially the same interests and therefore are not enemies. When workers vent their frustrations then we hear emotive words like ‘traitor’, ‘cowards’, and ‘spic’. The chasm between those in power and ordinary workers serves as a prompt to investigate Nottage’s play’s depiction of infighting. Olstead’s decision to cut costs and even relocate is the headline news of the play but Nottage directs us to look also at the nitty-gritty of how personal relationships dissolve under the pressure of job losses and increased competition.
The psychology of cooperation, competition, and conflict.
In a sense, Sweat is a faithful depiction of how industrial disputes fail the workers involved. In order to adequately frame what Nottage depicts, one may turn to theories that cover subjects like cooperation, competition, and conflict resolution. Morton Deutsch, an American social psychologist authored an essay entitled “A Theory of Cooperation – Competition and Beyond” which proves helpful when looking at the social dynamic that Nottage depicts. One certainly need not intellectualize an interpretation of the play but Deutsch’s essay helps one understand why the workers’ demands are so ineffectual. While the play may appear a straightforward elegy for well-paid, unionized, factory jobs in America, Nottage does not present a clear-cut argument for this interpretation. For one, the factory jobs appear to be uncompetitively well-paid. Secondly, the failure of the workers’ demands may be the result of the factory’s strategy of divide and conquer achieved through Cynthia’s promotion. Thirdly, NAFTA is identified by the factory workers as the root of the problem but this suggests that only trade deals have destroyed the coveted ‘good job’ of old, rather than inevitable cuts to inflated wages or the underhand strategies of industrialists. There are multiple possible reasons for why Olstead’s eventually decide to employ picket-line-breaking workers instead of their old staff members. However, a broader theoretical perspective about how the workers react to change offers a reader the chance to understand the interactions between these workers, and between workers and employer. It appears that the various interactions mainly between workers themselves finally destroy their chance of victory over the industrialist’s interests. Nottage’s portrayal of racism, ageism, and classism signal that tensions already exist just beneath the surface of the Reading community. Such tensions show that cooperation is already damaged.
In “A Theory of Cooperation – Competition and Beyond”, Deutsch provides an overview to some of his lifelong work. The major points that one may summarize from his text are as follows. When writing about people’s competitive relations, he identifies “two basic types of goal interdependence: positive … and negative” (278). Deutsch explains the difference, “To put it colloquially, if you’re positively linked with another, then you sink and swim together; with negative linkage, if the other sinks, you swim, and if the other swims, you sink” (279). Using Sweat as the example, the factory workers have a goal interdependence which is positive, identifiable as such since it has many of the traits Deutsch identifies: “liking one another … holding common membership [the Union] … common enemy [Olstead’s]” (279). Positive interdependence is the label one may use to describe the workers at the outset of the play. Deutsch writes that “the existence of a conflict implies some form of interdependence” (279). There is interdependence between the workers who form a group, and then separately between that group and the factory owners. In the example of Sweat, the common enemy of the workers is the Olstead family. Once industrial relations deteriorate, then the goal interdependence between the factory and the workers’ group is negative because they each will be “rewarded in such a way that the more the other gets of the reward, the less one gets” (279). This is the scenario where you swim if the other party sinks! As such, the dynamic of the play is easily understandable within a theoretical framework. It is really just a question of who is dependent on who and then whether it is a positive or negative scenario. Deutsch also points out a salient point which applies to the relationship between the workers and the factory in Nottage’s play – “asymmetries may exist with regard to the degree of interdependence in a relationship; suppose that what you do or what happens to you may have a considerable effect on me, but what I do or what happens to me may have little impact on you” (279). Since the factory can and does replace existing workers with cheaper labour then the negative goal interdependence between the factory and its workers is actually a situation that favours the factory since the interdependence is asymmetrical from the outset.
It is relatively clear why the industrialists in Sweat engage in negative interdependence and the reason is financial gain. Savings made by cutting staff wages and pensions along with possible gains through relocation will ultimately increase company profits. However, the relations between the workers in the group are much more complex. Yes, one may categorize the workers’ relationship in the beginning as positive interdependence but their once solid relationship ultimately unravels. Deutsch asserts that cooperation and competition are both underpinned by three social psychological processes, namely “substitutability, cathexis, and inducibility” (279). Using these terms, one may decipher what occurs in Sweat and why the workers ultimately fail. Deutsch’s three terms are defined by him as follows:
“Substitutability: Unless the activities of other people can substitute for yours, you are like a person stranded on a desert island alone.
Cathexis refers to the predisposition to respond evaluatively, favorably, or unfavorably to aspects of one’s environment or self.
Inducibility refers to the readiness to accept another’s influence to do what he or she wants; negative inducibility refers to the readiness to reject or obstruct fulfillment of what the other wants” (Deutsch 280).
According to Deutsch, these three processes are “involved in creating the major effects of cooperation and competition” (279). In easy terms, if one is in a cooperative relationship like the factory workers then one will accept that others may perform different tasks to you (substitutability), for example, on a factory production line. Furthermore, one will respond positively (cathexis) to one’s work environment, and one will be readily influenced (inducibility) by fellow workers on your team. However, there is “a natural tendency for cooperation to break down” (Deutsch 282) and the breakdown may be attributed to these exact same processes. The negative turns that may occur are that substitutability turns into specialization and therefore produces inequality between workers in a factory setting. We witness this when Cynthia is promoted because her new task indicates a specialization that her old friends do not qualify to perform. The second point is cathexis which “can lead to in-group favoritism, clique formation, nepotism, and so on” (282) and these problems are clearly shown in Sweat. Finally, inducibility can lead to “excessive conformity” (282). The negative side of inducibility is easily perceptible when one considers that “You are willing to be helpful to another whose actions are helpful to you, but not to someone whose actions are harmful” (280). The cooperative relationship that certainly existed between the group of factory workers in Olstead’s was not without its flaws before the industrial dispute. However, cooperation breaks down totally and becomes competition within the group of workers for precisely the reasons Deutsch outlines. Cynthia’s promotion causes a rift (specialization) and her fellow workers no longer accept that she is on their side (inducibility). Nottage also shows us that there had long been work cliques in Olstead’s as well as obvious nepotism (cathexis). With the emergence of a competitive relationship comes the belief that each worker must fight for their individual jobs and no longer trust their old colleagues.
The pattern of behaviour displayed by the workers in Sweat is somewhat predictable when one consults Deutsch’s writings. His focus is “a theory of conflict resolution” (283) and the crucial question he asks is, “What determines whether a conflict will take a constructive or destructive course?” (283). A key point is that cooperative relationships prove most effective and Deutsch writes that “earlier research on the effects of cooperation and competition had indicated that a cooperative process was more likely to lead to constructive conflict resolution and a competitive process to a destructive resolution” (283). The Olstead factory bosses pursue a competitive course and do not deviate from this plan. For the industrialist, cooperation means compromise and this is deemed unnecessary in the current situation, a point that will be discussed further in the context of NAFTA. On the other side is a group of workers whose interpersonal relationships have a huge effect on their prospects of success. Since the workers are forced into a competitive process with the factory, and then fall into competition with one another, they experience a truly destructive resolution which Nottage outlines by reference to people losing their jobs, homes, succumbing to substance abuse, serving jail time etc. Deutsch gives a summation of how what one sees on the surface of a dispute is actually determined by the type of relationship, the actions taken, and various psychological processes. His summation is as follows:
“The surface effects of cooperation and competition are due to the underlying type of interdependence (positive or negative) and type of action (effective or bungling), the basic social psychological processes involved in the theory (substitutability, cathexis, and inducibility), and the cultural or social medium and situational context in which these processes are expressed” (Deutsch 284).
For readers of Sweat, it is not particularly enlightening to state that a breakdown of cooperation leads to failure. Nottage depicts a nuanced situation where an industrial dispute taints practically every aspect of the workers’ lives and futures. Using Deutsch’s terms, one may burrow down into why the bonds between the workers deteriorate so badly.
The breakdown of cooperation.
Cynthia plays a pivotal role, albeit unintentionally, in the deterioration of the bonds between the factory workers. As previously noted, her promotion (substitutability) from the work floor to the offices serves to distance her from her friends, especially Tracey. Cynthia is aware that her promotion may have been a strategic move by the company to sow discord. She says to Stan – “I wonder if they [Olstead’s] gave me this job on purpose. Pin a target on me so they can stay in their air- conditioned offices” (93). This is an interesting point because if the company deliberately pins a target on Cynthia, then they are orchestrating the breakdown of worker solidarity and this shows an astute understanding of the psychology of conflict. Deutsch writes that “The basic psychological orientation of cooperation implies the positive attitude, “We are for each other,” “We benefit one another;” competition, by contrast, implies the negative attitude “We are against one another” and, in its extreme form, “You are out to harm me” (280). Cynthia’s promotion drives a wedge of resentment between her and her fellow workers and friends. Furthermore, Cynthia is tasked with communicating the company’s negative news about wage cuts etc. In response, Tracey demands that Cynthia “Fight for us!” (89) but trust has already been broken and the workers perceive that Cynthia has changed sides in the fight (inducibility). Deutsch sets out the dilemma as follows, “if you are in a positive interdependent relationship with someone who bungles, the bungling is not a substitute for effective actions you intended; thus, the bungling is viewed negatively” (280). Cynthia is perceived to bungle by her co-workers but in fact she has no real influence over the company’s managerial decisions. She then becomes a convenient target for the anger of her fellow workers. As Deutsch predicts, when one looks at the type of interdependence, the actions, and the psychological processes involved here then what one sees on the surface, namely the anger towards Cynthia, is predictable.
Work cliques and nepotism are the negative sides of cathexis and both are in evidence in Sweat. The factory has been, to a large extent, the preserve of white, unionized workers and new workers always needed insider approval. Since the work clique translates as mostly white workers then one must address the issue of racism. However, nepotism may first be tackled as it provides a convenient lead in. The tradition of nepotism is made clear in Tracey’s conversation with Oscar. When he produces a flyer advertising jobs at Olsteads, Tracey explains “that’s not how it works” (63). Tracey states that “First off, you gotta be in the union” (63) and “Anyway. You gotta know somebody to get in. My dad worked there, I work there and my son works there. It’s that kinda shop. Always been” (63). The rebuff that Oscar receives from Tracey concludes with her saying, “Olstead’s isn’t for you” (65). It is ironic that during this conversation, Tracey praises her own grandfather who was a migrant worker from Germany while she ostracizes a fellow citizen of Reading based on the fact that he is from a migrant background. When Oscar eventually crosses the picket line then he feels no regret. This is because he had repeatedly asked but failed to get a reference for a job at Olstead’s from the local bar’s patrons. In fact, as he explains, he got “nothing but pushback” (107). Oscar recounts his father’s experience of being blocked from joining a union – “My father, he swept up the floor in a factory like Olstead’s—those fuckas wouldn’t even give him a union card” (108). In Sweat, Nottage portrays a closed system which is a prime example of inequality and therefore any attempt to break open the system cannot be viewed as wholly negative. Deutsch explains that nepotism as the negative side of cathexis is merely a psychological process that may occur in a relationship of positive interdependence. At a simpler level, Nottage is informing her audience that even cooperative relationships like between the factory workers can still have quite negative aspects.
In the context of the play, the aforementioned work cliques become a euphemism for racism. Some present day examples are highlighted but racism has existed at Olstead’s factory for a long time. Cynthia gives personal testimony of this when speaking with Stan at the bar. She says “You know what’s crazy, when I started at the plant it felt like I was invited into an exclusive club. Not many of us folks worked there. Not us” (93). The word ‘us’ refers specifically to African-Americans and Cynthia’s original offer of employment was notably unusual given the factory’s history. The factory worker clique of all white staff is broadened by the employment of African American staff but a clique always suggests an ‘us versus them’ scenario, an inbuilt inequality. Cynthia goes on to explain the value of her job because, as she says, “I’ve stood on that line, same line since I was nineteen. I’ve taken orders from idiots who were dangerous, or even worse, racist” (99). What is evident from Cynthia’s account is that regardless of past problems, this job was her lucky break and therefore she is unwilling to leave her job despite the current problems. In this light, Cynthia’s promotion may have been an exceptionally cynical move by the factory as they favoured someone who was all too conscious of her lucky break in the first place and therefore unlikely to let down the factory. Cynthia’s unusual position as a black worker in a mostly white work force also comes to the fore when racism re-emerges during the dispute, for example, Jessie says “Tracey’s been going around town whispering that the only reason Cynthia got the job is cuz she’s black” (66). Tracey devalues Cynthia’s achievement by telling Oscar “I betcha they wanted a minority” (64). Targets of racism like Cynthia and Oscar are from quite different backgrounds and yet they fare equally badly in the current situation. Jason turns on Oscar for crossing the picket line, referring to him as “That fucking spic” (117) and saying “What the fuck does he have, huh? A green card that gives him the right to shit on everything we worked for?” (118). While this is blatant racism, it is helpful to understand how it links to a long standing clique of mostly white workers at the factory. Such cliques are threatened in times of industrial unrest. When cooperation breaks down then competition shows itself in many unsavoury guises.
Nottage depicts what Deutsch theorized, namely that cooperation has a natural tendency to break down. In answer to the question posed at the start of the essay – does the workers’ infighting destroy their chances of success? The simple answer is yes, but when one looks at the psychology of the situation including old problems (work clique and nepotism) and new problems (breakdown of trust) then blaming the workers seems erroneous. On the other hand, Cynthia’s promotion is a key factor in the disintegration of trust between the workers. Olstead’s, a company that employed almost exclusively white staff decides to promote an African-American just before cost cutting measures and tasks this newest member of the office staff with communicating the company’s unpalatable plans for wage cuts. This is a deliberate decision by an employer that appears cynical and strategic. Olstead’s tactic makes it far less likely that the workers will be able to hold a united front. One is reminded of the well-known saying – united we stand, divided we fall. When we meet Cynthia again in 2008 then she has also lost her job at Olstead’s and her house too, so she is hardly rewarded for her unenviable task. Her son Chris recalls how when he was a child, his father Brucie motivated fellow workers to picket their factory. Chris tells how the men “looked like warriors, arms linked, standing together” (105) and how this contrasts with the current situation, “listening to Lester [Union official] tell us about what we’d have to sacrifice to keep the plant running” (105). Nottage’s message is that apart from workers’ solidarity or a company’s attempts to sabotage that solidarity, times have simply changed.
When considering what goes wrong for the workers then one needs to consider two other big topics in the play which are wages and NAFTA. The playwright maintains a surprisingly dispassionate approach when she tackles the subject of workers’ inflated wages. This point just underlines that Nottage does not seek to oversimply what is a complex situation. We also gain vital insight into NAFTA which created an entirely new scenario for American workers. It is worth looking at both of these issues before allotting blame to one single party or individual for the ills depicted in the play.
In Sweat, many problems existed ever before the industrial relations unrest. The myth of good old times versus troubled current times is not a picture that Nottage sells her readers. There are unresolved, old problems such as over-inflated wages for unskilled jobs, along with the racism and nepotism previously discussed. In the introduction to scene five of act two, we are told that “200 people camp overnight at a Reading electronics superstore hoping to be the first to buy the $350 Sony PlayStation 2” (106). The general message is that competitively priced goods sell well, and the covert message is that such goods cannot be produced with an expensive workforce. There are clear indications that the workforce of Olsteads’ is exceptionally well paid, probably over paid. For example, Chris talks of becoming a teacher but Jason tells him that he will need a second job just to pay his bills because of teachers’ poor salaries and Stan concurs, saying “Seriously, son, not many people walk away from Olstead’s, cuz you’re not gonna find better money out there” (46). Stan adds that, “I know a couple of the old guys who are bringing in close to forty-something dollars an hour” (46). It is evident that the Olsteads’ staff earn disproportionately high salaries for unskilled work as highlighted by the comparison with the earning power of colleague graduates. When the industrial dispute begins then Cynthia advises her friends that management is “eyeing jobs and some of you are making a lot of money” (87) and that the company will look for a “sixty percent” pay cut from staff wages (90). Even though this is a huge pay cut for existing staff, Oscar, the Columbian-American decides to cross the picket line and take a job at Olsteads because as he explains to Stan, “They’re offering me three dollars more per hour than I make here [the bar]” (107). Therefore, new workers who cross the picket line and accept the wages that the current staff refuse are still better paid than in their previous jobs. It is equally clear that the new staff can be trained quickly which indicates that most of the jobs do not require skilled labour. From this perspective, the old salaries are disproportionate to the skill level required. However, if the company is profitable and the wages have been sustainable until now, what changes that requires such a dramatic pay cut? The answer to this question seems to be NAFTA.
The relationship between Olstead’s and its employees is radically redefined because of the existence of NAFTA. This trade agreement is mentioned only twice in the dialogues, but it has a huge influence over how the factory staff envision their respective futures. Workers who would traditionally have been in a strong negotiating position are now placed in a difficult win/lose scenario because of an influential trade agreement. In the play, Stan tells Cynthia, “You saw what happened over at Clemmons Technologies. No one saw that coming. Right? You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico, whatever, it’s this NAFTA bullshit” (35). In a later discussion, Cynthia also refers to NAFTA and advises Tracey that the company, “can move the whole factory to Mexico tomorrow morning, and a woman like you will stand for sixteen hours and be happy making a fraction of what they’re paying you” (87). The manner in which NAFTA is perceived to operate by workers means that a hard line stance is far more likely to be taken by workers and their union. Yet, a hard line approach is the most counterproductive because we learn from Cynthia of “what went down at Clemmons. The union took a hard line, and look what happened to them. You wanna join those folks on unemployment, be my guest” (88). One is reminded of Deutsch’s remarks on asymmetries of interdependence where a situation is effectively out of balance from the starting point, meaning that one party is always more likely to win if the engagement is seen as a competition. One could say that the rules of engagement in this particular battle are newly defined by NAFTA.
NAFTA remains a highly debated issue in the United States. Nottage taps into an ongoing debate which remains largely unsolved. In NAFTA at 20, edited by Michael J. Boskin, the trade agreement is evaluated as a success. One is advised that “It is important to note that the result of NAFTA has been something far different from the simplistic outsourcing its opponents described” (Boskin 23). The arguments in support are firstly that “NAFTA generated a real increase in wages for all members—Mexico, Canada, and the US” (129) and in regard to trade – “In 2012, there was over $1 trillion in merchandise trade, up from $300 billion in 1993. There was $123 billion in services. FDI (foreign direct investment) tripled to over $600 billion among the three countries” (135). Furthermore, opposition to the deal is explained as based on “anti-globalization” (Boskin 146) and also the fact that NAFTA coincided with “a period where unemployment around the world is high. Wages have stagnated. Outsourcing has become a touchy subject. There is a lot of inequality” (Boskin 146). However, if one refers to Jeff Faux’s 2014 article in The Huffington Post entitled, “NAFTA, Twenty Years After: A Disaster”, then one gains a different perspective. Faux writes that NAFTA, “opened the door through which American workers were shoved, unprepared, into a brutal global competition for jobs that has cut their living standards and is destroying their future.” This is a perspective that matches the portrayal in Nottage’s play. Faux argues that the trade agreement led to a net loss of jobs in America, and that NAFTA and subsequent trade agreements “traded away the interests of American workers in favor of the interests of American corporations eager to produce for the U.S. market in countries where labor is cheap”. In the same year that Nottage released her play, Faux had written the following.
“As a result [of NAFTA and similar agreements], the bargaining positions of U.S. workers — union and non-union — were severely undercut. As soon as NAFTA became law, corporate managers began using the threat to move elsewhere in order to force U.S. workers to work longer and harder for less. Threatening employees with outsourcing is now standard practice in American business”.
In this light, one begins to understand the position the workers in Sweat are manoeuvred into. When the trade border between the United States and Mexico disappeared then wage competitiveness became an instant threat. If relocation is legal for companies, then employees, even those with long service history, lose the vital bargaining chip they once held. The debate between employer and employee becomes a zero sum game but the terms of the game are clearly dictated by the employer. Nottage empathizes with the underdog in this situation.
In Sweat, the American worker is most assuredly dismantled and often deemed obsolete due to their high wages and generous benefit packages. The social cost of casting such workers aside is disastrous and Nottage portrays lives of hardship and disappointment after the industrial dispute in Reading. The reasons for why the workers’ demands fail in Nottage’s depiction reflect real life scenarios. In this essay, each factor that influences the workers prospects has been considered such as psychology, existing employment agreements like wages, industrialist’s underhand tactics, and new trade deals like NAFTA. Each factor does indeed contribute to the workers eventually being locked out and losing their battle with big industry. However, NAFTA is the game changer event because it pits worker against worker in a race to find the cheapest labour in the cheapest location.
The climactic scene of Sweat depicts workers physically attacking fellow workers. The workers are fighting over a now scarce resource, namely well-paid jobs. What we witness is a competitive process where all elements of former cooperation have disappeared. Deutsch writes that “The competitive process stimulates the view that the solution of a conflict can be imposed only by one side on the other, which in turn leads to using coercive tactics such as psychological as well as physical threats and violence” (280). The workers first understand that they are in competition with their employer, but then it becomes competition with one’s fellow workers. The workers’ increasing pessimism and feelings of powerlessness act as fuel for angry outbursts.
The rules of engagement for industrial relations are now defined by trade agreements like NAFTA which only exaggerate a pre-existing asymmetry of power between large corporations and workers. What Nottage depicts is a scenario in which the individual worker, especially an un-skilled worker, will always fail. Yes, cooperation between workers breaks down and yes, there are blatant pre-existing problems like nepotism and latent racism, but the imbalance between industrialist and worker is a starting point from which there will always be a predictable winner. The absence of a real future for unskilled workers is clearly summed up by Chris when he says, “Now they got us fighting for scraps … the writing’s on the wall, and we’re still out here pre- tending like we can’t read” (115). Nottage, a playwright and academic, may be far removed from the workforce she writes about but she accurately sums up their dilemma in an increasingly globalized market. The message of Sweat is that the worker loses because the game has indeed changed.
Boskin, Michael J., editor. NAFTA at 20: The North American Free Trade Agreement’s Achievements and Challenges. Hoover Institution Press, 2014.
Crompton, Sarah. “Playwright Lynn Nottage: We are a country that has lost our narrative.” The Guardian, 2 December 2018.
Deutsch, Morton. “A Theory of Cooperation – Competition and Beyond.” The Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, edited by Paul A. M. Van Lange, Arie W. Kruglanski, and E. Tory Higgins. SAGE Publications Ltd, 2012, pp.275-295.
Faux, Jeff. “NAFTA, Twenty Years After: A Disaster.” The Huffington Post, 1 January 2014, www.huffpost.com/entry/nafta-twenty-years-after_b_4528140.
Nottage, Lynn. Sweat. Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2017.