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The Unseen Worker? Rethinking Who and What is Invisible in the Blue-Collar Workplace

Sociologists have argued that service workers are “invisible” and this invisibility negatively affects their status, power, and subjective experience in the workplace. Drawing on over 2000 hours of participant observation research as well as extensive interviews with 50 janitorial workers in a large public school system, I find that within systems of increased corporatization, workers in lower-status occupations experience a spectrum of negative slights reflective of inequitable power relationships within their organizations, and these experiences differ according to social characteristics of the individual worker including position title, education, skills, gender, and race. Certain workers use sources of privilege to minimize negative slights and disrespect in the workplace – but those privileges are not available to all. Furthermore, rather than workers being invisible, I find that the corporation itself becomes invisible to the people who work there. While we typically consider invisibility on an individual level, I analyze the structure of the workplace to illustrate how unequal power relationships impact workers, from the janitors to the managers. Alongside growing privatization in the public sector, I find a decrease in the presence of upper management, and an increase in workers presenting an apathetic front – a public form of disengagement from workplace and political issues, that reveals an underlying sense of powerlessness rather than true apathy. This dissertation analyzes how intersectional identities can exacerbate and obscure certain forms of oppression and invisibility, making collaborative resistance and self-advocacy more difficult, and highlighting the need for solidarity in the workplace.