From the Sea-Tac employees who sparked Seattle’s $15 minimum wage fight, to the New York City fast-food workers who started a national movement, to protesters in the Philippines who use song and dance to communicate about the respect they deserve, Annelise Orleck has taken a trace of workers’ movements all over the world.
Orleck is the author of a new book, “We’re All Fast Food Workers Now,” which traces the path of a new labor movement. It is a movement that is close to Seattle’s heart because of the region’s success in establishing a $15-an-hour minimum wage, but for many other cities and nations the fight has just begun.
Heidi Groover, a staff writer on housing and labor for the Stranger, will be joining Orleck for the discussion on her book and the triumphs and struggles surrounding global minimum wage movements, workers’ rights and more on April 23, at 7:30 p.m. at The Summit.
Real Change spoke with Orleck by phone.
Can you start off with what the title of the book refers to?
The title of the book, “We’re All Fast Food Workers Now,” was a line that was uttered by a graduate student in Tampa, Florida, in 2015 when I began the interviews for this project.
I had asked to meet with some “Fight for 15” activists in Tampa, and I walked into a Cuban Cafe on the west side of the city and at the table were people of every race, some LGBT folks, some trans folks, a very interesting array of people and mostly young, a graduate student and some adjunct college professors.
I said to them, “This is a new kind of working-class solidarity to have college professors and graduate students organizing with home health care workers and fast-food workers. How can you explain that to me?”
And this young man said, “They try to tell us that our advanced degrees make us special, and if we just behave and are good, we’ll end up with a well-paying, long-term, tenured-track job. But that’s just a lie to keep us quiet. The truth is, we’re all fast-food workers now.”
The name refers to a transformation in our economy, so that no one is an employee anymore; everybody is a contract worker. That idea that no one is an employee anymore runs around laws that were passed 70 or 80 years ago to protect workers, so that if you’re just a contract employee, you’re not entitled to overtime or retirement pay or benefits, and you don’t have the same safety protections or job security.
This book is about the transformation of our world’s economy. It’s about how we all became fast-food workers and how workers of all kinds, fast-food workers, airport workers, crossing guards, teachers, farm workers and garment workers, are fighting back around the world and in the U.S.
You talk about activists fighting back for a fair wage, but also in movements against sexual assault in the workplace and other unfair conditions. Can you talk about fights that aren’t just around wage?
Living wages are a basic thing and they’ve had a lot of success. In the U.S. alone between 2012 and 2016, low-wage workers won themselves $61.5 billion in wage increases, which is 12 times what Congress gave them the last time they raised the minimum wage from 2007 to 2009.
But they’re fighting for much more than that. Because the majority of low-wage workers in the world are women of color, many of whom have kids, they’ve been fighting against sexual assault and gender-based violence in the workplace. They’ve been having global days of action, where women workers walk off the job. In Chicago there are hotel housekeepers, who are the most likely group to be harassed and assaulted on the job, who are fighting for what they call “pants on, hands off,” and that has become part of their union drive. Whether it’s customers, employers, supervisors, whoever it is, zero tolerance.
Then there’s the idea of respect. You can look at the Philippine’s fast-food workers’ movement, which is called the RESPECT Fast FoodWorkers Alliance. They sing and dance and block traffic to make their points to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s 1967 song, as well as more modern songs, like Katy Perry’s “Roar” and “Frozen’s” theme song, “Let it Go.”
I learned from Girshriela Green, who organized the group called “Respect the Bump” for pregnant Walmart workers, the first thing the workers wanted to talk about was respect. She said, “Many of them were hungry, many of them were paid so little that they were literally hungry, but at the top of their list was being treated respectfully.” She said that tells you a lot about workers’ lives, Walmart and the workers movement today.
I know that the national movement was sparked by fast-food workers. Can you talk a little bit more about the global movement and how those two converge?
I think the national movement was started simultaneously by fast-food and Walmart workers. Venanzi Luna and Denise Barlage led the first strike against the U.S. Walmart in October 2012, and they actually were afraid to go back into the store. They were afraid they would be fired, they were afraid they would be disciplined in some unpleasant way. Much to their surprise, the global movement of Walmart workers had already heard of them because in many other countries the Walmart workforce is unionized. They’re standing in front of the Pico Rivera, California, Walmart, afraid to go back in, and this bus rolls up, and out of that bus came a global union of workers from Chile, Uruguay, Italy and other parts of the world. They marched them back into the store by singing union songs, and when the Walmart managers tried to throw them out they said, “Nope, we’re Walmart employees.” They showed them their Walmart cards, and they showed them their union cards.
One way the movement became global is that many of these activists work for the same corporations around the world. One of the people in this book is Blue Rainier, a fast-food worker and activist who I met one night in Tampa. In the summer of 2015, he got an invitation to go to Brazil to testify before the Brazil Senate. … It turned out Brazilian fast-food workers, kind of through a McDonald’s affiliate, were suing that company in court for violation of Brazilian labor laws. In a lot of these countries there are laws protecting workers, but the companies don’t abide by them, so the workers have to enforce those laws.
Blue flew to Brazil, and he met a man from Japan, and he rolled up his sleeves and showed Blue his burns. He talked about how the conditions were still bad because they make you turn around orders in 90 seconds, and you don’t have enough space to work and you’re always reaching over boiling oil and hot grills. So, Blue rolled up his sleeves and had burns in exactly the same places, and he met this guy from Manila, Massimo Frattini, who rolled up his sleeves and he has burns in the same places. Frattini called them “McBrothers.”
Have McDonald’s or Walmart or any other large corporations responded?
McDonald’s and Walmart have made token gestures. Many other companies have made more serious gestures, and big retail chains are starting to see wage raises. McDonald’s promised to raise its wages in the corporate-owned stores, not the franchise-owned stores, because they claimed those were individually owned, but that’s not really true. It’s a ruse because McDonald’s owns the properties on which those buildings stand, charges franchisees rent, sells them the uniforms for their workers and pressures them to have their workers live up to these 90-second standards.
As the second-largest public employer in the world, McDonald’s has a lot of power to try to continue the things that it’s been doing.
Walmart is the biggest private employer in the world, and the only employers larger than Walmart … are the U.S. and Chinese militaries. They have endless power.
This movement is so diverse that there doesn’t seem to be an average participant. But is there a general demographic or trend for fast-food workers in general?
The average fast-food worker in the U.S., and there are 4 million, is a 29-year-old mother of two. It’s not a teenager, it’s not an old person who’s already collecting Social Security and getting some retirement benefits — it is a mother who has kids to support and needs a real wage and a real income. But one of the reasons, coming back to the book’s title, that this movement has spread so fast in the U.S. and around the world is because it’s so widespread. Seventy-five percent of those teaching Ph.D.s in this country are on course-to-course contracts, or year-to-year contracts, meaning they don’t have benefits, they often don’t have job security, a quarter of them are on food stamps and on Medicaid, so they need public assistance. When you have a situation where the most educated people in the country are struggling to survive on their wages, then you have a movement that is spreading really fast. “Fight for 15” is not just fast-food workers, and it’s not just retail; it’s those school crossing guards, nurses, teachers, college professors and home health care workers, all who need standard scheduling.
What do you think the future of this movement looks like?
I think the future of this movement is that it will continue to grow. It is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. In the United States, on the night that Donald Trump was elected president, five red states voted to increase the minimum wage.
So, because 50 percent of American workers earn less than $30,000 a year, which is dire poverty wages, you have a wide base, and this is true around the world. These trends that we’re talking about are part of the global economy, and I think it’s going to continue.
When I interviewed fast-food workers who were sitting in at McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, they said, “We have nothing to lose.” Blue showed me a paycheck for two weeks for $119 and said, “What do I have to lose.” … I literally spoke to young people in their 20s who said, “It’s OK if I die. I might die doin’ this.” And it’s astonishing. The courage is astonishing. So I don’t see it going anywhere. I think liberal capitalism has reached its breaking point.
What is this movement bringing to people who haven’t been in a union, united movement or protest like this before?
There’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment and also a sense of meaning. Denise Barlage, one of the OG Walmart strikers, said to me, “I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life. Partly ’cause I’m a mother, and this is what I want to leave to the next generation,” (a lot of the Walmart activists are mothers and they talked about that) “but also because this is what I was meant to do with my life. It feels good.”
As one grape picker in South Africa said, “I look people in the eye now. This is what I needed to lead my children. I stand up to my full height and I don’t care who it is. My boss, the president of the country, a union leader who don’t believe women can be organized — I look people in the eye when I say my piece.” That’s profound.
For people who come to your talk at The Summit, what are you hoping they leave with?
I’m hoping that we have a conversation. I’m hoping, first of all, we say kudos to Seattle for being the first, and talk about what it is that made Seattle the first, and the audience will be more qualified to do that than I will, being Seattleites. I hope that it makes people also pay attention.
Washington state was the site of one of the big victories, by berry workers, at Sakuma [Brothers], which is the biggest blueberry grower in the country. When berries started to appear year-round in our stores, we didn’t question anything. “It’s great! They’re beautiful! It’s wonderful!” But in fact, monopolies like Driscoll’s are partnering with growers around the world under some horrific conditions. When workers struck, beginning in Washington state at Sakuma and going all the way down to Baja, California, it made a difference. People started to say, “Where do the berries I want to put on my cereal in the morning come from?”
And that’s what I hope — is that people look behind the goods they buy and say, “I can buy now from Sakuma, ’cause after two years of struggling they finally recognized their union.” To be educated consumers, to decide where you want to join hands with these workers’ struggles and to recognize that it’s not their story, it’s our story. We’re all fast-food workers now.
WHAT: Annelise Orleck with Heidi Groover: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages
WHEN: April 23, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: The Summit, 420 E. Pike St.
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