Low-wage workers are in the media spotlight more than normal right now thanks to COVID-19. Lost of our low wage workers have lost their jobs and the unemployment crisis this pandemic is causing is both tragic and avoidable, or would be with a decent government that just paid everyone directly to not work. But also, lots of people are discovering that low-wage workers are very important to their lives. From Amazon warehouse workers to the undocumented people laboring to pick your strawberries, many of our most vulnerable workers have been classified as essential. And they are. The only way we get through this as a society if people can eat. These workers have more leverage than usual and have been engaging in labor actions that are gaining them more rights on the job, or at least some safety equipment to hopefully prevent them from becoming ill.
This is the latest moment in the global outrage over poverty wages that the labor historian Annelise Orleck documents in “We Are All Fast Food Workers Now.” Orleck is best known for her outstanding book on the welfare rights movement in Las Vegas, Storming Caesar’s Palace, from 2005. I don’t know the entire literature on the welfare rights movement, but Orleck’s book was a revelation to me, a brilliant study that takes the old microhistory of a place and turns it into a major political history that is deeply inspiring and also frustrating, given the lack of welfare rights in this country today.
For her latest book, published in 2018, Orleck visits and interviews low-wage workers from around the world, demonstrating how workers are resisting their poverty not only through local actions, but by using the power of globalization to help publicize their causes and place pressure on the multinational corporations and governments responsible for their poverty. While obviously Orleck can’t traverse the entire world to discuss these topics, she does a great job demonstrating the internationalism of the modern workers movement, with particular interests in the workers of south and southeast Asia and Latino migrants to the United States, especially indigenous workers from southern Mexico. Exploring the slums of Manila, talking to leading Bangladeshi and Cambodian activists, and telling the stories of Mixtec migrants from Oaxaca, Orleck provides a resolutely positive outlook on the labor organizing around the world. As many of the people she interviews tell her, you have to look forward, not backwards at our losses. Because of this outlook, the book is really quite inspiring, despite the desperation of the workers involved.
The book’s spirit is clear from the beginning, when she begins with a 2015 hearing in Brazil about McDonald’s labor violations around the world. Fast food activists from the U.S., the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, and other nations all came to Brasilia to testify. They met each other. And they all realized they were suffering from the same problems, all while comparing the burn marks in the same places on their arms. This is the face of global exploitation. Globalization frames the book. Kalpona Akter and the Bangladeshi garment workers union has strong allies in western nations. Coalitions of solidarity bring attention to the conditions of Florida farmworkers and Cambodian garment workers.
Orleck is not unrealistic. A lot of these struggles do not lead to workers winning. Some places seem especially difficult. She spends a lot of time in the Philippines and reports in detail on how the political dysfunction there, not only back to the Marcos days but even among the somewhat democratizing Corazon Aquino and certainly after, has made organizing outright dangerous. Duterte has only made that worse. Anti-worker right-wing extremists have taken power in nations around the world in recent years, including the United States. The oppression these people enact upon workers is very real and told in great detail. Workers are beaten and killed. But they inspire others to lead the movement in their place. Union movements fail in the face of fear and intimidation, but workers keep up the struggle.
There’s also a tremendous attention to the details of organizing. When discussing Oaxacan migrant farmworkers now in northern Mexico and the United States, Orleck notes how organizers tell her how the Triqui are more easy to organize into unions than Zapotec or Mixtec migrants. This is because the Triqui are traditionally oppressed even by other indigenous groups in Oaxaca and thus have developed a stronger culture of political organizing. So when organizing for unions, she notes how the Triqui will embrace the union while for the Mixtec and Zapotec, it has to be framed more toward community organizing. This is real reporting from the ground about organizing, the kind of thing that is often papered over for more simplistic and all-encompassing narratives. And it sums up much about why this book has such value. The story of Cambodian garment workers isn’t just that they are oppressed or that they make more in wages than they would have back on the farms, as they admit themselves and that shallow neoliberals use to defend this system. Rather, these workers note that they had no choice in their lives, not when their politicians worked with international agricultural agencies to force them off the land through trade agreements, concessions to soy or cattle or timber interests, and to the general capital consolidation of the globalized modern gilded age. Again, these are the complex stories we need to understand the global workforce and do what it is our power to fight for them in a spirit of solidarity.
Broken up into 40 tiny chapters, each one telling a slightly different story about the workers leading the advance of justice into the future, Orleck has provided a critically important examination of the fight against poverty wages. There’s only a relatively short chapter on the way forward, urging us as consumers to place pressure on companies to take control over their supply chains and build greater global solidarity. As I’ve written, I think we need to go much farther than that and argue for real legal solutions to these problems.
The impacts of COVID-19 are going to be felt greater upon the poor, both nationally and globally. The fight against poverty wages is only going to become more important in the future. Orleck provides pictures from a moment in time that hopefully we can look back at from the future and see how they inspired us for change today.