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When Workers Fight Back

Annelise Orleck

Workers resist exploitation, even in the worst circumstances. Historian Annelise Orleck spoke with 140 of them, from garment workers in Cambodia to Walmart workers in the US.

Home health care workers gather for a living wage march in Manhattan on April 15, 2015. Liz Cooke

Interview by
Stephanie Luce

We’re used to hearing stories about labor’s decline. Janus is going to kill public sector unions. Workplaces are harder to organize than ever. Union density is at an all-time low.

But if there is cause for optimism, it is that workers still resist exploitation, even in the worst circumstances. In the United States and around the world, workers are organizing for higher wages, better working conditions, and respect in the workplace. Garment workers are striking in Cambodia, berry pickers are walking off the job in Mexico, McDonald’s workers are forming international networks. Despite the growth in right-wing movements and governments, the organizing continues, even in places where labor activists are beaten and jailed, and sometimes worse.

In her new book, “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising against Poverty Wages, historian Annelise Orleck provides a dose of optimism through her interviews with some of these workers. In all, she talked to 140 workers: in Bangladesh and South Africa and Cambodia; in the United States and the Philippines and Morocco — berry pickers, garment workers, small farmers, fast-food workers, adjunct professors, airport workers, home health care aides.

Labor scholar Stephanie Luce recently spoke with Orleck about the victories these workers have won and the challenges they face in trying to secure a modicum of stability and dignity.


The book contains some beautiful photos of some of the workers you interviewed. Can you tell me a bit about those?


Liz Cooke is one of my childhood friends, and we have collaborated before. We really have this sense that when you are interviewing people and getting their stories there’s a whole other level of intimacy that is established when readers can see the faces and bodies and body language of the people who are speaking. She traveled with me to most of the locales described in the book and was there for a lot of the interviews. The pictures are very important to this project. It was a true collaboration.


You give quite a few inspirational stories, but most of the people you write about are living in pretty difficult conditions — whether it’s Walmart and fast-food workers in the United States, garment workers in Cambodia, or farmers in India. Some of the people you write about have been beaten, jailed — labor activists have been harassed, fired, kidnapped, and murdered. How are they winning?


One way in which they are winning is financial. We saw that before the Day of Disruption in November of 2016, when studies were released showing that workers had, through their protests and through the kinds of coalitions that go beyond labor unions, won something like twelve times what Congress gave them in wage raises when they last raised the federal minimum wage in 2007. So some of the gains that workers have won are in wages.

You see the same thing in Cambodia, where wages have increased many times since this movement really heated up in 2010. And in Bangladesh — they’ve increased their wages something like twenty-five times since the 1980s. These are significant wage increases, even if they’re not enough.

Victory for low-wage workers has come on many fronts as a result of them doing broad coalition building — across national lines, between workers, consumers, and government officials. Victories have also come as a result of a new strategy. Workers have learned that they can embarrass global brands — particularly global brands with markets in Scandinavia, where consumers are attuned to, and angered by, labor abuses. H&M, one of the largest global clothing retailers, is therefore sensitive to revelations about beatings, terrible working conditions, and sexual assaults of workers.

Kalpona Akter, leader of the Bangladesh garment workers’ movement. She started work in a garment factory at age twelve. Liz Cooke

Others companies are less so — especially the big American brands. Walmart and Gap have not caved in very much at all — though they’ve made some symbolic gestures. They both raised the minimum wage for their workers in the United States. (Although Walmart always closes some stores after such raises.) And they’ve established a non-legally binding factory inspection system since they refuse to sign the legally binding Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, which more than two hundred global clothing brands have signed.

Workers also understand the belief of autocrats like Hun Sen in Cambodia or Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh that a flood of global capital is what is driving their rapidly expanding economies. When worker actions threaten to slow the flood of investment, even dictators listen.

So I think those are the ways in which low-wage workers have won. And obviously, despite my relentless optimism — and I try to keep that in whatever I write — it’s a terribly hard struggle, and people have paid a terrible price. Including, for many, the ultimate price.


Unions have been losing members and power in much of the world, leading many — even some on the Left — to give up on unions. But unions play a fairly big role in many of your stories. Some very inspirational. What are your thoughts on what unions are doing well?


In the United States, one of the early interviews that I did, in April 2015, was with Prince Jackson and Canute Drayton, who were out for the big Fight for $15 march that April and who ended up helping lead eight thousand airport workers in the New York/New Jersey area into unions in the late fall of 2016. They talked about how low-wage workers in different industries were often members of the same families. They, airport workers, were inspired by the campaigns led by the fast-food workers, who were often younger family members or people they knew from their communities.

There is a kind of community-based approach to organizing that is going on in this movement. And even though the Fight for $15 movement has been criticized for not focusing on getting workers into unions, here we see that one effect of their broad organizing has been a resurgence in unions. There was a big influx of workers into airport unions in late 2016. It was notable — one of the bigger victories for unions in recent years.


You mention at least a few examples of workers who talk about their unions as something very personal, the union is like their family — “the union is my mother.” This is interesting because it challenges the idea that unions are just about the workplace or paid work.


That quote was from a Cambodian beer promoter by the name of Tep Saroeung. When I listened to her, I felt like I was listening to the words of garment workers that I wrote about in my first book — young girls in New York City shops in 1909, 1910. They would talk about how the union gave them an education, the union gave them a community, the union gave them this extended family of workers who cared about them. That’s how Tep Sareoung spoke.

She was really struck that union organizers would bother to come into the half-underground warrens of dark rooms where beer workers live in Phnom Penh — come into these hidden neighborhoods and educate the residents. Teach them about labor law and more. All over Cambodia women organizers are teaching women workers about their reproductive systems, how to not have kids they don’t want, how to fight domestic violence.

Tep told me she took this job initially for her kids and then became a union activist for her kids. But then she became a mentor to young girls in her neighborhood. At thirty-five, she was old for the beer promotion trade. There were all these teenage girls working all around her. She felt good about herself, about being able to educate them, about being able to help them get paid vacations and maternity leave.

I think this is really important — this sense of family. It really does challenge this notion of unions as led by cigar-chomping, disconnected bureaucrats.


You share a number of stories of workers having a transformational moment. It might happen during a shop-floor fight or an educational activity. They are engaged in fighting a boss or working with colleagues, and they have a moment where they see a bigger fight and there is no going back.


I cite this quote, from an earlier book I wrote called Storming Caesar’s Palace. It is a quote from Ruby Duncan, a welfare rights organizer. She was talking about the moment when, after a lifetime of people demanding things from poor women, “finally, we were the ones doing the demanding.” She described a rush, a sense of collective power.

Another kind of rush comes with the recognition of global solidarity. Venanzi Luna, a Walmart organizer I profile in the book, talks about this moment when she walked out of a Walmart in Pico Rivera, California, to do the first strike against an American Walmart. They were terrified. And then this busload of Walmart workers from around the world rolled in and out poured these workers from Uruguay and Italy and all over who were there to support them. That was the moment that they understood the nature of global solidarity and the need for global solidarity.

It reminds me of early twentieth-century organizer Pauline Newman talking about garment workers in the 1910s, who would say: “We’re more than machines. We want to write poetry, we want to make speeches.” The movement made them feel more human.


Some on the Left have critiqued some of the models of transnational organizing, where you fly some workers around the world to attend a board meeting or event, suggesting it’s top-down. It takes a lot of resources, and it may not be driven by the grassroots. On the other hand, like your Walmart example, you tell stories of this kind of action that are very meaningful for workers.


I want to challenge a little bit the notion that this is meaningless to workers, that it’s just top-down. Certainly there is some of that in the way Fight for $15 has been managed. But at the same time, I talked to Massimo Frattini, a former hotel worker who works for the IUF in Geneva and who coordinates these international meetings for hotel workers. He is one very busy man who drinks a lot of coffee and works the phones and talks to workers around the world. He used to carry bags in hotels in Milan. He’s not the stereotypical powerful union leader.

Fast-food worker and Fight for $15 activist Bleu Rainer shows scars from burns on his arm. Liz Cooke

Bleu Rainer, one of the very first workers I interviewed in Tampa, was invited to Brazil in the summer of 2015 by the Brazil Senate for a hearing about how McDonald’s was affecting wages and working conditions worldwide. Bleu got to meet with workers from Seoul and Brazil and Tokyo. I open the book with a story of them comparing burns on their arms — showing each other their identical burns and understanding that McDonald’s workers around the world have these same marks. That was an unforgettable moment for Bleu.

These workers at the very bottom of the pay scale, the most disenfranchised in the workforce, are developing a very sophisticated sense of transnational capital flows and global worker solidarity. It’s not just theoretical. Not at all.


Was there anything you learned or saw that was particularly surprising?


Two things. One is that I was stunned by how much damage neoliberalism had done in my adult life. I just wasn’t aware as it was happening. The second piece, which surprised and pleased me, was the extent to which there is a global women’s movement going on. The majority of the workers currently organizing are women. By no means all — I interviewed all kinds of brave and impassioned men, young and older. But a lot of this is a women’s movement. It’s a movement against pregnancy discrimination, a movement for wage equity, a movement against gender-based violence, inside and outside the workplace.

And a lot of the organizing that is going on is going on through consciousness-raising groups — they call them consciousness-raising groups, just as feminist activists did forty years ago.


Reading your book, I was struck by the timing with the #MeToo movement here. When that first emerged some people said, “Hey, it’s not just celebrities — what about women in low-wage jobs who don’t have access to the media to tell their stories?” Your book points out that a version of this has been going on for quite a while now. Fighting against sexual harassment on the shop floor is just a fact of life.


And it’s very global. Sharon Burrows who is the head of the ITUC, the largest global labor confederation, is very militant on this issue of gender-based violence. Last November 25, they had a Global Day of Action against gender-based violence in the workplace. Women trade unionists around the world are working to pass an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention, and they are hoping for UN action. They are agitating on the shop floor but they are also thinking globally.

I think that dovetails obviously with the #MeToo movement in this country but absolutely — long before #MeToo got into the news here, these folks were working around the world on this issue. I believe that there are small on-the-ground successes every day, and those are important in giving people the strength to keep going. And also they can have profound impact on individual people’s lives and on the culture of individual workplaces. So I think there are successes big and small every day.

Bigger successes, of course, will be hard-won. But it is important to remember that millions of people who are struggling, who are inspiring and leading the new global movement are the poorest of the poor, the least empowered. I can’t speak for them but my guess is that they would say, “if some famous actresses are starting to speak out about this, and it’s giving it some press attention, then great.”


And it’s a racial justice story too. Playing out in different ways, of course, depending on what part of the world you are in. But race seems to be a dominant theme throughout your book as well.


It’s very different in different places. Here, in the United States, the Fight for $15 is heavily influenced by the black freedom struggles of decades past. One of the first interviews I did was with a young woman who had just come back from Atlanta, where she had been to a workshop of five hundred fast-food workers that was led by survivors of the 1968 Memphis garbage workers’ strike.

But in the Philippines it was a slightly different struggle. It was the racism that the migrants from the southern islands encountered from Tagalog-speaking, more affluent people in Manila and in other big cities where they came to work.

Here in the United States, the farmworkers that I interviewed in California who were Oaxacan migrants were very clear that they were part of a larger struggle of First Nations people and indigenous activists. They were fighting not just for a living wage but against racism towards indigenous people — which they sometimes saw from mestizos and from Mexican Americans in the farm business. So it’s really complicated and really interesting. But absolutely race is key.


You write that this is in part a story about neoliberalism, and you quote Josua Mata from the Philippines, who said, “globalization is the new colonialism.” Can you say more about that?


It was the early 1990s, and he says it was a revelatory moment for him and for other progressive Philippine labor activists. They had to rethink what unions were, what organizing meant, what “social movement unionism” had to be.

As I was doing the research — and again, I base this on the work of many scholars — it became clear that nation states are becoming less and less important and the real power lies with at least two dozen — probably more — corporations. Certainly we can all think of a couple of dozen corporations whose power is greater than that of most nation states.

Some of that is as a result of corporations using the “threat effect” — the ability of corporations to threaten to move jobs offshore. When I interviewed workers in Cambodia they said, “Bangladesh was always the threat that was held over our heads. If we tried to organize too much, these corporations could move the jobs abroad.”

What was interesting to me was how workers, like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have taken that recognition that these corporations are where the ultimate power lies and begun to press there. To put pressure on the top of the supply chain, to begin to force these companies — or try to force them — to improve conditions and wages across the world.