In We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now, Annelise Orleck traces a new labor movement sparked and sustained by low-wage workers from across the globe. Orleck illuminates globalization as seen through the eyes of worker-activists: small farmers, fast-food servers, retail workers, hotel housekeepers, home-healthcare aides, airport workers, and adjunct professors who are fighting for respect, safety, and a living wage. With original photographs by Liz Cooke and drawing on interviews with activists in many US cities and countries around the world, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Mexico, South Africa, and the Philippines, it features stories of resistance and rebellion, as well as reflections on hope and change as it rises from the bottom up. Public Seminar spoke to Orleck about her new book. Find the interview below.
Public Seminar [PS]: Why did you write We Are All Fast Food Workers Now? And who do you hope will read it?
Annelise Orleck [AO]: A few different events sparked my interest in writing about our changing economy and the rise of precarious labor, concerns that became We Are All Fast Food Workers Now. The first came as I worked with many others to organize the 100th anniversary commemorations in NYC for the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. This was an event that killed 146 young workers, mostly teenage girls and young women. The fire broke out on March 25, 1911 in the middle of Greenwich Village, in the Asch building on Greene St. and Washington Place. Thousands of New Yorkers watched during a terrible half hour as scores of young women jumped to their deaths from the burning building.
On March 25, 2011, Bangladeshi garment worker and union activist Kalpona Akter climbed to the stage of the Great Hall in Cooper Union and said: “In Bangladesh it’s not 2011. It’s 1911.” There have been hundreds of fires in Bangladesh garment factories in the last 12 years alone and Akter was reminding listeners that Triangle was not a long-ago tragedy, that conditions for many who make our clothing in the 21st century are as bad or worse than they were a century ago. But as Akter reminded us, Triangle was also a turning point in American labor history – a moment when public horror at industrial working conditions drove government agencies, first on the state level and then on the federal, to begin to legislate and enforce protections for workers. A century later Akter hoped that publicity and sympathy surrounding the centennial of Triangle would help Bangladeshi activists draw attention to horrific conditions in the 21st century global garment industry. This had not been easy to do because Bangladesh is simply not on the radar screen for most American or European consumers.
Akter believes that the Rana Plaza factory collapse of 2013, in which more than 1,200 garment workers were killed and 2,500 wounded, has again prodded the conscience of consumers, union and government officials. Meeting Akter made me realize that I wanted to investigate today’s dangerous workplaces, and to highlight labor movements by 21st century workers to make their workplaces safer and more equitable.
One thing I found is that it is not just 2011 in Bangladesh but all over the world. And workers again are rising up to make positive change, as they did in the early 20th century.
The second event that sparked my interest in writing this book was the May 2014 global strike by fast food workers. It was a remarkable organizing feat. McDonalds and other fast food workers in hundreds of cities, in 40 countries on six continents walked off the job to protest for a living wage, respect and safer working conditions. When I learned of teenage activists in Manila pulling other fast food workers to walk away from the jobs and into the streets by singing adapted words to the song “Let It Go,” the theme song to the Disney animated film Frozen, I realized that this was a different sort of workers’ movement than others I’ve studied in the past: it is led by the young, shaped by global popular culture, and that activism makes global connections via cell phones and social media in ways that would have been impossible even 20 years ago. That strike, which has been repeated and expanded every year since 2014, moved me to write the proposal for We Are All Fast Food Workers, though it didn’t have that title initially. At first, I used a slogan from the 2014 strike, an adaptation of McDonalds’ expensive and wildly popular jingle “I’m Liking It”. Poverty Wages, Not Liking It.
Finally, I was in Tampa in Spring 2015 interviewing activists in the living wage movement (so I was already on the first steps toward writing this book.) I walked into Teresita’s Cuban Café in West Tampa and there were fast food workers, graduate students, adjunct professors and home health care workers via Skype (because they work too many hours to come to many meetings). And they were planning a series of walkouts and civil disobedience actions for union rights and a $15 minimum wage. I said to them, “This is not what I, as a long-time labor historian, imagine when I think of working class solidarity.” And History grad student Keegan Shepherd said to me (I’m paraphrasing), “They tell us that our advanced degrees make us special and that if we are good and obedient some day we will get those tenure track jobs. But that is just a lie to keep us quiet. Because the truth is we are all fast food workers now.” And then 26-year-old McDonalds worker and living wage organizer Bleu Rainer chimed in: “Or maybe we are all professor adjuncts.” The point, Bleu continued, is that “the American dream is broken.” Fast food workers are told that if they want more money they should get an education. “Then I found out that my professors in college were making the same thing I was — about $8.05 an hour.”
So all of that led me to write this book, to comment on how our world and our economy have changed in my adult lifetime. This book is global because the changes have been global – the rise in precarity, the decline in legal protections for workers, the decline in what wages can buy, the rise in sexual violence in the workplace. And it is global because workers are rising against all of that all around the world.
PS: How did the project evolve over time? Did your original idea go through many stages and changes? Can you describe them for us?
AO: I described to some degree in my first answer the ways that the project evolved. But I guess, at first, I was interested in the realization that working conditions for millions are as dangerous now as they were a century or more ago. I did a lot of research into the globalization of the garment trades, the globalization of fast food, hotels and agriculture. But after writing an 80-page section about the global expansion of some of the corporations that now have more power than most nation-states — Walmart, McDonalds, Amazon, H & M, Zara, Exxon and more — I decided that the corporate history could be told by someone else. I wanted to tell this story, as I have in many of my other books, from the bottom up, through the eyes of workers.
That’s one of the reasons why it is so important to me to have the beautiful photographic portraits shot by my friend and collaborator Liz Cooke. It is all too easy to think about large shifts — neoliberalism, globalization, austerity, a rise in precarity, World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans, debt and the rise of transnational corporations — in abstract terms. But these are forces that affect millions of real people and against which millions are rising up. This is a book filled with the voices of those people — it attempts to distill and share their visions of change. And the photographs create an intimacy as if you are sitting in the room with the people in this book, as if you are in conversation.
PS: Can you tell us a bit about your background as a writer and historian? How did you arrive at a point in your life where you could write this particular book?
AO: I am from Brooklyn, New York—from Brighton Beach, an immigrant community on the ocean that shaped my sensibility as a human being and as an historian. So did my dad. I am first generation college. My mom had to leave school in tenth grade. My dad made it through one year of college. My dad was one of those amateur “history buffs” who wanted nothing more than for me to study and teach and write history. So, I suppose I am a fulfillment of his wishes. My grandmother and aunt were garment workers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. From my earliest endeavors as an historian I was determined to write about subjects in language that would be accessible to people in my family and the community where I was raised.
This is my fifth single-authored book. It is my second collaboration with Liz Cooke. (Our first was a 1999 book called Soviet Jewish Americans, about Russian Jewish immigration to the U.S. between the 1970s and the early 21st century.) All of my other books were about poor people’s activism, particularly organizing and struggle by poor and working-class women. My first book was called Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965 and it was a study of four Jewish immigrant garment workers who were also involved in government, community organizing, the Communist Party and more. My third book was calledStorming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. It recounted the lives of nine African-American women migrants to Las Vegas and the extraordinary anti-poverty movement they built and sustained for over 20 years. My fourth book was called Rethinking American Women’s Activism and it offered a re-reading of American history through the lens of women’s labor, suffrage, civil rights, legislative, lesbian and anti-sexual violence activism.
All of these books are my attempt to center the experiences and voices of people who are too rarely heard from in histories, even now — immigrants, low-wage workers, women, people of color. That is what my work has always been about, and it is true in this book as well.
But, as I say in the introduction to We Are All Fast Food Workers Now, this book is a departure for me — a historian writing about the present, (and the very recent past), an Americanist writing about the world. Writing it has changed what I think and how I feel every time I buy a shirt or a pint of berries, shop in a Big Box store or turn on my kitchen faucet to fill a glass with clean drinking water. Researching it has changed me. The brave, mostly very young, activists whom I met and talked to researching this book — from Phnom Penh and the Cape flats, from Dhaka and Tampa and Los Angeles — gave me hope in these dark times. I hope they will do the same for those who read my book.
PS: What’s next? Do you have other book projects in the works?
AO: I’ve written five non-fiction histories but I have wanted to write novels since I was 18. I have two or three in mind — all of which play with time in different ways. One is a multi-narrator, multi-generational family saga. One is a time travel book about a historian who can’t seem to stay in one time period. (The time travel varies between events in my own life, and events I’ve researched and always wished to see first-hand.) And the last — who knows? — may have to fictionalize the Trumps, Beach Haven, and the Russian mob in Brighton Beach. We shall see.
PS: Lastly, what’s on your reading list at the moment?
AO: I’ve been reading novels and memoirs lately — Blanche Boyd’s Tomb of the Unknown Racist (about a sister’s search for a brother who disappeared into the white supremacist terrorist underground); Stacey Ann Chin’s The Other Side of Paradise (a brilliant memoir in patois and conventional English about growing up in Jamaica); Charmaine Craig’s, Miss Burma (which fictionalized the story of her grand-parents — ethnic minorities in Myanmar turned revolutionaries.) As for non-fiction — okay I admit I’m obsessed. I just re-read Robert Friedman’s Red Mafiya about the Russian mob in Brighton Beach, and Craig Unger’s House of Trump, House of Putin, which basically traces how the Russian mob took over the whole freaking word, including the White House.
Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of five books on the history of US women, politics, immigration, and activism, including Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. We Are All Fast Food Workers Now is available for purchase online on the Beacon Press website and on Amazon.
Joshua Maserow is a PhD student in clinical psychology at the New School for Social Research and an editor at Public Seminar. His scholarly interests include Relational Psychoanalysis, therapist and common factors in psychotherapy research, and global contemporary literature.