Labor & Globalization Discussion

In an essay of 2-4 pages, reflect on lecture material and assigned readings to address
the following:
Identify and discuss a key challenge concerning labor in today’s globalized
The key issue is youth unemployment in China, you want to state that (1) if it’s
the general level of unemployment rate / or that in certain industries / or under
certain circumstances (2) unemployment in where and (3) when.
1 – What is the issue? What makes the issue relevant to labor and the global
Let’s write a thesis statement that answers (1)
1. “In this paper, I am going to demonstrate/illustrate/show why ______ is a key
challenge concerning labor in today’s globalized economy.”
2. “This paper attempts to highlight ______ as a key challenge concerning labor ~.”
3. “The purpose of this paper is to address the challenge of labor ~ with respect to
2 – Who are the key stakeholders: who is involved, who stands to gain or lose,
and what do they stand to gain or lose?
NOTE: you may select an issue that is global, national, local etc.
● Let’s write a thesis statement that answers (2)
○ who are the key stakeholders: who is involved, who stands to gain or lose, and what
do they stand to gain or lose?
1.“I consider/focus on ____ , ____, and ____ as the key stakeholders regarding this
issue. ___ gain (lose), while ____ lose (gain) ____ .”
2. “I think that ____ is/are the main beneficiaries (victims) of this issue because ~”
3.“This issue involves ____, ____, _____, ____ as the key stakeholders.”
● Don’t afraid of putting these thesis statements at the very beginning of your paper!
Required Readings
1. Heilbroner and Milberg. 2012. “The Golden Age of Capitalism.” [16 pp.]
2. Freidman, Milton. 1970. “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its
Profits.” NYT Magazine. September 13. [6 pp.]
3. Lindblom, Charles. 1982. “The Market as Prison.” The Journal of Politics 44: 2
pp. 324-336. [13 pp.]
4. Orleck, Annelise. 2018. Part II: “The Rising of the Global Precariat.” pp. 62-117
in “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising Against Poverty
Wages. Boston: Beacon Press. [56 pp.] *pp. 71-125 of pdf
5. Duhigg, Charles and David Barboza. 2012. “In China, Human Costs Are Built
Into an iPad.” New York Times, January 25. [13 pp.]
6. Duhigg, Charles and Keith Bradsher. 2012. “How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone
Work.” New York Times, January 21. [12 pp.]
7. Rodriguez, Robyn Magalit. 2010. Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State
Brokers Labor to the World. U of Minnesota Press:
o Introduction: “Neoliberalism and the Philippine Labor Brokerage State” [20 pp.]
o Ch. 1: “The Emergence of Labor Brokerage” [18 pp.]
o Ch. 2: “A Global Enterprise for Labor” [31 pp.]
o Ch. 3: “Able Minds, Able Hands” [25 pp.]
May I write in the first person (use “I” etc.)?
Yes. You are welcome to write in the first person (for example: “I disagree with the
argument made by X…” or “I found the X reading useful for understanding….”) – and,
where relevant, you are even welcome to discuss personal experiences or local issues as a
way of illustrating course concepts. You are also welcome to write more formally in the third
person. Either way, however, you are expected to maintain a scholarly tone. Use proper
grammar and spelling. Edit your paper before submission.
What are the formatting requirements?
Each thought piece should be composed in Word or another similar program and include:
• 12-point Times or Times New Roman font
• one-inch margins on all four sides
• double spacing (except for block quotes & works cited)
• no unnecessary gaps between paragraphs or unusual spacing
• no fewer than 2 pages and no more than 4 pages (excluding works cited)
Do I have to cite my sources?
Yes. Please use either internal citations or footnotes to cite any course readings, other
readings (such as those from the news or another course), and any ideas that are not your
own (such as an idea you learned from your classmates on the Canvas discussion board). You
do not have to cite the course lectures (simply say something like, “In lecture on Tuesday,
we learned…”). In addition to citing sources within the text, please add a Works Cited
section at the end that will not count toward your 2-4 page length requirement.
IT’S A STEAMY DAWN in downtown Manila—already hot though it’s only six
thirty. A group of slim young men and women in their teens and twenties
file out into the middle of a busy avenue, wearing white shirts, black pants,
and purple headbands. The strains of Katy Perry’s “Firework” rise from a
boom box, heavy on the bass. At other times, they dance to Aretha
Franklin’s “Respect” or the Disney theme “Let It Go.” But this is a morning
for fireworks.
The kids start to dance, with verve, as perfectly synchronized as a
Broadway chorus line. They sing as they move, improvising as they go,
riffing on Katy Perry’s lyrics in a mix of Tagalog and English—igniting the
light inside them, letting it shine, showing the world what they are worth.
They shout, strike poses, pump fists. “‘Cause baby, we are fireworks.” Cars
roar in from all directions. Drivers honk, or tap their fingers through open
windows. Motorcycles grind to a halt. Some yell at the dancers to move;
others sing along. Then comes the chant: “What do we want? Decent jobs!”
Again and again to the beat of the song. “Decent jobs for all.”
It takes forever to get anywhere in Metro Manila. One of the world’s
most densely populated cities, it is also vast. In 2016, Manila had thirteen
million people, twenty-three million if you count suburbs and ring-towns.
The city center is choked by sprawling, smoky slums that are home to many
young activists in the RESPECT Fast Food Workers Alliance. The poorest
among them come from what Joanna Bernice Coronacion calls “danger
zones”—where tin and cardboard shacks sit below sea level, flooding every
time the inevitable rains and typhoons hit. It’s a world of mud and sewage,
but also of song and dance.
Many of the best performers come from Bagong Silangan, a barangay
known for high unemployment and excellent dancers, says Lei Catamin, a
twenty-three-year-old choreographer, theater student, and labor organizer.
When Coronacion and Catamin realized that poor kids were entering dance
contests to make money for their families, they helped them create a
Dancers’ Union of Bagong Silangan—DUBS. The name is an allusion to a
globally popular genre of electronic dance music that grew out of reggae,
hip-hop, and techno.1
Much of the Philippine workforce is under thirty and jobs are
increasingly precarious; using young dancers to lead labor protests drew
attention to these issues, Catamin says. “I was totally nervous, my first time
to dance in the street,” says DUBS member Irene Remontal. “But seeing all
the people stopped on the overpass and the vehicles watching us, at that
moment, I felt joy.” Dancing for a cause feels great, says a nineteen-yearold male DUBS member. “Before I only danced to brag. Now with DUBS I
dance for a purpose. Decent and secure jobs. Upholding women’s rights.
These issues have impact on my and my family’s lives.”2
Lei Catamin used to represent his university in dance competitions. Then
he realized that he could put his musical theater training to work for
“something larger, more important. It’s good when you can use your talent
and skills to show that young people need respect, that we need rights.”
Now a youth organizer for the Alliance of Progressive Labor, Catamin has
turned down higher-paying work “for the cause.”
Song and dance, Catamin believes, has attracted a new generation to a
graying Philippine labor movement. “We started doing flash mobs to appeal
to young people,” he says. “Instead of carrying protest signs, same old,
same old, we perform. When people start to listen, clap their hands, maybe
sing along, we know we are succeeding. The young dancers all understand
that we are not performing for the sake of performance but for a larger
And organizers work hard to ensure that performers understand the
issues, says Catamin. “Before we take youth to a mobilization, we do
education about wage theft, about sexual harassment, about labor rights.
What is the impact on your life? On your community? On your family?
They get it. They say: ‘Wow. I have been cheated, my mother, my brother
have been cheated, for so many years.’ Then they know not just where they
are going to dance, but why.”
Though music has been an important part of many social movements,
young Filipino workers have turned musical theater into protest art. So
much so that Manilans are used to encountering street scenes that appear to
have been ripped from the sets of television musicals. On May 14, 2014, a
day of global action, teenage fast-food workers line-danced their way
through Manila, singing to the music from Disney’s animated hit Frozen.
Singing loudly, they urged fellow workers: “Let it go. Don’t hold back
anymore. Let it go. Turn away. Slam the door.” They made up lyrics as they
danced. Holding hands, they pulled workers from behind counters and into
the streets, into the strike. They sang about rising as a new dawn broke. And
they celebrated the end of fear. “Here I stand in the light of day,” they sang.
If that brought a raging storm, that was fine. “McDonald’s never bothered
me anyway.”
Flash mobs have become a signature of the Philippine labor movement.
On International Women’s Day 2015, five thousand trade unionists danced
in front of Manila’s Malacanang presidential palace, singing Helen Reddy’s
1972 hit “I Am Woman.” One year later, men danced wearing women’s
shoes because “Walk a Day in My Shoes” is a slogan of the low-wage
workers’ struggle everywhere. And during the 2016 global week of action
by hotel housekeepers, DUBS dancers made the march a chorus line as
hotel workers sang: “Women’s voices can shake the world.”
RESPECT’s best-known musical protest dance is the Aretha Franklin
1967 megahit for which the group is named. It’s Lei Catamin’s favorite. He
breaks into dance, demonstrating his flashiest moves. Breathing hard, he
chants, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I’ll tell you what it means to me.” Dancing and
running. Then he freezes with his fist raised. He looks up and shouts:
“Respect!” It’s not as easily quantified as a living wage. But it’s crucial.
“We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now”
LA TERESITA IS A BELOVED OLD TAMPA, Florida, café. It is crowded, boisterous,
inexpensive, and redolent of smoky Cuban food. The place is jammed at 7
p.m. on a weeknight. Diners in construction clothes, nurses’ whites, and
UPS uniforms line a long, winding counter. The din of conversation echoes
off the tile. Most customers are speaking Spanish. A few speak Caribbean-,
Florida-, or New York-accented English. Steam rises from plates of grilled
fish, chuleta (pork), plantains, rice, and black beans. A damp sweetness
wafts off baskets of Cuban bread.
A group of Fight for $15 activists sit jammed around one small table.
They are a young and surprisingly diverse group for any American dinner
table: white, black, and Latinx, men and women, deeply engaged in
conversation, sometimes all speaking at once. Several are gay, lesbian, or
transgender, I am told later. None are over thirty-five. They are college
professors, community organizers, graduate students, and fast-food
Home-healthcare workers are also part of the South Florida living wage
movement but could not attend the meeting because they work up to 120
hours a week. African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Puerto Rican
women, they are older than the group gathered at La Teresita. Their union
local of four hundred care workers was organized almost entirely on
Facebook because members don’t have time to meet in person. Their “fight
for 15” isn’t just a fight for $15 an hour, says home-care worker-organizer
Ann Buckner. “It is also a fight for fifteen-minute breaks. Our clients are so
frail, we work twenty-four-hour shifts. Sometimes I need to step outside
and feel the sun.”1
They are the new working class and their solidarity crosses many lines.
Activists have varying levels of education. Their politics are diverse. Some
belong to labor unions. Others were involved in Occupy, in campaigns for
Florida’s migrant tomato pickers, in environmental justice struggles. Some
are military vets. Some have PhDs. Others never finished high school. To
an old labor historian like myself, it seems unlikely that these very different
people would be bound together in one movement. And yet, there is a
strong feeling of solidarity, grounded in a shared belief that the American
Dream is no longer attainable for most people.
“That’s what it is,” says Bleu Rainer, a Tampa McDonald’s employee
who worked for Arby’s in North Carolina as a teen. “People used to say to
us: ‘If you want to be paid more, go back to school and get a better job.’
But my professors in college aren’t paid much more than I am. We’re all
fighting for the American Dream but it’s broken.”
Cole Bellamy’s dream of being an English professor turned on him.
Stitching together various temporary contracts, Bellamy taught twelve
courses in 2015, three times the teaching load of tenure-track professors at
research universities. He works at three different campuses, bucking the
endless Tampa Bay traffic to earn $30,000 per year. With two children to
support, his income put him just a few thousand dollars above the federal
poverty level for a family of four. His employers did not provide health
benefits but the family qualified for Medicaid. Like most low-wage
workers, his benefits are paid not by employers but by taxpayers.
In 2015, three-quarters of American college professors were contract
workers, paid by the course. One in four qualified for some form of public
assistance: the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid. “We are low-wage workers,” the
professors at La Teresita insist. “It doesn’t matter how many degrees we
The professors say they love organizing together with fast-food servers,
home-care providers, and airport workers. Adjunct history professor Eric
Webb-Fiske says that fast-food and home-care workers have taught the
professors a lot about resilience and tenacity. “This economy is not
sustainable,” says Bellamy. “Unless we do something, the university as we
know it will disappear in the next ten years.” Bleu Rainer chimes in: “Hell,
jobs a worker can live on may disappear. They’re almost gone now. So
many workers I know don’t earn enough to put a roof over their heads, or
their kids’ heads. You can work for years for the same company and have
“Regardless of what educational background you come from,” WebbFiske says, “a contract employee is a contract employee. The issues a
worker faces at McDonald’s are similar to those I face as an adjunct
professor at a community college. It’s the same for home-care workers. The
working conditions are brutal. The hours are too long. There’s no security.
The pay is nowhere near what it should be.” Webb-Fiske figures that he
makes about $8 an hour when he factors in time spent writing lectures,
advising students, and grading papers. Many adjuncts say they earn less.
And that’s after six years in graduate school and lots of loans.
Graduate student Keegan Shepard points out that up to half of academic
and research work at universities is performed “for free by graduate
students.” The university dresses it up as part of their education, insisting
that graduate student workers are therefore not entitled to labor protections.
Though public universities are strapped in an age of state and federal
budget cuts, wealthy private universities take the same tack. Yale and NYU,
to name two, challenged a 2016 National Labor Relations Board ruling that
graduate students have the right to organize. American higher education
would come crashing to a halt without unpaid labor by graduate students,
says Shepard. It’s wage theft, he says. Plain and simple.
“They try to fool us, to make us believe we’re special because we have
advanced degrees. But that is just a lie to keep us quiet, because the truth is:
We are all fast-food workers now.” Bleu Rainer laughs. “Or maybe, we are
all professor adjuncts,” he says. Either way, almost everyone is working
longer hours for less pay.2
If the first half of the twentieth century was marked by uprisings of the
industrial proletariat, the twenty-first century has been characterized by
civil unrest among the postindustrial working class—the precariat. Whoever
coined the term, and many have claimed credit, the precariat represents an
ever-growing share of all workers. They have no security, seniority, or
benefits. They earn too little to comfortably live on. And the corporations,
hospitals, universities, and government agencies for which they work evade
legal responsibility for meeting minimum wage, maximum hours, and
safety standards by classifying them as “temporary” or as “contract”
employees provided by third-party labor suppliers.
In many countries, full-time employees are protected by federal and state
labor laws, fought for by labor unions and passed between the 1910s and
the 1950s. But few people are classified as full-time employees these days.
Suddenly almost everyone is an “independent contractor.” Welcome to the
so-called “gig economy.”
Twenty dollars an hour, most studies show, is the minimum required to
comfortably support a family with two children in the US. Nearly twothirds of American workers earn less. And though the 2016 election sparked
discussion of falling real wages among high school-educated white men,
only a quarter of low-wage workers in the US are men. Two-thirds of the
country’s lowest-paid workers are women. Sixty percent of Latinx workers
in the US earned less than $15 an hour in 2016. Half of African American
workers did.3
With so many working people living at, or just above, the poverty line,
the speed with which the living-wage movement caught fire in the 2010s
should not have surprised anyone. Nor should the growing appeal of
populist politicians from Bernie Sanders, Walden Bello, and Jeremy Corbyn
on the left to Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Marine Le Pen on the right.
Bleu Rainer and Keegan Shepard insist that broad coalition-building
represents the only real solution. For we are all fast-food workers now.
Picketers appeared with the first light. During the
breakfast rush they delayed harried commuters hoping for an Egg
McMuffin before work. They rallied in Central Square in Cambridge, on
Fulton Street in Brooklyn, on Broadway in Los Angeles. In St. Louis,
adjunct professors sat down in the middle of a busy avenue; in Detroit,
McDonald’s workers stepped off the curb into traffic, arms crossed. In
Phoenix, they shut down a McDonald’s drive-through, then marched to City
Hall and sat in for a $15 wage.
In Manhattan, fast-food workers, Uber drivers, and bike messengers sat
down calmly in the middle of Broadway. “We shall not be moved,” they
sang, and for a time, police seemed content to let them be. Baggage
handlers and wheelchair attendants struck at Logan, O’Hare, and nineteen
other big-city airports. Crossing guards sat in the way of parents driving
their children to school. In Boston, low-wage workers streamed into the
legislature to demand a state minimum wage of $15. They had succeeded in
raising the state minimum from $8 to $11 in the past two years. But it was
not nearly enough. “Fifteen dollars! No less!” they shouted.
Three weeks after the stunning election of the most far-right president in
US history, low-wage workers protested in 340 US cities for a living wage,
paid sick leave, and union rights. Hundreds were arrested in civil
disobedience actions across the country. Undocumented workers joined in
despite the risk. They called it Day of Disruption.
The disrupters were mostly African American and Latina but they were
also white, Native, and Asian. A majority were women, but thousands of
men joined in. Fast-food worker Samuel Homer Williams and OUR
Walmart activist Denise Barlage marched in Los Angeles. Bleu Rainer,
Cole Bellamy, and Ann Buckner came out in the dark Tampa morning to
stage sit-ins as the sun rose. In New York, Laundry Workers Center
members were there.
NOVEMBER 29, 2016:
Protesters offered an analysis of the twenty-first-century economy from
the bottom up. Nearly two-thirds of jobs created in the United States
between 2008 and 2012 do not pay a living wage. And the US Bureau of
Labor Statistics predicts that 60 percent of new jobs created through 2023
will pay too little for workers to live on. “These are the jobs now,” said
Richard Eiker as he sat down in front of a Kansas City McDonald’s. So
workers are fighting “to make these jobs good jobs.”1
North Carolina home-healthcare aide Hilde Edmundson, who was
arrested blocking traffic in Durham on the Day of Disruption, had explained
her reasoning a year earlier: “I love caring for people. It’s my calling in life.
But because I only make $9 an hour . . . I can’t afford my own place. I catch
the bus to work because I can’t afford a car. I depend on food stamps and I
can’t afford health care insurance. . . . I’ve been homeless because of my
wages. All I’m asking for is justice. People depend on home care workers
but as a home care worker I can’t afford to take care of my own health.”2
Conditions for low-wage workers had been deteriorating for years, but
the 2016 election dramatically worsened their situation. Fiercely anti-union
Republicans had expanded their control of state legislatures, governors’
mansions, and the US Congress. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan vowed to
dismantle the social safety net put in place by Franklin D. Roosevelt during
the 1930s and expanded by Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. And Donald
Trump’s Cabinet promised to roll back hard-fought victories won by lowwage workers since 2012. Immigrants’ and women’s rights were also on the
chopping block. Fight for $15 activists swore “unrelenting opposition.”
“We won’t back down. We won’t go back,” disrupters chanted.
Vance “Stretch” Sanders, a twenty-one-year-old homeless rights activist,
Christian minister, and CVS cashier, woke up at 4 a.m. on November 29 to
get to the Fight for $15 office before the sun came up. He enjoyed the quiet
morning. Clear desert light illuminated the purple-red mountains that ring
the city, as retail workers, fast-food servers, home-healthcare aides,
preschool teachers, and adjunct professors marched slowly down the Strip.3
McDonald’s employees wore bright yellow vests emblazoned with a
“Menu of Scandals: McShame, McSlavery, and McHumiliation.” They
riffed on McDonald’s jingles. “I hate this very much,” they sang. And
“McJobs hurt us all.” Near the Mirage hotel, where a man-made volcano
explodes every fifteen minutes then turns into a flickering-orange waterfall,
the protesters called for magic of a different kind: $15 and a union.
Why target McDonald’s? With a worldwide workforce of 1.9 million, it
is the second-largest private employer in the world. Only Walmart employs
more. In 2016, there were 36,899 McDonald’s restaurants in 119 countries,
serving 69 million people a day. One McDonald’s CFO boasted that, like
the British empire of old, the sun never sets on the Golden Arches. New
York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argued, only somewhat tongue in
cheek, that the transnationalism of McDonald’s might bring world peace.4
Instead, the Golden Arches have come to symbolize all that is wrong
with the twenty-first-century global economy. McDonald’s has driven down
wages in every country where it operates, activists say, shredding job
security, robbing workers of overtime pay, and fighting compensation for
those injured on the job. The corporation claimed that it was not responsible
for labor violations by franchise owners. Prompted by workers and unions,
courts and government agencies have begun to lift the veil on McDonald’s.
In 2015, the National Labor Relations Board ruled McDonald’s a “joint
employer,” making the corporation liable for how all its workers are treated.
A Brazilian court handed McDonald’s a whopping $30 million fine for
labor law violations. And the European Parliament began investigating
McDonald’s for tax evasion and exorbitant charges to franchise owners who
were being charged rents way above market value.
McDonald’s makes much of its profit on real estate. When land values
dropped worldwide in 2008, McDonald’s went on a buying spree, becoming
one of the largest real estate companies on earth. Charging franchisees rents
of between 8 and 15 percent of their revenues, it earns up to $14,000 a
month per store. Some say McDonald’s is a real estate empire financed by
burgers and fries. One former chief financial officer said that store sales just
about cover franchisees’ rent. There is little profit. So franchise owners cut
costs by squeezing workers.5
That’s how we got “McJobs,” says Bleu Rainer. A “McJob” is defined by
Webster’s and The Oxford English Dictionary as low-paid work that offers
little satisfaction and few prospects for advancement. Living-wage activists
say we don’t need dictionary definitions. People around the world have
worked in McJobs. Many remain stuck in McJobs for their entire working
lives. An estimated one in eight Americans has worked for McDonald’s
itself, and with little to show for it. “I was even promoted to manager,” says
Rainer, “but I never made more than $9.15 an hour or had a schedule I
could depend on. That’s a McJob.” Stretch Sanders also knows about
McJobs. He is trying to put himself through college on his CVS cashier’s
Sanders used to work for Carl’s Jr., owned by Andrew Puzder, Donald
Trump’s first nominee to head the federal labor department. Charged with
stealing $20 million from his workers in California, Puzder was the target
of thirty-three investigations for workers’ rights abuses. While earning a
salary three hundred times that of his lowest-paid employees, Puzder told
reporters he’d rather replace his workers with robots than raise their wages.
Robots “are always polite,” he said. “They never take a vacation, they never
show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race
discrimination case.”7
Views like that invite protest. In September 2016, Sanders led an
occupation of Nevada governor Brian Sandoval’s office. Protesters
demanded a $15 state wage and an end to mistreatment of undocumented
workers. Las Vegas preschool teacher Luc Perez joined the sit-in. After
eight years of teaching, she did not earn enough to pay her bills. Even that
doesn’t hurt as much, she said, as seeing three- and four-year-old students
whose parents have just been arrested for immigration violations. They say:
“My mom is not with me. Someone took her away.”8
Sanders was upset by the 2016 election results, he says, but not as
frightened as many people he knew. “My brothers and sisters were already
being shot down in the streets by police. My coworkers were already having
their doors broken down at dawn by ICE. Parents were being dragged away
and taken someplace their children couldn’t find them. That’s why we
started fighting. That’s why we won’t stop. I honestly don’t know how
much worse it can get.”
For Sanders, Rainer, and many others, the living-wage campaign is
inextricably tied to the struggle against police violence and for immigration
reform. Fight for $15 activists at a McDonald’s in Ferguson, Missouri,
provided safe space during the unrest after police killed teenager Michael
Brown in the summer of 2014. Living-wage marchers in New York wore
shirts emblazoned with the last words of Eric Garner, father of six, killed by
the NYPD that summer. “We’re the same people,” says Rainer. “We have to
hold down three jobs, and when we are done and tired, walking home from
work, then we are abused by police, raided by immigration cops.”
Sanders says, “I was a Black Lives Matter activist before I was born.” He
is the nephew of Chicago Black Panthers who were close to Fred Hampton,
the young Panther leader murdered by the FBI and Chicago police in 1969.
Sanders’s uncle was in the apartment with Hampton the night he was killed.
He grew up on those stories.
Police violence, government crackdowns, and charges of corruption also
fueled worker protest around the world at the end of 2016. On November
30, hundreds of thousands of South Korean workers struck as students
nationwide boycotted classes. Unrest had been building for months as
President Park Geun-hye’s crackdowns on labor and farmer protest grew
increasingly brutal. Trade unions, farmers, and student groups were enraged
by her administration’s assaults on labor rights and coziness with
transnational corporations. Retail and fast-food workers’ unions protested
deteriorating conditions for workers. Vast street demonstrations, involving
over a million people, ultimately led to her trial and removal.9
But her impeachment did not end the protests. Seoul McDonald’s
workers had been marching for months, angry that the burger giant evaded
paying benefits and overtime by classifying all its workers as part-time and
temporary. After almost three years of protest, McDonald’s Korea
announced, early in 2017, that it would hire full-time workers. In April, the
corporation recognized the fast-food workers’ Korean Arbeit Workers
Union and began contract negotiations. “We are human too,” Korean fastfood workers had chanted. Finally, said one worker, they were being treated
that way.10
Meanwhile in Brazil, striking port and oil workers paralyzed the country.
In December 2016, CUT, the national union federation, declared a month of
work stoppages, strikes, and rallies. They were protesting a “legislative
coup” three months earlier that removed Worker Party president Dilma
Rousseff, her successor Michel Temer’s announcement of a twenty-year
freeze on public services budgets, and plans to privatize the country’s oil
reserves and allow oil drilling by multinational corporations.11
As turmoil built, fast-food workers took Arcos Dorados, the McDonald’s
Brazilian affiliate, to court. Reviewing evidence that the company had
repeatedly violated Brazilian labor law, judges levied large fines. Fast-food
workers also poured into Brussels as 2016 came to an end, demanding that
the European Parliament investigate McDonald’s for violating minimum
wage laws, operating unsafe workplaces, and punishing employees who
tried to unionize. Bleu Rainer and a delegation of American fast-food
workers came to support their European counterparts.
At the same moment, Nepali migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur charged
McDonald’s with enabling labor slavery and human trafficking. The
Nepalis told reporters they had been brought to Malaysia so that
McDonald’s could evade that country’s labor laws, working them longer
and paying them less than they could legally pay Malaysians. Their
passports had been confiscated. They were billed for transportation and
uniforms and forced to work for free until they had paid those costs. Since
all Malaysian McDonald’s are owned by the transnational corporation
rather than franchisees, the workers hoped to embarrass executives into
giving them their back pay and sending them home.
Corporate leaders seemed at first unmoved, insisting that these workers
were not McDonald’s employees but instead worked for the labor
contractor who had brought them to Malaysia. It was a brave gambit,
stateless migrants going up against the world’s second-largest private
employer. It seemed unlikely to work, but enough bad press did the trick.
Six months later, McDonald’s admitted complicity in slave labor and
announced that it was cutting ties with unethical labor brokers in
The European protests made an impression as well. The French
government hit McDonald’s with a bill for back taxes. The UK Labour
Party cut ties with McDonald’s. New Zealand’s Parliament made zero-hours
contracts illegal nationwide. In April 2017, McDonald’s began offering UK
employees fixed-hour contracts. On Labor Day 2017, UK McDonald’s
workers struck for the first time in four decades. After decades of
worsening conditions, the needle seemed finally to be moving in a different
EVEN SO, THE STRUGGLE GETS WEARYING. “It’s been over one hundred fifty
years since we abolished slavery,” says Virginia home-care worker
Lauralyn Clark, “but we still have slave-wage jobs where we’re not paid
enough to survive.” Clark does not believe it is a coincidence that so many
low-wage workers are people of color.1
Nor do Tampa fast-food worker-activists Reika Mack and Bleu Rainer.
They feel they are standard-bearers for a “new civil rights movement.”
Stretch Sanders says that it is his job to teach the younger generation about
the “freedom fighters on whose shoulders we stand.”2
In 2015, Mack, then twenty-six, got to meet some of them. She was one
of five hundred Fight for $15 activists from ten states who traveled to the
Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. was once
pastor. There, the young workers were tutored by some of the sanitation
strikers who marched with King in Memphis in 1968. “Dr. King was
supporting a labor action on the day he was killed,” Mack learned. “Civil
rights and labor rights have always been part of the same struggle.” Fortyseven years later, white-haired Memphis activists led young fast-food
workers as they marched to a McDonald’s on a traffic-clogged Atlanta
avenue. There they sat down and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Echoes of the 1960s black freedom struggle suffused the protest.
Marchers carried signs that said: “I Am a Man,” as the sanitation workers
had in 1968. They also had “I Am a Woman” signs because most fast-food
workers are. “It was a beautiful thing,” Mack says, “to know that we were
marching for the same cause as they did so many years ago. For our
humanity, for our rights.” She was impressed that the Memphis 1968
veterans, men in their seventies, seemed to fully grasp the anger of young
women workers in the twenty-first century. It moved her to be part of a
struggle begun in her grandparents’ generation.
“One of the things the Memphis strikers told me was that it was fine to
get mad, but to get mad enough to fight back. Politically. Channel it, they
told us.” She nods as she speaks. “Well, we’re mad enough now. We’re fed
up and we can’t take it anymore. We don’t have any other weapons but to
get mad and fight back for what’s right.”3
When Long Beach, California, McDonald’s worker Maia Montcrief first
came out to protest for $15 and a union, it was the day before her eighteenth
birthday and the day after she took her last high school US history exam.
“My role models are the protesters at civil rights sit-ins,” she says. A child
of Haitian immigrants, Montcrief shares a two-bedroom apartment with her
mom and four siblings. Her mother is a postal worker. It’s crowded and
Maia would like to move to her own place, but she is saving to pay tuition
at Long Beach City College. “I want to study psychology and minor in
brain science so I can be a brain surgeon,” she says confidently.
Montcrief joined the living-wage fight out of a sense of responsibility to
her neighbors, she says. “I was born in Long Beach, raised in Long Beach,
and I will fight for its survival.” Besides, organizing feels natural to her. “I
talk to my friends at McDonald’s. I talk to my friends at Burger King. We
are going to push for this—march, testify—until we get our rights.”
Learning history has given her courage. “My heroes are Malcolm X,
Rosa Parks,” she says. “Rosa was strong. I want to be like that.” She pulls
herself up to her full height of five feet two, then pumps her fist in the air. “I
want to be like our conductor of the Underground Railroad, Harriet
Tubman. I want to meet the president.” She recently learned that Tubman
met Abe Lincoln. “I would like to meet President Obama,” she says with a
shy smile.
“And I want to see a woman president.” (She had hoped it would be
Hillary Clinton.) “I will tell her to support our feminist needs. Females
make less than guys. Even if we have the same hours, the guys always end
up making more. That’s not right.” And when something is not right, Maia
says, “I make that my fight. And I will stand out there at the front until the
fight is won.”4
Stretch Sanders says he is carrying the torch for his aunt, Carolyn “Polly”
Beach, a pioneering Black Panther youth organizer. He is also inspired by
the women of the Las Vegas welfare rights movement who shut down the
Strip in the 1970s to protest cuts in benefits to poor families. “It is cruel to
tell a person with no shoes to pull herself up by her bootstraps,” their leader
Ruby Duncan used to say. Sanders agrees. And yet he feels that living-wage
activists are doing that: picking themselves up by their bare, naked feet.
Like the fast-food activists of Manila, Sanders is a radical Christian. He
believes that God is on the side of the poor. “The struggle for freedom is a
struggle for justice. And God will deliver justice.” He pauses. “If we work
for it.”5
“Change is starting to come,” says Bleu Rainer. “We’ve had wins across
the board with fast food. We’ve had wins in Seattle. San Francisco. New
York. LA. The McDonald’s CEO resigned. We’ve had support from our
friends in other countries. That only comes from workers standing up and
applying pressure. Me and my colleagues here, we’re going to stand up and
fight back and we’re going to keep fighting until they give us what we
Stretch Sanders credits worker protest for Carl’s Jr. CEO Andrew
Puzder’s decision to withdraw from consideration to be Trump’s secretary
of labor. “The people have the power and ability to run fast-food companies
better than he does. And to run the world. And I believe, I really do, that
one day we will.”6
ACTIVISTS IN THE LOW-WAGE workers’ struggle are rightly proud of what they
achieved between 2012 and 2016. Twenty-one states plus the District of
Columbia raised the minimum wage. Thirty states passed wages higher than
the federal minimum. By 2017, forty localities enacted minimum wages
that were higher than the minimum wages in their states.1
In the spring of 2016, the movement won its most significant US
victories when California and New York—the country’s largest labor
markets—both approved a $15 state wage. New York and California are
very expensive places. Fifteen dollars an hour, phased in over several years,
will not give workers enough to support families. Still, these are noteworthy
victories, raising wages for tens of millions of workers after decades of
wage stagnation.2
As important, the movement shifted public opinion, convincing most
Americans that all workers deserve a living wage. By 2016, six in ten
Americans supported a $15 hourly minimum. A few years earlier, the idea
of more than doubling the federal minimum seemed delusional. And that
belief crossed party lines. Even in Republican-wave elections, even in red
states, voters approved wage raises. On the same night that Donald Trump
was elected president, voters in five states raised the minimum wage.
Healthcare workers won increases in both public and private institutions.
Hospital workers in five states won $15, as did home-care workers in
Massachusetts and Washington. Community care workers in Canada won
Sweet $16. And the University of Pittsburgh hospital system, the largest
private employer in Pennsylvania, commenced paying $15.
Large banks, insurance companies, and high-tech corporations also raised
wages: Aetna, Facebook, Amalgamated Bank, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan
Chase, and the Bank of America adopted minimums of $15 or more. Many
smaller companies have too. The usually intransigent retail sector moved a
little: Target, Gap, IKEA, T. J. Maxx, and Costco raised their minimum.
Even Walmart and McDonald’s gestured at change. McDonald’s raised
wages for corporate employees (just ninety thousand of its workforce of
over two million). And Walmart raised its minimum to $10, but then cut
hours and benefits and closed stores.3
Activists also saw progress in their battle to guarantee a right to paid time
off. In 2015, 36 percent of US workers, forty-one million people, were
ineligible for even one sick day per year. In fast food, 86 percent of women
workers had no sick leave and almost three-quarters admitted handling food
at work while sick. In 2016, seven states and the District of Columbia
passed paid sick-leave bills, as did New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco,
Washington, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, and other cities. In some city and
county elections, voters approved paid “safe days” as well, allowing
workers time off to recover from battering and sexual assault. There is a
long way to go until paid time off is universal or even the norm in the US,
but activists believe that the tide is turning.4
The period of 2016–17 even brought a new influx into labor unions,
especially among airport workers. Baggage handlers in Los Angeles and
airport workers in Minneapolis signed union contracts in November,
seventeen years after they began living-wage protests. A month later, eight
thousand New York City and New Jersey airport workers won union
recognition. These victories proved that unions can win even in
environments where workers are employed by many different
UNITE HERE won union contracts across Indiana for Aramark food
services workers. Hospital workers in Seattle formed a union in the spring
of 2017, while Amazon security guards demanded that right. Facebook’s
cafeteria workers unionized in the summer of 2017. Graduate students and
adjunct faculty were forming unions across the country. And autoworkers
began ramping up efforts to unionize, fighting automakers’ increasing use
of short-term contracts to limit the number of workers eligible to join. The
low-wage workers’ movement was criticized by some for not focusing on
bringing workers into unions, but by 2017 that was no longer true.
Airport workers Prince Jackson and Canute Drayton say they were
inspired by fast-food activists. Jackson is a baggage handler, Drayton a
security guard at JFK. Both are in their forties and have lived through other
social justice struggles. This feels different. “We could feel that the
movement was really growing,” Jackson says. “We knew that there were
thousands of underpaid service workers in New York City who don’t get
benefits for doing jobs that are vital to the life of the city. Most of us have a
friend or relative who works or did work in fast food. We know how hard
they work, what a tough job they have, and that the pay they get is
Jackson and Drayton were thrilled when President Obama signed an
executive order in 2014 raising minimum salaries for workers under federal
contract. As leaders in the fight, they were invited to the White House. “I
went to Washington, DC, when the president signed the order giving federal
workers $10.10 an hour,” Jackson says. “It was an incredible feeling,
standing with the president. Something I can tell my grandkids.”
This wasn’t a big raise, Drayton says, but a humanizing act. “It felt so
encouraging to see Obama’s response to workers’ organizing. We in
security play a key role in keeping the city and the airports safe. We should
be recognized for that. We should be treated with respect.”
Drayton gets emotional as he speaks. “The subcontractors, my bosses,
treat us like garbage. It’s wrong. You have to respect the work financially,
but also change the way you treat people. Sure, we need a benefits package.
We need safety precautions. But we also have to let them know that we’re
not garbage.” He pauses, angry, collects himself. “We’re human beings. We
are the backbone of airport operations. We do our jobs well.”6
After two years of organizing, the victory was sweet. Jackson and
Drayton were elected to the New York/New Jersey Airport Workers
Bargaining Committee for SEIU Local 32BJ. One newly unionized JFK
worker echoed Drayton’s sentiments. “It’s all about respect,” she said as she
did a victory lap around the airport.
Since 2016, workers have struck at Dulles and Reagan in Washington,
DC, as well as airports in Philadelphia and Denver. And Airport Workers
United, a new national labor organization, has reached out to airport unions
internationally. “The airline industry is global,” organizers said. “So are
we.” Because, they insist, “Poverty Wages Don’t Fly.”7
Though $15 an hour is hardly a princely sum, it adds up. Between 2012
and 2016, living-wage activism earned $61.5 billion in raises for 19 million
workers, twelve times what Congress gave workers when it last raised the
federal minimum wage in 2007; 11.8 million workers in twenty-five states,
cities, and counties won raises in 2016. On January 1, 2017, twenty-one
states, twenty-two cities, four counties, and one region increased wages.
After decades of stagnation, wages for the bottom 40 percent of American
workers were finally starting to rise. That is a real victory.8
Workers know this is just a first step, says Laphonza Butler, president of
California’s hospital and home-healthcare workers’ union and co-chair of
the Los Angeles living-wage coalition. “Fifteen dollars an hour is only
$31,000 a year. Nobody’s going to Vegas on $31,000 a year. It’s just enough
to get by, to get the basics, but we think it is an incredible
Even small economic victories pay big psychological dividends, she says.
“When you’re in communities that have been economically strangled, you
see people who are broken, people who are so distracted by their everyday
struggles that they are hopeless. We felt the living-wage campaign could be
a ray of hope, something that could unite people around winning something
for themselves, for their families. No one else did it for them.”
Pausing to savor victories is essential for activists facing a long, uphill
battle. The US political landscape changed dramatically after 2008.
Democrats controlled most of the country’s governors’ mansions and state
legislatures when Barack Obama became president. Most were relatively
union-friendly. By 2017, anti-union GOP politicians controlled thirty-three
statehouses and had majorities in thirty-two state legislatures. Freshly
empowered, they began a fierce war on labor. Their primary weapons:
“right-to-work” bills limiting workers’ ability to form unions, and state
“preemption” bills that nullified local living-wage and paid-time-off
Right-to-work bills were first introduced amid the anti-Communist fervor
of the 1950s and 1960s. For decades, they remained limited to the South
and a few Rocky Mountain states. Where they became law, union
membership plunged, poverty rates rose, gaps between men and women
grew. In the 2010s, “right-to-work” returned with a vengeance, courtesy of
the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a consortium of
business leaders and conservative politicians that, by 2011, included onequarter of the country’s state legislators and eighty-five members of
Congress. Their goal was to roll back the tide of wage increases and strip
local governments of the right to lift wage floors or guarantee paid time off.
ALEC generated model right-to-work and preemption bills. Between 2011
and 2016, they were introduced into state legislatures a thousand times.10
By 2017, twenty-five states had passed preemption laws. And right-towork bills passed in states that had long been union bastions: Michigan,
home of the United Auto Workers; Wisconsin, birthplace of public sector
unions; and West Virginia, stronghold of the United Mine Workers. In
January 2017, the US Congress introduced the first nationwide right-towork bill. Trade unionists called the bill a possible “extinction-level event
for American labor.”11
Then winds seemed to shift ever so slightly. The national bill stalled, and
in February 2017, a GOP-controlled New Hampshire legislature killed a
state right-to-work bill, citing fierce labor protest. Perhaps public opinion
on worker organizing was shifting. If so, at least some credit was due those
who continued to wage intense local battles. Leading the way, changing
hearts and minds, were some of the country’s poorest and hungriest
Hunger and Hunger Strikes Rising
AS SPRING CAME TO Rhode Island in 2014, Dominican hotel housekeeper
Santa Brito and fellow hotel workers Ylleny Ferraris, Mirjaam Parada, and
Mariano Cruz were gathering signatures for a Providence $15 wage
initiative. “We had to divide up,” says state representative Shelby
Maldonado. “We asked: Who speaks the best Spanish? The best Creole?”
Maldonado, a child of Guatemalan immigrants and a former UNITE HERE
organizer, says that Rhode Island’s immigrant workforce viscerally
understood the issues at stake.
They delivered their petitions. The city council put their living-wage
initiative on the November ballot. When they convened a public hearing, a
hundred hotel workers came to watch. Twenty-two registered to testify.
They took time off, found babysitters, and wrote their testimonies. Then, at
the last minute, the hearing was canceled.1
Brito was angry. She believed city officials had been pressured by the
Procaccianti Group, a hotel management and construction company that
donates heavily to Rhode Island political campaigns. “The Procacciantis,”
she said, made her clean eighteen rooms daily, made her work till the day
she gave birth. Then “the hotel told me they couldn’t guarantee me a job. I
was fired for speaking out. I know it.” She shakes her head, disgusted. “I
used to be afraid, but I’ve lost my fear. What else can they do to me?”2
“I have the power, the will, and the strength to fight and take a stand,”
she says. “I have a right to create a union in my workplace and fight to
correct grievances. It’s very important to be united at work, to be able to
confront the injustices we face.”
Her fellow organizer Mariano Cruz was also fired. He suffered a heart
attack at thirty-five that he feels was caused by overwork and stress. Since
it was illegal for his employer to fire him for organizing, he says, they
invented reasons, told stories about him. Police served him a restraining
order while he was lying in a hospital bed, legally forbidding him to speak
with workers at his old workplace—the Renaissance.
What really irked his managers, Cruz thought, was his research into
strange rashes on hotel housekeepers’ limbs. Workers believed it was from
exposure to toxic cleansers. There was “an epidemic of women’s bodies just
giving out with permanent injuries,” he says.3
It seemed for a while that the workers were winning, that the $15 wage
would become law in Providence, that worker safety issues would finally be
addressed. Then state legislators introduced a preemption bill, banning local
governments from enacting a wage higher than the Rhode Island minimum,
which was only $8 an hour. Brito was outraged. “I have to borrow money
from my brothers and cousins just to pay off my bills,” she said.
The Rhode Island legislature was majority Democratic, but hotel and
restaurant owners lobbied hard. They paid $100,000 to lobbyists to push the
bill. “House leadership is moving to jail us in poverty,” said Brito.
Brito and Ferraris announced a life-or-death fight for Rhode Island’s
working families. Seventy-three percent of jobs in the state paid too little to
live on. The state’s workforce—Dominican, Guatemalan, South American,
Haitian, and Cape Verdean immigrants—lived in poverty, says Maldonado,
unable to feed their children decently. So Brito and Ferraris, hotel chef
Mirjaam Parada, and Maldonado decided to stage a huelga de hambre—a
hunger strike. Setting up camp on the steps of the state capitol, the women
told reporters they were giving up food so that the state’s children might
have enough to eat.
“I want to be able to buy more food for my children,” Ferraris said.
Maldonado saw the strike as educational. “We had hotel workers out doorknocking. They educated other hotel workers.” And they “schooled”
politicians, “who ended up being supportive because they found they had so
many constituents living in poverty.”
For UNITE HERE organizer and former housekeeper Heather Nichols,
the hunger strike made the invisible visible. “If legislators were going to
vote for a bill taking away workers’ right to a living wage, we wanted them
to walk past Santa and her child sitting there hungry on the State House
steps before they voted.” Photographs of the four women, and of Brito’s
young son, circulated widely. It wasn’t enough. A majority voted for
That was a wake-up call, Maldonado says. Rhode Island living-wage
activists began running for state and local office. Maldonado became the
first Guatemalan-American state legislator in Rhode Island. Nellie Gorbea
became secretary of state, the first Latina to win statewide office in New
England. Across Rhode Island, Latinx activists won elections, promising to
attend to the needs of workers and immigrants. The difference was quickly
obvious. The first successful bill sponsored by Maldonado was a ban on
pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. She thought of Brito, and of her
own mom, when the bill passed.
“This has to be a path for the new labor movement,” the energetic young
legislator says. “It gives us a voice that we must have.” Maldonado became
co-chair of the state black and Latino caucus. In 2017, she sponsored
successful legislation forbidding Rhode Island state police from assisting
federal ICE agents seeking to arrest undocumented immigrant workers.5
Brito continued Cruz’s investigation of hotel workers’ injury rates. In
2015, they released a study called Providence’s Pain Problem, showing that
housekeepers in hotels run by the Procaccianti Group had injury rates from
69 to 85 percent higher than the national hotel average. More than threequarters worked in pain and had to take pain medication to perform their
jobs. Brito testified: “I have difficulty using my arms and suffer from nearly
constant pain in my neck, arms and hands.” Ninety-five percent of workers
she surveyed worried that they would never be free of pain again.6
Brito helped organize “End Our Pain, No Más Dolor” rallies that drew
hotel workers from across the region. Housekeepers showed up at city
council hearings when the Procaccianti Group sought permits to construct
new buildings. In October 2015, when workers at the Renaissance voted to
unionize, Brito felt victorious. She still struggles with pain, but life is now
getting better, she says. Union housekeepers clean fewer rooms and have
more time to finish their work, so they no longer feel like cleaning
machines. Union organizing has also made Brito feel more human, she says.
She enjoys speaking at rallies, bargaining, helping other workers give their
children a brighter future.
By 2017, with Rhode Island’s minimum still only $9.60 an hour, service
workers seeking raises began reaching out to sympathetic business owners.
Jeremiah Tolbert, owner of Jerry’s Beauty Salon in Providence, became a
spokesperson. He upped his workers’ wages to $15, then invited the press
to explain why. When small businesses pay more, local workers have
money in their pockets to spend. For Tolbert, raising wages has been “a
win-win.” He has urged other local businesses to follow suit.7
Mirjaam Parada agrees that organizing on many fronts at once is the only
way forward. She does face-to-face work for UNITE HERE and uses social
media to talk with worker-activists around the world, sharing news,
debating strategy. Parada says she’s also writing an annotated EnglishSpanish translation of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. “Workers still
need it,” she argues. “Communist dictators and capitalist politicians have so
distorted and misrepresented Marx. But I think his interpretation of history
is correct and I want to explain Marx so that workers can understand.”8
Nine months later and three thousand miles away, another group of hunger
strikers from Walmart battled for a living wage. Los Angeles mayor Eric
Garcetti had long insisted that he would only support raising the city wage
to $13.25, says Denise Barlage. In April 2015, she and seven other women
workers sat down outside LA City Hall. They sat there for two weeks,
consuming only tea and water. Though temperatures hovered in the 60s,
Barlage felt cold by the sixth day without food. Her blood pressure was low.
She donned a hat and gloves to keep it from falling further.
“We were ready to be arrested,” she recalls. “We were going to handcuff
ourselves to the building.” Then they saw the mayor walking toward them.
They held up their sign: “Women Fast for $15.” The mayor stopped. He
looked at them, leaned down. “Then he told us he was on board with 15,”
Barlage remembers. Weak from days of fasting, some of the women began
to cry.9
Before breaking their fast, the hunger strikers testified before the city
council at a minimum wage hearing. The strikers were mothers and
grandmothers who worked two or three jobs to survive, Barlage says, but
still had to choose “whether to feed their children or themselves. That’s just
wrong.” The women spoke of their fears of eviction and homelessness.
They told of kids who didn’t have decent clothes for school or bus fare to
get there.
“I am Mary Carmen Farfan, mother of four. I work at Burger King,” one
woman began. “I decided to make a fast for my kids, for my family, for my
coworkers. These are single mothers. We have struggled to pay rent, to feed
our kids. . . . I can’t . . . because I have only $9 for a minimum wage.” No
one can afford to live in LA on less than $15 an hour, Mary said. She also
told city officials how she shared a home with nineteen people from three
families who earned between $9 and $13 an hour. By hearing’s end, LA’s
City Council had voted for the $15 wage, says Barlage. “What that felt like,
I can’t describe.”10
Barlage is one among many living-wage activists for whom hunger
strikes have become a way of life, a potent weapon because it crystallizes
the moral bottom line of this struggle. “So many workers today are used to
being hungry,” Barlage says. “Hunger doesn’t scare us. It only scares
people who aren’t used to it.”
Seven months after their successful fast in LA, Walmart workers fasted
for ten days on Manhattan’s most famously wealthy boulevard, Park
Avenue. They chose the Thanksgiving holiday—a ritualized celebration of
American overindulgence—to highlight hunger among Walmart workers.
Barlage came. So did workers from Florida, Virginia, Minnesota, and
Maryland, their neon-green OUR Walmart shirts glowing in the gray
November chill as they sat outside Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s
penthouse. Walton sits on a personal fortune north of $33 billion, and her
apartment was rumored to have cost $25 million.
Sacramento activist Tyfani Faulkner says she came because “people
don’t realize that many Walmart workers are starving.” She says it galls her
that her colleagues are hungry. “You’re working at this huge grocery store
and workers are living off ramen noodles and chips because they can’t
afford to eat better. I thought fasting was a great way to show that and to be
in solidarity with those who aren’t eating, not because they don’t want to
but because they don’t earn enough to eat well.”11
“We didn’t see Alice Walton the whole week,” she says. The doorman
told Barlage that Walton had groceries delivered rather than walk past the
hunger strikers. “He told us she was up there drinking Scotch and smoking
cigarettes, rather than talk to us.” Meanwhile, the protesters lived on
donated broth and tea. “I stayed and fasted for ten days,” Barlage says,
“because I didn’t have a job to go back to. Walmart had closed our store.
They said it was plumbing problems but it was because we were too loud
and strong.”
The Park Avenue hunger strike was part of a nationwide “Fast for $15.”
A thousand people across the US forswore food for two weeks leading up to
the shopping frenzy that is Black Friday. Some fasted in front of the
Carmel, California, mansion of Walmart chairman Greg Penner. Bleu
Rainer fasted in front of a Tampa Walmart. Fasting workers could be seen
outside many Walmart stores. Finding a thousand people to fast might have
been hard except that hunger is a condition that low-wage workers know
too well. “I have had to rely on food stamps to get a good meal,” Rainer
says. “And when those food stamps run out, it’s back to square one, which
is nothing at all.”12
Millions of workers are hungry in today’s world. In Asia, labor activists
say they know garment workers who consume just 150 calories daily.
That’s why some Cambodian and Bangladeshi union leaders have redefined
the idea of a living wage to mean pay sufficient to purchase 2,500 calories
of food daily for a worker and two children. That is the minimum required
to sustain life.
Hunger is also widespread in the US. In 2016, more than sixty million
Americans qualified for food aid. That’s nearly 20 percent of citizens in the
richest country in the history of the world. Forty-five million Americans
that year received assistance through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program), the federal program that used to be called Food
Stamps. (Most people who receive it still do call it that.)
But in some US counties, as many as two-thirds of hungry citizens do not
receive aid. Toward the end of George W. Bush’s presidency and at the
beginning of Barack Obama’s, expansions in federal food aid cut the
numbers of hungry Americans significantly. But then, Congress and state
legislatures slashed budgets and tightened eligibility. And the number of
hungry Americans rose again. Many of the hungriest are children.13
Hunger is endemic in places you’d least expect, in affluent states like
New York and California, and even more so in the nation’s most expensive
cities and suburbs. Forty-two percent of students in the University of
California system did not have enough to eat in 2016. Forty-five percent of
UC employees said they were frequently hungry. Twenty-five percent ate
substandard food because they could not afford better. Seventy percent
skipped meals to save money.
And these are the winners: students and employees at one of the world’s
great university systems. Fifty-eight percent of surveyed employees held
bachelor’s degrees or higher. Ninety-six percent worked full-time and were
the primary earners for their families. Clearly, they represent just the tip of
the iceberg of hunger in America.14
“The thing that so many Americans just don’t seem to get,” says Barlage,
“is that Walmart workers and McDonald’s workers and so many other
working people in this country are really, actually hungry all the time.”
OUR Walmart activists ask workers who bring lunch to “pool what we have
so everyone can get a little—chips, some sandwich. Otherwise a lot of
people won’t have anything to eat. We take Walmart’s line about how we’re
all family seriously—even if they don’t.” Pooling food has become part of
what the movement does. “That’s why we do hunger strikes. Two weeks
without food. I might feel a little cold. My blood pressure might drop a
little. But I can do it. Hunger doesn’t scare me.”15
The practice of fasting to protest injustice is very old. Hunger strikes
appear in pre-Christian Irish and ancient Hindu texts. In both traditions,
hunger strikers often fasted outside the door of the person they felt had
cheated them. If the hunger strikers died before winning their due, the
person at whose door the fast took place was dishonored before the
community. Walmart workers’ fasts at the homes of Walton family
members and CEOs fit that ancient frame.
Women used hunger strikes in early twentieth-century Britain and the
United States to demand the right to vote. Mahatma Gandhi completed
seventeen fasts during the Indian independence struggle. Irish Republican
Army activists launched prison fasts in the 1970s and early 1980s. (IRA
leader Bobby Sands starved himself to death in 1981.) Since 2000,
detainees at Guantanamo have gone on hunger strikes to protest violations
of their human rights, as have Palestinian prisoners in Israel and women
detainees at immigration prisons in Arizona and Texas.16
Maria Elena Durazo and UNITE HERE have long mounted hunger
strikes. Partly, they were an homage to United Farm Workers leader Cesar
Chavez, who staged a month-long hunger strike in 1968 to draw attention to
violence against farmworkers. Durazo says she and other UNITE HERE
and SEIU leaders learned their craft in the UFW. “They knew how to build
a movement,” she insists.
Hunger strikes garner sympathy. Civil disobedience draws media
coverage. Durazo has strategically used both. In 1994, she led hotel workers
blocking traffic in downtown Los Angeles to protest the opening of
nonunion hotels. In 1999, she joined baggage handlers as they blocked
access to Los Angeles International airport to demand union recognition.
That same year, she fasted for eleven days to support cafeteria workers and
janitors at the University of Southern California who were trying to keep
their jobs as the university brought in more temporary nonunion workers.17
Since 2010, hunger strikes have grown increasingly common. After a
two-year battle to prevent Disney from cutting healthcare benefits, eight
Disneyland workers fasted for a week in 2010 outside “the cathedral of
happy.” Standing where frolickers in the Never Land swimming pool could
hear, fasting workers told reporters: “If they could whip us like in the old
days they would.” It took two more years, and they didn’t win all they
hoped for, but they did get a new contract and preserved benefits. Hunger
strikes are, as they always have been, a desperate act.18
In the spring of 2012, workers at the Station Casinos in Las Vegas struck
the city’s third-largest employer, an anti-union boss in a resolutely union
town. Hunger striker Norma Flores knew that union workers made 30
percent more than she did and paid nothing for health insurance. By
contrast, Station employees paid $55 per week. This was a lot for Flores, a
single mother of six. Station managers also threatened activist workers, she
said. Flores knew she had a legal right to organize and she was determined
that managers not stop her from exercising it.
So, she and sixteen colleagues went on hunger strike. They pitched tents
outside the Palace Station, where they sat in 100-degree desert heat. For a
week, they consumed only water as they explained to passing tourists why
they were fasting.
The press described the protesters as a cross between Occupy Wall Street,
Cesar Chavez, and Mahatma Gandhi. Casino managers called the hunger
strikers union terrorists. Not until March 2017, after numerous protests and
an NLRB suit, did the Station Casinos agree to let their workers unionize.
In March 2017, Norma Flores signed her first union contract.19
One month later, amid festivities for accepted students, Yale University
graduate research and teaching assistants began a hunger strike in front of
the office of university president Peter Salovey. They joined thousands of
graduate students and adjunct professors across the US who were no longer
willing to provide free (and underpaid) labor to wealthy colleges and
universities. In 2016, their lawsuits and activism had won an NLRB ruling
that students are also workers and have a legal right to unionize.
Graduate teachers in eight Yale departments voted to form a union. They
wanted medical and dental coverage, child care stipends, spousal insurance,
and an end to sexual harassment.
On April 5, 2017, they delivered a petition signed by twelve thousand
faculty, students, New Haven residents, and elected officials calling on the
university to negotiate. Messages of support came in from New Haven’s
mayor, both of Connecticut’s US senators, numerous state representatives,
and 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Yale appealed the NLRB
decision, bargaining that board members appointed by Trump would
reverse the ruling.20
Comparative literature student Julia Powers refused to budge. “As
contingent and replaceable workers . . . we’re very vulnerable,” she said.
She was fasting to show that this was a communal struggle. They were
standing for graduate student workers everywhere.
Union co-chair Aaron Greenberg said the fasters saw themselves as part
of an honorable tradition of hunger strikes for worker justice. Yale dean
Amy Hungerford replied in a Chronicle of Higher Education essay that
these students were too privileged to rightfully compare themselves to
Chavez or Gandhi. Ignoring the vast power imbalance between students and
the university, Hungerford insisted that “what is starved in this fast is the
commitment to principled disagreement.”21
Yale was not alone. Across the country universities had begun spending
vast sums on law firms that specialized in breaking campus unions. Yale’s
students were leading an important struggle, said UFW cofounder and
many-time hunger striker Dolores Huerta. Her protégée, Maria Elena
Durazo, wrote to the students: “Those in power always want the rest of us
to wait. Your brave actions speak louder than all of Yale’s noise.”22
Yale reacted defensively. Prospective students and their parents received
a letter from Yale in the spring of 2017 explaining away the hunger strike.
Graduate assistants had no reason to protest, the letter soothed. They were
treated very well.
Fasting student Julia Powers disagreed. “We’re really at the origin of
something new,” she said, “a new possibility, not just for resistance but for
actually building something.” From Providence to Los Angeles, Las Vegas
to New Haven, vulnerable workers are reclaiming a millennia-old weapon
for justice. And in the process they are staking out the moral high ground
and holding their own in dramatically unequal fights.
MARIA ELENA DURAZO believes that “there is a transformation in workers
when they organize and fight that is far more important than the increase in
wages or health care, all of which is very important. The soul feels great—
fulfilled and powerful. The workers know they’ve changed. They’ve
become more powerful, not just as a group but individually. And that
“I’m talking about social movement unionism,” Durazo says, a broad
vision of change. “We are not just trying to protect institutions. We are a
movement—with all that entails.” Durazo is no stranger to institutionbuilding. She was president of her union local for seventeen years and led
the Los Angeles Federation of Labor for eight, representing three hundred
unions and eight hundred thousand workers. She has been a vice president
of the Democratic National Committee and is running for the California
Senate in 2018. But face-to-face organizing is what she loves best. “It is
how workers’ lives are transformed, how they learn, how they get power.”
Rusty Hicks, the young Afghanistan war veteran elected in 2014 to lead
the Los Angeles Federation, believes that social movement unionism
empowers workers economically and psychologically. It’s about more than
wage negotiations. It is about social justice.
In many countries, social movement unionism has sought fundamental
transformations. COSATU, the South African trade union federation,
brought labor into the struggle to end apartheid. Brazil’s MST, Landless
Workers’ Movement, occupies vacant land and builds new communities.
For Josua Mata and his Philippine Alliance of Progressive Labor, it’s about
unions making workers’ whole lives better by organizing inside and outside
the workplace, in communities and schools as well as factories, offices, and
hotels. And, he says, in an era with ever-fewer formal sector jobs, the
definitions of worker and union have changed. He sees students, street
vendors, and squatters as workers and believes unions must reach out to
In the US, social movement unionism has brought workers together with
a range of progressive groups: seeking environmental and racial justice,
LGBT rights and women’s rights. Cleve Jones, the creator of the AIDS
Memorial Quilt, went on to organize for UNITE HERE, building strong
alliances between union hotel workers and gay rights activists. North
Carolina minister William Barber and other progressive clergy have linked
racial justice to the living-wage campaign. Barber and other clergy fasted
with Denise Barlage and Tyfani Faulkner in front of Alice Walton’s
building. CLUE (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice) have
energetically supported Walmart workers’ organizing. Fight for $15 and
Black Lives Matter have been thoroughly intertwined. These broad
coalitions are a hallmark of twenty-first-century worker justice struggles,
distinguishing them from what Durazo calls “institutional unionism.”2
Some argue that social movement unionism is a product of Asian,
African, and Latin American labor struggles, but US activists believe that
the idea is just as strongly rooted in American labor history. Durazo, who
grew up as the seventh of eleven children in a family of farmworkers, says
her politics were honed in the farmworkers’ struggle. She sees the UFW as
a paradigmatic social movement union.
“Farmworkers were the original contract workers,” she says. “No job
security, negotiating for pennies. To the bosses, those pennies were
business. To my family, it was food on the table.” Bert Corona, known to
farmworkers as “El Viejo,” taught her that organizers need to grasp
workers’ whole lives: hunger, homelessness, immigration status. Corona
and UFW cofounder Dolores Huerta schooled her in movement-building,
Durazo says.
“There’s no doubt of the impact that the farmworkers’ movement had,
because the UFW was not a traditional union,” says Durazo. “It was much
broader in its vision. It had its problems for sure, but it never was the kind
of stale institution that so many old-line unions became.” Not surprisingly,
veterans of the United Farm Workers are key strategists both in UNITE
HERE and SEIU—prime drivers of the low-wage workers’ struggle in the
US. The UFW was always a racial and immigrant justice movement as
much as a workers’ struggle, Durazo says. It had to be.
Durazo believes this was also true of the other union where she learned
about social movement unionism—the International Ladies’ Garment
Workers’ Union (now part of UNITE HERE), which she joined in 1983. Its
roots in the labor socialism of early twentieth-century Jewish and Italian
immigrant communities mattered, she says. The ILGWU was the “one
union in Los Angeles in the 1970s that was aggressively organizing
immigrant garment workers” into a multicultural labor movement. They
didn’t “look at immigrants as union busters, but rather as union leaders.”
Even so, many male ILGWU leaders were myopic about the political
potential of women and immigrant workers, Durazo says, especially
Latinas. In 1987, Durazo led a drive to change that. There was resistance
from old-timers, and in 1989 she unseated them, becoming president of her
local—a post she held for seventeen years. “If we want to tap this vast
unorganized immigrant workforce, we’ve got to be bold,” she believes.
“We’ve got to be creative. It’s not just that immigrants need a labor
movement. If we want to grow as a labor movement, we need immigrants
and women.”
Many different political streams came together to create the twenty-firstcentury low-wage workers’ movement, Durazo says. “It lent itself to a
convergence. Women’s rights, LGBT issues became part of labor’s
struggle.” You can’t separate identity and redistributive politics, Bleu
Rainer argues. “All these issues are about who we are. They affect our lives.
We can’t ignore any of them.”
Tyfani Faulkner thinks that this fusion makes the new labor movement
difficult to categorize. “I am interested to see how this activism will be
labeled,” she says, “because the Walmart workers’ movement is a women’s
movement and a labor movement. But it’s also a racial thing. Black Lives
Matter, Fight for $15, and the Walmart movement are different but also not.
It’s all the same idea—more equality.”3
In the age of ALEC and an ascendant right wing, unions have engaged in
broad coalition-building as a survival strategy. How could low-wage
workers build momentum and gain political power? Labor leaders tried
different approaches. Durazo and her late husband (former LA Federation
of Labor head Miguel Contreras) organized immigrant workers to vote and
run for office. Mary Kay Henry, the gifted and controversial organizer who
became president of SEIU in 2010, sought ways to organize low-wage
workers who were not, and might never be, union members, in order to
build a national consensus that wages must rise. Both of these strategies
have brought real change.
The germ of what would become Fight for $15 was planted in the winter
of 2011. Newly elected Wisconsin governor Scott Walker pushed the state
to cut salaries and benefits. An ALEC bill was introduced to take away
collective bargaining rights from public employees. Protests erupted at the
state capitol in Madison.
In a surprisingly strong response, eighty thousand people participated.
Members of conservative police and firefighters’ unions joined more
traditionally progressive nurses’ and teachers’ unions. Social media spread
images of the protests worldwide. Arab Spring protesters sent pizza.
European unions sent messages of support. In the end, Wisconsin’s unions
lost. The bill passed. But, unexpectedly, they had sparked a much larger
uprising. A few months later, Occupy Wall Street began. Fight for $15 soon
Labor leaders knew that this was a turning point. Walker, Governor John
Kasich of Ohio, and other rising Republican stars were commanding the
media spotlight as anti-union warriors. Unless they could channel the kind
of energy manifest in the Wisconsin protests, unions in America might
actually disappear. Hoping to shift the national conversation as the country
geared up for the 2012 elections, SEIU launched Fight for a Fair Economy.
Instead of focusing on calls for austerity and budget cuts, they wanted
people to start talking about rising inequality and wage stagnation. Their
tactic worked.
Despite devoting millions to Obama’s campaign and to Senate Democrats
in 2008, organized labor had been unable to pass its top priority, the
Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would have made it easier for unions
to organize. It was time for a new strategy, a new kind of labor movement,
Mary Kay Henry announced. “We’re taking risks in building a movement
that’s going to birth the next form of worker power.”5
In the lead-up to the 2012 election, fifteen hundred SEIU staffers
knocked on more than three million doors in seventeen cities. A majority
were not union members. It would be a drawn-out struggle, they knew, to
win union elections in retail or fast food, with its millions of workers. So
SEIU began organizing workers to wage legislative and public relations
battles. Fight for $15 was born, and was more successful than anyone
“This is our John L. Lewis moment,” says Seattle SEIU officer David
Rolf, comparing Fight for $15 to the 1935 decision by the United Mine
Workers leader to leave the American Federation of Labor and create the
Congress of Industrial Organizations. With a mass-organizing ethos and a
vision that embraced skilled and unskilled workers, men and women,
whites and people of color, the CIO catalyzed an era of mass strikes
nationwide. Workers of all kinds flooded into unions. Rolf believes that
Fight for $15 is the biggest success that labor has had in a generation and its
best hope for building power in the future.6
Low-wage workers across the globe share that optimism. Philippine labor
activist Joanna Coronacion believes that, in a workforce that is increasingly
young and contingent, “social movement unionism is catching on like fire,”
and changing the meanings of worker and workplace. “We don’t organize
just in factories,” she says. “We organize in communities and schools. We
organize young people, even children. We believe that children are the
future of workers’ movements. And we know that many children are
already workers. They need unions.”
Josua Mata, cofounder of the progressive Philippine union federation
SENTRO, says that social movement unionism is also defined by its global
reach. “Right at the beginning of the neoliberal era—globalization, the
forces that started the collapse for workers—we had a protest and we raised
this huge banner. It said ‘Down with Privatization. No to Liberalization.’
We were just starting to grasp what was happening, that global organizing
was essential.”
Mata, then a hotel worker, says global union federations educated him.
The Geneva-based IUF was crucial. Its longtime general secretary, Dan
Gallin, was one of the first to realize how important it was, as capital
globalized, to build a truly global labor movement. “Globalization wasn’t
yet a buzzword in the labor movement,” Mata says. “But the IUF was
talking about globalization. It captured our imaginations.”
Democratic socialists began to think about how trade unionism could be
simultaneously global in its vision and grassroots in its practice, Mata says.
“We began educating, cultivating, and mobilizing people and popularizing
the idea of social movement unionism. The strategy was to teach workers to
organize and educate other workers. That’s real trade union work.” And it is
the only way, he says, to bring a paradigm shift toward a world in which
workers govern their workplaces, their schools, and their lives. That will
take nothing less than a global uprising.7
ON A GREEN SIDE STREET in Quezon City, a buzz of conversations emanates
from the cheerful yellow cinder-block building that Finnish unionists
helped build for the Philippine labor federation SENTRO. Downstairs Josua
Mata and the elders are strategizing. Upstairs, activists in the RESPECT
Fast Food Workers Alliance talk about their lives. Thirty-year-old Benedict
Murillo is explaining to younger workers the concept of contractualization.
“You sign on for four months at a McDonald’s. When four months is up
they move you to another. You never get to stay in one place. You never get
to be a regular worker. That’s contractualization. It was seven years of four
months here and five months there, and I didn’t even know anything was
wrong until I heard RESPECT people shouting for their rights. Now I’m in
the streets shouting too.”
Sister Nice Coronacion nods as Murillo speaks. She has worked in fast
food too. So many young Filipinas do. Fast food is a big part of life in
modern Manila. Middle-class people take their children to McDonald’s or
Kentucky Fried Chicken to show others how well they’re doing. As for the
poor, fast food feeds them in two ways. Young people work at McDonald’s
or KFC or the Philippine fast-food chain Jollibees. Children and old people
scavenge fast-food waste from Dumpsters so it can be recooked and sold as
pagpag in slum restaurants. The poor are the original recyclers, Coronacion
says. They reuse and repurpose everything.
That’s one reason why wage theft has become the galvanizing issue for
low-wage workers in the Philippines. Manila fast-food managers call it
“charity work,” says Em Atienza. Workers must put in hours for which they
are not paid. It is the price of having a job, says Joshua Noquit. At his
McDonald’s, “we work for six hours. Then we’re told to punch out. After
punching out, we work for an hour more, but unpaid. That is wage theft.”
Noquit says he didn’t even understand that until he met Coronacion and the
members of RESPECT. “We all have the same experience in fast food,” he
says. “Our wages are not paid on time. Every time we ask for our salary
there is a dispute.”1
Wage theft goes hand in hand with contractualization, Atienza explains.
“Contractualization” makes it difficult for workers to turn to the
government for help, because labor laws protect only “full-time,
permanent” employees. Most workers in fast food and at call centers
(another big employer of Filipinos under thirty) are classified as
“temporary” or “contract” labor. This is true even if they have worked for
the same company for years. RESPECT and SENTRO are fighting hard for
legislation to guarantee predictable schedules, and long-term security for all
Filipino workers. “After a certain length of time on the job, the worker
should be considered a permanent employee,” says Coronacion. Workeractivists are fighting for this worldwide.
Contract labor is a hallmark of the twenty-first-century global economy.
An ever-diminishing percentage of workers are full-time employees,
whether at a college, a hospital, a restaurant, a hotel, or a factory. Fight for
$15 leader David Rolf estimates that half of US jobs created since 2008 are
part-time. We all know, or are, freelancers, home workers, service
providers, car service/ride-sharing drivers, adjunct professors pulling
together brief contract jobs to make ends meet. Most don’t earn enough to
pay their bills. In 2016, more than 127,000 people slept in New York City
homeless shelters. Many were working people and their kids.2
The cheerful pictures painted by Amazon, Uber, and McDonald’s are lies.
Precarious workers are not plucky free agents creatively making their way
in the “gig economy.” They are victims of what should be considered a vast
criminal conspiracy. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that in 2016
alone, US workers were robbed of $50 billion in wages. Meanwhile,
wealthy companies around the world were systematically denying
precarious workers their rightful earnings—in fast-food restaurants,
factories, nursing homes, and farms.3
McDonald’s is infamous for the practice. Kwanza Brooks and Lukia
Williams, now Fight for $15 activists, say that they have worked as
managers in multiple McDonald’s where they were ordered to “adjust” time
sheets to make it appear that employees had worked fewer hours than they
did. “That is the worst,” says Brooks. “Because they did the work. They
were there. They deserve to get paid for what they did. It’s a job. It’s not
McDonald’s managers are also pressured to rewrite time sheets to avoid
paying overtime rates for work beyond an eight-hour day. Employees are
forced to “literally clock out . . . because they are going into overtime,”
Brooks says. Then they are ordered to continue working.
The two activists have seen other kinds of wage theft as well. For “a
uniform or a name tag or a meal. They deduct and take it out of your pay,”
says Williams. She sees those deductions as taking food out of children’s
mouths. “Being a mother and seeing other mothers treated this way, it hurts
me,” she says. “They can’t afford to pay their bills. I feel that McDonald’s
is stealing from their workers. The corporation as a whole is so greedy.”5
Fast-food jobs also steal workers’ sense of self, says Coronacion,
crushing them with stress and anxiety. She remembers slipping on sauce,
staining her clothes, bruising her hip. But she wouldn’t let herself cry
because she feared losing her job, or being reprimanded in front of
customers. Running a cash register terrified her, because, “at the end of the
day, if anyone was short ten pesos [less than a quarter], we had to pay it
back. But when I paid it back, I had to walk home because I didn’t have
money for the bus. It was a seven-kilometer walk. And I didn’t have a cell
phone to call my mother.”
She felt liberated from bondage when she became “involved in the
movement. I thought, if only I had known about this when I was suffering
all that stuff, I would have been more assertive. Everything started from
there. My whole life started again.”
Organizing for Respect at Walmart
GIRSHRIELA GREEN FELT a weight lift from her shoulders when she founded
Respect the Bump, an advocacy group for pregnant Walmart workers. “We
used to blame ourselves and blame each other for everything,” she says.
“Once we got educated, we knew that something needed to be done.
Because this was not a give-and-take relationship with Walmart. It was just
Venanzi Luna, leader of the 2012 Pico Rivera strike, felt a rush of power
“being part of OUR Walmart. I learned what retaliation is, what
intimidation is, what rights workers have. I would never have imagined in
my life that I have so many rights at work. Walmart likes to say that the
union puts words in my mouth. I say: Nobody speaks for me. This
organization gives me the knowledge I need so I can speak for myself.”2
At first, recalls Green—a forty-eight-year-old mother of seven—getting a
job at the Crenshaw Walmart in South Central LA was a tremendous boost.
“I got the job through welfare-to-work,” she says. “I knew absolutely
nothing. I was a loyal Walmart employee, dedicated to my job and my
employer. I was told at orientation that I could have a career at Walmart.
That was a dream come true for someone like me. So I fought for that
Green says she was a model employee. She “exceeded expectations”
during employee evaluations and was promoted “a couple of times.” Within
three years, Green had become a department manager for health and beauty
products. It was a great feeling. “Then I started to realize that something
was really wrong.”
For starters, the promotion brought her only a 20-cent raise—to $9.80 an
hour. Then there was the pressure. Store managers are constantly pushed to
cut staff, Green says, to come in under the “preferred labor budget”
determined by corporate executives. Green never had enough workers in
her department to do everything her store manager wanted. The stress was
killing her.
Walmart is the world’s largest private employer—with two million
employees in 11,695 stores in 28 countries, under 69 corporate banners. It
imports more products from China than any other US company. By some
estimates, those imports cost four hundred thousand American workers
their jobs. Walmart’s managerial culture has been adapted in stores
worldwide. In China, a hundred thousand associates work in an
environment that employs the cult-like aspects of Sam Walton’s business
vision within hierarchical structures of Chinese Communism. The result has
been called “Wal-Maoism.”3
It’s not much better in the US, says Green. Surveillance of low-wage
workers has been growing worse for years. “This call may be monitored for
quality assurance.” We’ve all heard that so many times, we never think
about what that means for workers. It’s just as bad in person, say Amazon
and Walmart workers. Computers monitor how many items a cashier scans
per hour, says OUR Walmart activist Cantare Davunt. Everyone is expected
to meet quotas. “It’s gotten so bad, associates are afraid to go to the
Surveillance, speed, stress, and understaffing are why so many Walmart
workers get hurt on the job. Ever cost-conscious, Walmart fights hard to
avoid paying compensation or providing medical care. The company has
waged a long campaign to allow employers to opt out of paying into the
federal Workers’ Compensation program. As of 2015, only Texas and
Oklahoma permit that. Still, Walmart cuts costs by self-insuring. All
settlements with injured workers come from company coffers, so Walmart
contests every worker claim vigorously.4
Girshriela Green believes she got hurt because “we were severely
understaffed. I was doing the work of five people and I developed a
repetitive injury in my arm. Since management told me to keep on working,
I compensated with the rest of my body and ended up with a bone spur in
my throat.” Injury on the job is an all-too-common story at Walmart.
“I was given twenty-four hours to return to work or quit,” Green says.
“But after I was injured, I was treated so badly at work.” She shakes a little,
remembering. “After all the work I had put in, that was heartbreaking to
me. But I had kids. I couldn’t afford not to work.”
Walmart tries to avoid firing workers, she says, because “corporate” does
not like to pay unemployment. Instead, they make life so unbearable that
workers quit. This has been especially true for pregnant workers, Green
“I didn’t tell my boss at first when I returned to work that I was pregnant.
I was terrified. I knew the odds were already against me because of my
injury. Then I came in with a release from my doctor saying I shouldn’t do
heavy lifting.” Her manager was furious and things deteriorated quickly.
Before long, Green’s injuries became debilitating.
She was sitting at home in a neck brace, warned by a doctor not to move
too much, when the phone rang. It was a group she had never heard of:
Organization United for Respect at Walmart. She wanted nothing to do with
them, afraid she’d lose her job. Then a close friend was fired without
warning after twenty years. “That was it for me. I knew then that we
weren’t the problem. They were.” She and her friend joined OUR Walmart
Green wanted to take OUR Walmart in a new direction, organizing
pregnant workers. She began by using the OUR Walmart Facebook page to
link workers in different stores. Meanwhile, she studied the 1978 Pregnancy
Discrimination Act to learn what accommodations pregnant workers could
legally request.
At first, pregnant Walmart associates only “met” online. Then Green
started traveling for face-to-face encounters. The United Food and
Commercial Workers funded her journeys. Green recalls meeting a Texan
named Chrissy Creech whose manager had refused to give her bathroom
breaks. Creech’s mother patted her daughter’s pregnant belly and said to
Green: “They need to respect this bump.” The name stuck.
A new kind of labor organization was born, dressed in fuchsia maternity
smocks. Green was amazed at how many women wanted to join Respect the
Bump. Maryland Walmart associate Tiffany Beroid received nine hundred
responses when she posted stories about her experiences of discrimination.
Latavia Johnson in Chicago had a similar experience.5
“A lot of women started speaking out about their hardships,” Green says,
“about being retaliated against, discriminated against, being pushed out
early, not given accommodations, being told that they had to lift a certain
amount or they needed to leave.” Respect the Bump called on Walmart to
change its policy of not accommodating pregnant workers. They announced
plans for a pregnant women’s protest at the 2014 Walmart shareholders’
meeting. Corporate caved before the meeting, Green says, smiling, and for
the first time agreed to accommodate pregnant workers. “They smelled a
lawsuit coming.”6
Green was pleased with the victory, but the policy change mostly helped
women with “high-risk pregnancies,” she says. All pregnant workers
needed accommodations to be safe at work. Thelma Moore was hit by a
falling television set at the Chatham, Illinois, store. Ordered back to work,
she refused and was fired. Moore came to Respect the Bump for help. “I’m
here to stand up for myself, and other pregnant women all over the world,”
Moore said.
Respect the Bump gathered an army of angry pregnant Walmart workers
at its first national conference in Chicago in September 2014. Delegates
demanded that Walmart comply with the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination
Act. They also announced a campaign to press for a more expansive bill,
the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act. State versions of the bill have since
passed in twenty-one states, and in 2017 it was reintroduced in Congress.7
Attorneys from the National Women’s Law Center and A Healthy
Balance (a law practice dedicated to improving working conditions for
pregnant employees and workers with small children) helped Thelma
Moore and other pregnant associates file suit against Walmart. Respect the
Bump picketed the store where Moore had worked. Among the protesters
was Bene’t Holmes, who miscarried in a Walmart bathroom after her
manager forced her to lift fifty-pound boxes containing bleach and other
toxic chemicals.8
“They don’t even follow their own policies,” says Denise Barlage. “The
rule is ‘two for a lift of fifty or more.’” When the store manager came out to
ask the protesters to leave, Holmes handed him a water bottle and a stool.
These two “little things,” she told him, can prevent miscarriages at work.9
In the spring of 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that pregnant workers
have a right to workplace accommodations. Respect the Bump was a party
to the pregnancy discrimination case brought by United Parcel Service
worker Peggy Young. Interestingly, the Young decision, like the 1978
Pregnancy Discrimination Act on which it was based, was supported by
conservative as well as feminist groups, working-class and middle-class
women, pro-choice and pro-life organizations. Pregnancy discrimination
was clearly an issue that transcended traditional political divisions, and the
court’s conservative justices concurred.
Four years earlier, the Supreme Court had rejected a sex discrimination
lawsuit filed on behalf of Walmart’s 1.4 million women workers. Originally
brought by a fifty-two-year-old African American woman named Betty
Dukes, the suit claimed that Walmart managers discriminated against
women. Plaintiffs pointed to a workforce that was 72 percent female, and a
managerial team that was more than two-thirds male.
Lawyers for Dukes showed that Walmart corporate had, at every turn,
prevented women from building the kinds of careers that Girshriela Green
had been promised. But in the Dukes case, the justices split along partisan
lines, with conservatives ruling that lawyers for the plaintiffs had not
proven their case for sex discriminatio…
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