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Thetford Author Examines the Global Struggle for Higher Wages

  • Jenny Mills, an activist with OUR Walmart, has been living in her car for more than two years. Many 21st-century low-wage workers are homeless. (Liz Cooke photograph)

  • Lei Catamin is an organizer and choreographer for singing and dancing flash-mob protests staged by the RESPECT Fast Food Workers Alliance in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. (Liz Cooke photograph)

  • McDonald's worker and Fight for $15 activist Bleu Rainer shows burns on his arms. (Liz Cooke photograph)

  • Annelise Orleck (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fast-food workers the world over live with matching scars on their arms from where hot grease has burned them. A hotel cleaner in the Philippines was fired for leaving her shift early, to give birth. The average life expectancy of a California migrant farm worker, in 2015, was 49; the same was true in 1970.

Taken together, the global mistreatments of low-wage workers are easy to get riled up about, to feel that something should be done. It’s about as easy to feel this way as it is to shop at big-box stores, to purchase strawberries when it’s freezing outside. Finding out where those dollars are going, and sussing out companies that treat their employees more humanely, takes more work.

But, as Annelise Orleck writes in her new book, We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now, there are “small successes that can be seen as models.” In the book’s 288 pages,  the Dartmouth College history professor and Thetford Center resident outlines many of these successes, and in doing so delves into an international movement that is only getting louder: the fight against poverty wages and the miserable conditions that often accompany them.

The book, which features the powerful photographs of Liz Cooke, hits shelves Tuesday. Orleck will discuss and sign copies at Norwich Bookstore on Wednesday night at 7.

Taking its title from a quote that has haunted Orleck since she heard it from then-graduate student and activist Keegan Shepard, We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now paints a portrait of the workers’ rights movement that is at once sobering and hopeful.

“There are a lot of David and Goliath stories going on here,” said Orleck, “(The book’s) not just an exposé. It’s also a celebration of a youth-led movement, a movement led primarily by women and primarily by people of color.”

In places like Bangladesh and Cambodia, where much of the clothing sold in the United States is made, “what has sparked this movement to a great degree — No. 1 topping the list — is gender-based violence.” The high rate of sexual assault also translates into the international hotel industry, in which roughly two-thirds of women hotel workers say they’ve experienced sexual harassment or abuse while on the job, she added.

Orleck and Cooke traveled the United States and around the world to conduct many of the 140 interviews for We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now, which Orleck noted wouldn’t have been possible without the wave of young people taking their causes to social media as well as the streets — like the student survivors of the recent Parkland, Fla., school shooting.

“This is not your grandmother’s revolution,” she said. “Literally, I just found these activists on Facebook, and I Facebooked them and said would you like to talk to me.”

The result is that Orleck and Cooke shine a light on stories as far away as Bangladesh — where, after a horrific factory explosion in 2013, an accord on fire and building safety has been gaining strength — and as close to home as Vermont, where migrant workers lobbied Ben & Jerry’s to sign a Milk with Dignity contract to ensure that dairy farm workers would not, for example, have to sleep on straw. (The company finally complied, in 2015, after considerable foot-dragging.)

Many of the voices Orleck captures in the book are from people who work in garment factories and on farms, but they also come from people who Orleck hopes might surprise some readers, and illustrate the extent to which poverty wages have become standard in the late-capitalist global economy.

Among them are adjunct professors, the “independent contractors” of academia, who might get paid a couple thousand dollars for every course they teach; Orleck said this works out to something like $8 per hour after you factor in grading, meeting with students and other duties not specified in their contracts.

“It’s very hard to earn a living this way,” she said. “I’m very, very lucky. My kind of jobs are disappearing in the profession.”

She knows adjuncts who have taught a dozen courses a year at a handful of colleges, and still made barely $30,000 — which is still higher than average for adjunct faculty. Meanwhile, full-time instructors and professors earn around $80,000, according to the American Association of University Professors, and if they’re tenured, generally clear the six-figure hurdle.

“They try to tell us that our advanced degrees make us different, make us special, that … we’ll be rewarded,” she remembered one activist saying. “Well, that’s just a lie they tell us to keep us quiet.”

Adjuncts illustrate the larger problems of the “gig economy,” Orleck said. “It’s made to sound smart and cheerful, but it’s not. The gig economy swept the globe, including the U.S., and … maximum hours laws, overtime laws, pension and retirement laws, laws around protecting the right to unionize — all of that falls away with independent contracting.”

Though Orleck focuses a good deal of attention in her book on the Fight for $15 campaign, she noted that the term “living wage” is a fluid concept that changes based on factors such as where you live and whether you have any dependents.

“You can’t define it in terms of a number,” she said. The way she would define it, a living wage is “whatever enables a mother of two to put a roof over her children’s heads, to feed and clothe her children, and have maybe 10 percent left over to occasionally take the kids out ice-skating or to a movie.”

But in the past few years alone, great global strides have been made in improving the safety and livability of low-wage jobs. In addition to campaigns that are making incremental changes to corporate behemoths such as Walmart, new fair-trade companies are springing up that give Orleck hope — such as Altagracia, a Dominican company that manufactures college apparel, including for Dartmouth, she said.

“The world is both bigger and smaller than I ever knew before I began work on this book,” she writes. “And though the forces arrayed against low-wage workers are powerful, and often violent, the spirit, creativity, courage, and stamina of this global uprising are seemingly endless.”

Annelise Orleck will discuss and sign copies of We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now at Norwich Bookstore Wednesday night at 7. There’s no admission charge, but seating is limited. To reserve a spot, call 802-649-1114.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.