In a world of neoliberal dominance, advocating for fair and deserved worker justice is a challenging task. In this excerpt from “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now,” Annelise Orleck makes the case that workers are rising up around the world to achieve this goal.
Sometime around 2011 … a sense of urgency seeped into our collective consciousness with smoke from the campfires of Occupy Wall Street. As Occupy encampments arose in financial districts from New York to Hong Kong, people who had been made homeless by medical bills, student debt, or predatory mortgages began to tell their stories.
They spoke with a ragged eloquence that sometimes even broke through the cynicism of jaded reporters. Or maybe their tales resonated because most of us already understood. Almost everyone, everywhere, was being screwed — one way or another — by the twenty-first-century economy and by the widespread belief that increasing shareholder value is more important than any other collective human endeavor.
Scholarly tomes on the subject became surprisingly popular. Economists probed the sources of unequal wealth distribution. Historians and geographers argued that galloping capitalism had become the “new imperialism,” that Exxon, Walmart, and McDonald’s were the global empires of our age. Then Occupy changed the conversation forever, burning a simple indelible image into our collective psyches. There were always haves and have-nots. But the idea of a 1 percent and a 99 percent endured long after the ragtag Occupy camps were broken up by militarized police. The notion that 1 percent of the world’s people dominated and exploited the rest of us was a call for broad coalition-building to which people have responded around the world.
There have been true believers in the power and glory of capitalism for hundreds of years. But by the mid-twentieth century, most people agreed that some regulation was necessary, that governments must protect people as well as property. Even in that heyday of liberalism there were those who argued that any regulation of trade and commerce, any government programs to diminish economic inequality, constrained and weakened individual freedoms. Ronald Reagan popularized that view in his critical 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing,” a clarion call to cut “big government.” But that argument did not become dominant until the 1980s, with the elections of Reagan in the United States, Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, and the rise of Deng Xiaoping in China. The new era they heralded did more than limit progressive taxation and shred the social safety net. The creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 institutionalized the “neoliberal” vision that profit-taking was a virtue in and of itself. Over the next two decades almost all the world’s countries joined the WTO. But it always was — and still is — run by and for the wealthiest and most powerful nations.
The global economy that neoliberals celebrated did not emerge overnight. But by the twenty-first century, the idea that unrestrained global capitalism is the best way to reduce poverty and expand freedom had become dogma for political and economic elites worldwide. Still, they only espoused certain kinds of freedom: from trade barriers and labor regulations; from robust taxes to redistribute wealth and fund education, infrastructure, and healthcare; from environmental regulations that might limit profits as they slowed climate change and reduced poisons in our air and water. This new regime sparked fierce global protest, beginning with the Battle of Seattle in 1999 in which trade unionists, students, and environmental groups took to the streets to highlight the dangers posed by World Trade Organization tribunals and secret negotiations. This resistance moved world leaders to place some environmental and human rights limitations on the new global economy. But they were often weak and ineffectual, by design.
In a twenty-first-century update of Andrew Carnegie’s nineteenth-century “Gospel of Wealth,” corporate titans espoused a gospel of global profit-taking. Politicians — many with ties to global corporations — signed on, passing tax cuts for the wealthy, slashing labor and environmental protections, Social Security, education and healthcare programs. Like Carnegie, they have argued that philanthropy obviates the need for rights. But from Donald Trump to the Walton family, the 1 percent has given selectively and stingily.
In many ways, Trump’s election as president of the United States in 2016 was a culminating moment in the rise of the twenty-first-century Gospel of Wealth. The oil-magnate Koch brothers had long worked to dismantle welfare-state provisions and worker protections. They continue to. Walmart had long used government food and cash aid programs to supplement poverty wages, while arguing that corporate employers should not have to pay into workers’ compensation programs for those injured on the job. Trump railed against global trade agreements on the campaign trail, promising to help American workers harmed by neoliberalism. But after his inauguration, he and a GOP-run Congress quickly moved to slash federal programs for the poor and the sick and to restructure US political and economic institutions to serve the wealthiest few (even more than they already did).
In the twenty-first century, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and select transnational corporations have become more powerful than many, if not most, nation-states. Buying the debt of poor nations, they have pressured governments worldwide to cut or privatize essential services: water, transportation, education, healthcare, housing, social welfare, and energy. Indigenous lands have been mined and logged, rivers dammed. Wholesale land grabs by agribusiness and mining, energy, and timber companies have driven hundreds of millions from farms to urban slums, export-processing zones, and migrant worker camps.
It all happened so fast, and in so many parts of the world at once, that it took time for people to grasp what was happening. Far-flung supply chains linking myriad subcontractors obscured the role that global brands played in gutting worker wages, safety protections, smallholders’ land rights, and environmental regulations. Many workers no longer knew who their employers were. Consumers did not know where and how their clothes were made, where their food was grown and harvested, and under what conditions. They enjoyed the low prices and chose not ask uncomfortable questions.
Why question low prices when almost everyone was feeling stretched? And that’s because they were. In 2016, British-based charity Oxfam reported that the poorer half of the world’s people had lost 38 percent of their wealth since 2010, while food, housing, and healthcare costs skyrocketed. In the same period, an ever-increasing share of wealth had flowed to the top 1 percent. By 2016, the 62 richest people on earth controlled more wealth than 3.8 billion people. Occupy Wall Street’s rallying cry no longer seemed hyperbolic. It had become cold, hard fact.
This was not simply a problem in developing nations. Wealth and income were more concentrated at the top in the US than in any other affluent nation. As deindustrialization, automation, and financial deregulation transformed the labor market, massive tax cuts for the wealthy deepened government deficits and provided a rationale for program cuts. The top marginal tax rate in the US during the prosperous 1950s and 1960s approached 90 percent. By the mid-1980s, it had fallen below 30 percent. Federal aid to cities and states dried up; public services were gutted. Private unions withered and public unions, already struggling, faced relentless legislative assaults.
The Great Recession of 2008 made these inequalities worse, erasing savings for tens of millions. Spiraling healthcare and housing costs and predatory lending drove millions of Americans into bankruptcy. Many literally ended up in the streets.
The recovery since that time has done little for the poor or middle class. Unemployment rates dropped below 5 percent in 2016, but two-thirds of the jobs created in the US since 2008 do not pay a living wage or provide benefits, job security, or potential for growth. By 2014, 71 percent of American workers earned less than $50,000 a year. More than half earned less than $30,000; 38 percent earned less than $20,000. The American middle class has evaporated.
Unemployment is still an issue, but poverty wages are a greater problem — in the US and around the world. Growing numbers of impoverished workers (worldwide) mark a dramatic shift from the mid-twentieth-century high-water mark of liberalism with its generous government subsidies. Then incomes grew all along the wealth scale, unions and public services were strong, and public colleges were affordable for millions. The twenty-first century is starkly different, a new Gilded Age, in many ways more like the 1870s than the 1970s.
Since 2008, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans have seen incomes increase by 31.4 percent while everyone else’s grew by less than half a percent. Six members of the Walton family control as much wealth as 40 percent of Americans. Half of fast-food workers, retail sales and nonunion manufacturing workers require food stamps or other aid programs to survive. And education is no longer a sure path out of poverty. In 2015, three-quarters of US college professors worked on term-to-term contracts. Between one-quarter and one-third needed some form of public aid — cash assistance, food, or medical services — to support themselves, especially if they had children.
In expensive cities — New York, Los Angeles, Boston — three and four generations live together. They pool resources so that they can afford rent. Employed workers sleep on relatives’ couches. Some commute to work from homeless shelters.
Secure jobs are disappearing. Employees are reduced to “independent” contractors, as corporate managers relentlessly cut costs. College graduates stagger under crushing levels of debt, unable to purchase homes or even cars. Stagnant wages erode workers’ living standards. Wage theft runs rampant. Marx’s proletariat has grown scarce, replaced by an expanding global “precariat” — contingent, commodified labor to whom no one owes anything.
Not surprisingly, many people are angered by the cruelties of the twenty-first-century economy. And their fury has fueled worldwide protest. Simultaneously, and almost everywhere, low-wage workers and small farmers began to revolt: in New York City restaurants, laundries, and warehouses, in Western Cape wineries and the garment shops of Phnom Penh, in Southern California Walmarts, and the big hotels of Providence, Oslo, Karachi, and Abuja. As capital has globalized, so has the labor movement. Marches, strikes, protests, and sit-ins from Tampa to Mali have changed the global conversation about workers’ rights.
This book offers sketches of these uprisings. Whenever possible, I try to tell the story through workers’ eyes, using their words. If, by the end, you come to believe that we are all fast-food workers now, then you will realize that this is not a story about other people. It is our story, a history of our times.
Copyright (2018) by Annelise Orleck. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Beacon Press.