With Janus placing public sector unions on the chopping block while West Virginia teachers stage a wildcat strike for their rights, what’s the right way to feel about the future of labor? Is the picture as bleak as we’ve been made to think, or might there be glimmers of hope portending a brighter future ahead?
Murphy Professor Stephanie Luce recently interviewed historian Annelise Orleck for Jacobin. Orleck’s new book “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising against Poverty Wages is the result of her interviews with 140 workers around the world. The picture she paints offers room for some optimism and hope amid it all.
An excerpt from the interview is below. Read the full interview at Jacobin.
Stephanie Luce: You give quite a few inspirational stories, but most of the people you write about are living in pretty difficult conditions — whether it’s Walmart and fast-food workers in the United States, garment workers in Cambodia, or farmers in India. Some of the people you write about have been beaten, jailed — labor activists have been harassed, fired, kidnapped, and murdered. How are they winning?
You see the same thing in Cambodia, where wages have increased many times since this movement really heated up in 2010. And in Bangladesh — they’ve increased their wages something like twenty-five times since the 1980s. These are significant wage increases, even if they’re not enough.
Victory for low-wage workers has come on many fronts as a result of them doing broad coalition building — across national lines, between workers, consumers, and government officials. Victories have also come as a result of a new strategy. Workers have learned that they can embarrass global brands — particularly global brands with markets in Scandinavia, where consumers are attuned to, and angered by, labor abuses. H&M, one of the largest global clothing retailers, is therefore sensitive to revelations about beatings, terrible working conditions, and sexual assaults of workers.
Others companies are less so — especially the big American brands. Walmart and Gap have not caved in very much at all — though they’ve made some symbolic gestures. They both raised the minimum wage for their workers in the United States. (Although Walmart always closes some stores after such raises.) And they’ve established a non-legally binding factory inspection system since they refuse to sign the legally binding Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord, which more than two hundred global clothing brands have signed.
Workers also understand the belief of autocrats like Hun Sen in Cambodia or Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh that a flood of global capital is what is driving their rapidly expanding economies. When worker actions threaten to slow the flood of investment, even dictators listen.
So I think those are the ways in which low-wage workers have won. And obviously, despite my relentless optimism — and I try to keep that in whatever I write — it’s a terribly hard struggle, and people have paid a terrible price. Including, for many, the ultimate price.