People & Places

From Vermont to the Philippines, ‘We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now’

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Annelise Orleck’s new book is illustrated by Liz Cooke, who photographed Brooklyn fast-food workers at a rally. Photo by Liz Cooke

Vermont historian Annelise Orleck was commemorating the 100th anniversary of the March 25, 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze in New York when her attention shifted from the 146 workers who died in the tragic fire to the countless numbers still laboring in threatening conditions today.

“We really need to be talking with the people who are doing the dangerous jobs now,” she thought.

And so the Dartmouth College professor traveled everywhere from Migrant Justice rallies in her home state to Manila, where one young labor organizer — drawing crowds through singing, dancing and social media — declared that a growing worldwide movement was “not your grandmother’s revolution.”

Capping her research back in the states, Orleck found herself in a Florida meeting with an unusually eclectic mix of fast-food workers, home health care staffers, graduate students and adjunct college professors.

“This was not your average working-class solidarity,” she thought.

That’s when one of the more educated members spoke up.

“The truth is,” she remembers him saying, “we are all fast-food workers now.”

And so came the title for Orleck’s new book, “‘We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now’: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages,” which the author will present in Burlington this week.

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Vermont historian Annelise Orleck is author of the new book “‘We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now’: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages.” Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger


A growing annual-income gap is spurring headlines nationally, with some 70 percent of Americans earning less than $50,000, 50 percent earning less than $30,000 and 40 percent earning less than $20,000. But the economic chasm is felt worldwide, the professor notes, as the planet’s 62 richest people hold more wealth than half the remaining 7.6 billion inhabitants.
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“I felt called on in a time of globalization, as an ever-spreading flood of capital transforms our world, to better understand how low-wage workers are starting to resist, to think and act globally as well as locally,” Orleck writes in the book’s introduction.

And so the Thetford Center resident conducted 140 interviews with workers and economic experts and culled public and private records in a project that reached from Boston to Bangladesh.

“Though rooted in and motivated by local politics and history,” she writes, “the activists I spoke with were all engaged in fighting the same things: poverty wages, the disappearance of public services (education, health care, water), the transformation of workers into independent contractors (and with that a loss of seniority, benefits, pensions), disrespect, sexual harassment and violence, mass evictions and disregard of people’s land rights.”

The Vermonter enjoys sharing a chapter excerpted by the Guardian on how dairy farm hands spurred Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to sign a “Milk with Dignity” contract.

“I like to tell that story,” she says, “because they won.”

But Orleck says friends fear the home-state focus downplays the book’s global perspective. And so she’s also highlighting chapters on garment makers in Bangladesh, a beer promoter turned union organizer in Cambodia and striking fieldworkers in Mexico.

Even with such sweep, the book hits home. Take the story of a hotel housekeeper who, forced to clean 18 rooms a day while pregnant, launched a hunger strike after she had to work until the day she gave birth.

“I was fired for speaking out,” she told the author. “I used to be afraid, but I’ve lost my fear. What else can they do to me?”

Whenever Orleck relates that story, people ask her to remind them: You said that happened in the Philippines, right?

Providence, R.I., she corrects.

“I think we really want to believe this is somewhere else, but it’s not,” the author says. “The conditions here are profoundly awful.”

Orleck is set to read from her 288-page Beacon Press paperback Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Phoenix Books in Burlington. If past events are any indication, at least one attendee will ask what they can do to help.

“Become conscious consumers,” the author advises. “It becomes incumbent on me to think every time I buy a shirt or a flat of berries, shop at a big-box store, check out of a hotel, or drink clean water from my kitchen faucet. I hope as people read, they will see it’s possible to pay attention.”


Kevin O'Connor

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