A new labor movement is awakening worldwide. Facing rampant wage theft, dangerous working conditions, sexual harassment, and other forms of discrimination, global low-wage workers are rising up for respect and a living wage. Historian Annelise Orleck interviewed over 140 of them abroad (in Bangladesh, South Africa, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Mexico) and in the US (Los Angeles, Providence, Tampa, New York, Las Vegas, Boston, and more) to tell their stories in “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages. The book features twenty original black-and-white photos of several of the workers and movements by photographer Liz Cooke, who accompanied Orleck on her travels. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with Orleck and Cooke to ask about the inspiration for the book and what its message means for us during our politically fraught times.
Christian Coleman: Tell us about the inspiration behind writing this book.
Annelise Orleck: On March 25, 2011, I stood in the Great Hall of the People in New York’s Cooper Union, where I had helped to organize the hundredth anniversary commemorations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the disaster that killed 146 young workers and changed for a long time the way that US government agencies related to issues of workplace safety. We wanted to be sure that those who attended that day understood that while Triangle changed much for the better in the US for a long time, now workplace conditions had started to erode again, that there were still millions worldwide who worked in jobs that threatened their safety and even their lives. That day, Bangladeshi garment union activist Kalpona Akter walked up onto the stage where, 100 years earlier, young immigrant women garment workers had started the largest strike by women to that time. And Akter said: “In Bangladesh it’s not 2011. It’s 1911.” That night, we also heard from catfish workers, coal miners, taxi drivers, and others who labor in dangerous conditions. That got me thinking that I wanted to learn more about the twenty-first-century world of work. And one thing I began to find as Liz and I started researching this book was that it was not just 1911 in Bangladesh; everywhere around the world, worker rights, safety, and wages had fallen back a century.
The second spark for the book came in 2014, when I began to see Internet videos and news articles about a global walkout of fast-food workers that took place in forty countries on six continents. When I saw videos of young Filipina fast-food workers singing and dancing as a way of pulling other workers out on strike, I began to realize, as one of them later told me, that “this was not your grandmother’s revolution.” I wanted to learn more.
The third electrifying moment came on March 25, 2015. I was speaking in the Tampa Bay area, and I met with a group of living-wage activists at Teresita’s Cuban Café in West Tampa. Among them were fast-food workers, home health care workers (who I had to speak to over Skype because they work so many hours), graduate students, and adjunct college professors. I was surprised. I said that this was not your average working-class solidarity. And one of the graduate students, Keegan Shephard, uttered the words that became the title of the book. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that colleges and universities try to fool workers with advanced degrees into believing that if they are just quiet and compliant they will end up with good, secure jobs. But, he said, that is just a lie. “The truth is we are all fast-food workers now.”
Those were the moments out of which this book arose.
CC: Why do you call this book an urgent history of now?
AO: This is an urgent history of now because, over the past forty years, neoliberal capitalism—the idea that pursuit of profit in and of itself is the highest form of virtue, that capitalism and democracy are inextricable, that maximizing shareholder value is the single most important human endeavor—has devastated our world. It has made us all contract workers instead of employees—doing an end run around labor and environmental laws that workers fought for and won 100 years ago. It has sparked vast land grabs that have created a global refugee crisis the likes of which we have not seen since World War II. Without question, many of the hundreds of millions on the road today in search of better lives are fleeing war. But millions and millions are fleeing land grabs, the destruction of our soils, air and water, and the murderous private and official militaries who follow global capital.
And then, in 2012, low-wage workers world over started to rise up and demand that this change. And they have been doing so ever since. This book is not just the story of the damages wrought since the 1970s by neoliberal capitalism. It is as much or more the story of the very poor workers in hotels, on farms, in garment shops, in restaurants, who are organizing globally to bring back safer jobs, a living wage, and even the most basic kinds of worker rights. It is also the story of their experiments in creating economic and social alternatives: worker cooperatives, consciousness-raising groups, arts collectives, new kinds of union formations. This is a story of creativity, resilience, courage, and hope.
CC: Why did you decide to include photographs in this book?
AO: Having worked with Liz before, I knew that she has an uncanny ability to put people at their ease, and the result is a candor and intimacy in her photographs that I knew would make the text and the people whose stories the book tells so much more immediate and powerful. And that is, I believe what has happened.
Liz Cooke: People expect photographs to convey fact. This is changing of course, as more photographs are manipulated and filtered, but even with this knowledge, we tend to take the reality of a photo on face value—it shows what it is supposed to show. Photos are powerful tools when it comes to showing all sides of human experience—the familiar, the exotic, the ordinary, the extraordinary. Photos freeze the moment and allow the viewer to take time and ponder, and this can lead to a more humane or enlightened understanding of the struggles of another as well as our complicity in perpetuating these struggles. If you need an example, consider how Jacob Riis’s photos changed the culture on child labor. Those children were easy to ignore until he went into factories and meatpacking plants and said, “This is where your clothes are made. This is who is cutting your meat.” After his exposé became widely distributed, Congress passed the Keating-Owens Act that established child labor standards. One thing I always say about the images in “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now” is, “I didn’t make this up. These people exist. Their stories are real.” I want people to connect with the faces, because in the lines and folds are generations of struggle.
CC: What was it like working together and conducting the interviews together?
LC: This is our second collaboration. The first was for an oral history of our childhood neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. In 1980, we received an NEH grant to document the changes in Brighton as it moved from being a neighborhood of first-wave Eastern-European immigrants to an enclave for Soviet Jews. It was a fascinating time, and I think we did good work. Annelise and I have been friends since seventh grade, so we always have fun and work well together.
AO: We play off each other very well. I am very intent and ask a million questions and listen very closely. Liz charms people and makes them laugh and puts them at their ease. As she explains, we’ve known each other for a very long time. We had our moments, of course, but overall, I think we make a smooth team and complement each other in ways that benefit the work.
CC: Tell us a little about what it was like traveling to all the locations and meeting the activist-workers.
LC: It was an incredible privilege to be allowed into peoples’ homes and lives. Some of the stories we heard were so heartbreaking, but most of the time we left the interviews feeling like we were seeing change happen in real time.
AO: We went to many places we had never been before, saw ways of living that sometimes were quite heart-rending, as in the slums of Manila. We also saw very familiar places, like our home town of New York City, in new and electrifying ways.
As I say in the author’s note, it was a remarkable ride: we traveled by plane, train, car, open-air tuk tuk, even on the back of our Phnom Penh translator’s motorcycle. We did interviews on the streets, in restaurants and cafes, in union halls, and faded colonial hotels, in people’s homes.
The courage of the activists, their hope, were so deeply impressive. I agree with Liz that I felt privileged to be there when they opened up and told their stories.
CC: You began this book before Donald Trump was elected president. What would you like readers to take from the book and the photographs now that we’re a year into his administration?
LC: Solidarity matters. Don’t leave the fight to someone else. Do whatever you can, whenever you can. And don’t give up hope.
AO: As activists around the world have learned from the US-based Fight for $15 movement, I would say that US activists have much to learn from the brave workers of South Africa, Mexico, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines about solidarity, creativity, and the refusal to back down. They taught me that our inward-looking grief after the election of Donald Trump was a sign of our privilege, that we have to keep on fighting no matter what. If they can keep fighting in the era of Duterte and Hun Sen, Zuma and Sheikh Hasina, we can keep fighting in the era of Trump. Black and Latinx activists in the US taught me that, too. As twenty-one-year-old Stretch Sanders of Las Vegas explained to me, and again I’m paraphrasing, his brothers and sisters were already being shot down in the streets before Trump. His immigrant coworkers were already experiencing detentions and deportations. The work began before Donald Trump and it will outlast him. In that struggle, as Liz put it, solidarity matters.
About Annelise Orleck and Liz Cooke
Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of five books on the history of US women, politics, immigration, and activism, including Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. She lives in Thetford Center, Vermont. Follow her on Twitter at @AnneliseOrleck1.
Liz Cooke is a photographer and founder of Abandoned Hudson Valley. She is now a psychotherapist in private practice in Rhinebeck, NY. See more of her work at photos.lizcooke.com or follow her on Instagram at lizcnyc1.