It was interesting for me to watch fast food workers strike across the United States a few days ago (September 4). Of course, if rhetoric like “food justice” is going to mean anything, it has to include workers all along contemporary food supply chains and that means fast food workers too.
This particular set of strikes was followed by civil disobedience, where hundreds of workers across the U.S. were arrested. The escalation is also remarkable, as two years of periodic protests and walk-outs around the fight for a 15 dollar an hour wage and the right to form unions haven’t exactly brought large returns for the organizing workers (to be more accurate, it’s brought none thus far).
My first job was at a fast food restaurant in Pendleton, Indiana called “Clancy’s.” At fifteen years old, the minimum wage job allowed me to relieve some of the pressures on my mom—who was raising me alone solely on her income—in terms of paying for some of my food, clothes, and entertainment. It was a terrible job, but nonetheless, I cycled through around a dozen or so different jobs on food assembly lines—as a potato-scrubber at Rax, a hamburger assembler at Burger King, a pie-maker at Papa John’s and Pizza King, and my longest stint: a few years as a line cook at a chain called Malibu Grill. All of them shared in common not paying me near enough to live decently.
So I have a lot of sympathy for the folks asking for more cash, as they rent themselves for hours on end to make a life while simultaneously making billions of dollars for giants like McDonald’s and other chains. To add insult to injury, these are some of the most environmentally destructive companies as well, particularly those making cow commodities and poultry products in factory farms. Again, we see a pattern emerging where a highly exploited workforce, a wholly-owned factory-produced non-human animal “product,” and environmental devastation are all rolled into cheap foods that are absolutely terrible for the consumer. The damage and suffering is produced and distributed among workers, non-human animals, consumers, and the environment, laying bare the fact that capitalism produces more than commodities—it also produces a machinery of harm, an assembly line of desolation.
It will be interesting to watch where this goes. I am curious what others think of the “fight for fifteen” campaign in the U.S. and the struggle for a living wage all across the globe. What are its possibilities and limitations? What are its likely outcomes?
* Deric Shannon is a former line cook, convenience store clerk, and fast food worker, now an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Oxford College of Emory University. He is the editor of The End of the World As We Know It? Crisis, Resistance, and the Age of Austerity and co-author of Political Sociology: Oppression, Resistance, and the State. His current research focuses on global political economy, the sociology of food, and ecology.