Tag Archives: labor

On Food and Labor, Briefly

David Beriss

Andrew Puzder has decided to withdraw his name from consideration for Secretary of Labor in the Trump administration. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, nominating a fast-food executive who opposes raising the minimum wage and likes the idea of replacing workers with machines raises a lot of questions. Yet even without Puzder, most of those questions remain relevant, especially since Mr. Trump has, in his other cabinet picks, pursued an agenda that favors big corporations and their leaders over improving the lives of workers. As a consequence, the conditions faced by workers in the food industry need to be at the core of the food movement for the foreseeable future.

When I posted the weekly reading digest earlier this week, I forgot to include a link to an important editorial on immigration, restaurant work, and low wages. Written by Diep Tran, for the NPR food blog, the piece focuses on the problematic idea that foods associated with certain ethnicities and immigrants should be cheap. Tran, who runs Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles, points out that the expectation of cheap food in Vietnamese, Mexican, or other restaurants can only be met if workers in those restaurants are very poorly paid. His article is a call for better pay and working conditions in “ethnic” restaurants, linked to a willingness by consumers to pay a more reasonable price for the food they serve.

There are many reasons to call attention to the issues raised in this editorial. Questions of low pay and bad working conditions are critical in many parts of the food industry, not just in restaurants. A number of anthropologists have in fact written about these issues – Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, for instance (on undocumented Mexican workers in Chicago restaurants), or Steve Striffler (on workers in a chicken processing plant, mostly immigrants), or Seth Holmes (on migrant farm workers). As these authors (and others) all indicate, the struggle over wages and working conditions in the food industry is also related to debates around immigration in the United States.

Although many of us like to celebrate the idea of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, it is worth keeping in mind that it has long been a nation in which those immigrants are exploited and abused, especially if they are undocumented. People often seem to remember Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” for its depiction of the horrors of the meat packing industry in early twentieth century Chicago. Those horrors were inflicted mostly on immigrant workers. In fact, virtually every way in which those workers were exploited in the novel is still being practiced somewhere, either in the United States or elsewhere, today, as we have pointed out on this blog before. We should keep that in mind whenever we wonder about why food at the grocery store, the fast food restaurant, or “ethnic” eatery seems ridiculously cheap. Perhaps what we should be celebrating is that, historically, the U.S. has also been a nation of labor activists, in which workers have mostly received better wages and working conditions when they have successfully organized for them. That is happening now in much of the food industry and seems more necessary than ever.

Anthropologists will no doubt continue to do an excellent job of documenting the exploitation and dangerous conditions that workers—immigrant or not, documented or not—encounter in the food industry. We also need to remind people that if workers are going to have living wages and decent working conditions, all of us may have to pay more for our food. This points to a broader issue, since food industry workers are far from alone in being poorly paid. The struggle for a living wage for all workers, linked to access to affordable housing and health care, should be central to the food movement itself. And, of course, it remains the core issue confronting the future Labor Secretary, whoever that turns out to be.

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Filed under anthropology, Food Studies, labor, United States

Fast Food Labor Secretary?

David Beriss

In the weeks following his election, President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Andrew F. Puzder to lead the U.S. Department of Labor. There has been much discussion and commentary on this choice. Mr. Puzder is the CEO of CKE Restaurants, Inc., which owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains. Because of this background, much of the commentary on his qualifications has come from the restaurant industry, including the National Restaurant Association (which favors the nomination) and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (which opposes his nomination). There is also this commentary, which suggests that nominating Puzder is a way of overturning the entire history of the Department of Labor, leaving in its place conditions for workers that resemble “The Jungle” (the author of the commentary appears to be in favor of this outcome).

Hearings on his nomination are scheduled for February 2, 2017.

If confirmed, what sort of job will Mr. Puzder do? The Department of Labor’s mission statement is remarkably succinct:

“To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.”

Perhaps the most famous Secretary of Labor was Frances Perkins, who served from 1933 to 1945. She was the first woman to hold a cabinet position (and a sociologist!). More importantly, she was instrumental in creating President Roosevelt’s New Deal, she wrote the Social Security Act, and fought for minimum wage and unemployment insurance laws. The Department of Labor’s headquarters building is in fact the Frances Perkins Building. This is where Mr. Puzder will work, if he is confirmed.

Will Mr. Puzder “foster, promote, and develop the welfare” of American workers? Or would he do more to promote the interests and welfare of industry? Are these necessarily opposed? One of the reasons people have raised questions about Mr. Puzder’s ability to fulfill the Labor Department’s mission is that his positions on many of the issues are well known. He has written and spoken a great deal about working conditions, wages, and benefits in the restaurant industry. Here are ten questions that seem worth addressing prior to Senate approval of his nomination:

  1. Wages: The call to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour has been led by fast food workers, the industry where Mr. Puzder works. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour and has not changed since 2009. Some states and cities have raised their minimum wages locally, but there are also states that have no minimum wage, so unless the federal government raises it, they will stay at $7.25. The minimum wage is not a living wage for most American families. Mr. Puzder, who reportedly makes more than $4 million annually, opposes raising it. Is there a societal interest in making sure workers are paid enough to support themselves and their families or should wages be set strictly by the market?
  2. Overtime: The Obama administration tried to update overtime pay rules that define which employees should be paid overtime when working more than 40 hours per week. The salary threshold below which workers can receive overtime pay has not really changed much since 1975, which means that millions of people are essentially working longer hours for free. Puzder argues that they prefer this freedom over higher wages and thus opposes the new rules. He has also argued against California rules requiring rest and meal breaks for workers. Who benefits more from workers “flexibly” working longer hours for no pay: the workers or the companies?
  3. Sexual Harassment: Puzder has been criticized for his company’s advertising, which has featured bikini-clad women eating hamburgers. Certainly, there is nothing especially unusual about using sex to sell all kinds of products. Yet at least one recent report suggests that sexual harassment is significantly more frequent at CKE restaurants than elsewhere in the fast-food industry. What will Mr. Puzder do at Labor to insure that workers in all industries have a harassment-free environment?
  4. Health Care: Puzder has argued that the Affordable Care Act has driven up health care costs and triggered a restaurant recession. The existence of this recession is disputable (see this and this), but access to health insurance and health care is certainly an issue for restaurant workers. What will he do to help restaurant and other workers in food-related industries get access to affordable health care?
  5. Sick Leave: Paid sick leave is not a common benefit for workers in the restaurant industry. Food service workers often work when sick or injured. Legislation has been proposed in the last few congresses to allow all workers to earn paid sick days. This seems like an important way to improve the welfare of American workers. As Secretary of Labor, would Mr. Puzder support paid sick leave for all American workers?
  6. Immigration: One of Mr. Trump’s signature campaign issues was immigration: he promised to build a wall and deport millions of undocumented people. The restaurant industry uses a lot of immigrant labor, including undocumented workers, and Mr. Puzder has been a supporter of immigration reform initiatives that include a path to legalization. This position has caused much concern on the right. The National Restaurant Association supports immigration reform and argues that the industry needs immigrant labor. Will Mr. Puzder support immigration reform of the sort endorsed by the NRA or will he choose instead to support Mr. Trump’s policies?
  7. Unions: The Department of Labor has long worked with unions to protect workers in the United States. Mr. Puzder is on record as opposing unions and unionization, especially in the fast food industry (the unions, of course, oppose Puzder’s nomination). He has opposed efforts by the National Labor Relations Board to make both franchisees and corporations jointly responsible for wage violations and, as noted above, he opposes the $15 minimum wage, both of which are strongly supported by unions. One analyst has suggested that he might use his powers as Secretary of Labor to undermine unions, rather than support workers. Can an anti-union Secretary of Labor work to support the interests of workers?
  8. Tipping: In many restaurants, tipped workers receive hourly wages that are far below the already low minimum wage. They rely on tips to make up the difference. For some, this results in unpredictable and low wages. For others, this means that front-of-the-house workers get paid relatively well, while wages for cooks remain low. There have been efforts by activists and restaurateurs to address these issues, but it is unclear where Mr. Puzder stands. What would Mr. Puzder do as labor secretary to ensure that tipped workers and other restaurant workers are able to count on a reliable wage?
  9. Statistics: Measuring society in order to determine public policy is one of the key missions of modern government. Yet during the election, candidate Trump often cited statistics, including the unemployment rate, that seemed unrelated to any numbers produced by government agencies or anyone else with real data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency of the Department of Labor, collects data and produces reports on everything from employment to prices. Will Mr. Puzder work to insure the continuity and reliability of this data? Or will he use the BLS to create “alternative facts” that support assertions made by the President?
  10. Experience: Puzder argues that increasing wages and improving working conditions in fast food will result in more automation and fewer jobs for people. But there is a lot more to the restaurant industry than corporate-run fast food chains like those led by Mr. Puzder. In 2016, restaurants employed 14.4 million people, with about 3.7 million in fast food. 70% of restaurants are single units, not chains. For most restaurants, the connections between customers and workers are an essential part of the business. Can Mr. Puzder advocate for workers—in the restaurant industry or in other industries—if his view of them is framed only by experience in large corporations?

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Filed under anthropology, food activism, food policy, government

Food and Work in the Americas

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Sent to us by Steve Striffler (Anthropology, University of New Orleans):

Food and Work in the Americas, a special issue of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History in the Americas, edited by Susan Levine and Steve Striffler, Volume 12 Nos. 1-2  May 2015

From the introduction:

Food studies is now a large and important field of research for scholars, journalists, activists, and others who have become increasingly interested in the history, culture, and politics of food. A sizable literature has emerged in the last two decades, largely from social scientists, which explores food from a multiplicity of angles, including foodways and identity, agricultural policy, the industrialization of food, nutrition, the body, commodity chains, alternative food systems, and globalization. Interestingly, however, very little of this recent work has taken a historical look at food and agriculture as sites of work. Workers remain marginalized in general, and historical treatments of labor and workplaces are even less common.

Labor historians, by contrast, have long considered food-related work sites. Classic studies of meatpacking occupy a central place within broader discussions of industrialization. An even larger literature has explored the variety of work and workers on farms, plantations, ranches, and haciendas throughout the Americas, shaping how we understand agrarian life and capitalist transitions. More recently, labor historians and others have moved further from agricultural production, beyond the farm or processing plant and into (food-related) domestic and service sector work sites. Yet, for the most part, these studies do not engage with food itself, in a broader sense, as a critical element in class, gender, ethnic, or racial life.

Our aim in this special issue of Labor is to challenge labor historians to think about food and work in ways that not only include the production of food itself, but the production and reproduction of working class life. We are interested in the work of food, its central location within the broader fabric of working class life, and the relationship between the two, but also in the connections between the production of food, the reproduction of working people, and the very nature and trajectory of capitalism itself.

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Filed under anthropology, food policy, Food Studies, history, labor, work

What FoodAnthropology is Reading

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

An occasional and somewhat random list of articles, books, web sites, movies, television shows, and other sources of inspiration from anthropologists of food and nutrition. Feel free to send us items we should include in future installments.

The adventures of a French ethnographic film maker traveling across the United States, exploring local foodways. This is a very intriguing web project and a stunning web site. Settle in and enjoy the experience.

Watch  a lecture by Yale historian Paul Freedman on the history of celebrity chefs, at the annual MAD symposium in Copenhagen. If you visit the Mad site, you will find lots of other interesting lectures.

An interview with historian Elizabeth Abbott, author of Sugar: A Bittersweet History, about the role of sugar in contemporary diets, spotted by anthropologist Leslie Carlin.

Anthropologist and former SAFN president Janet Chrzan sends in this article in Mother Jones , which looks at a few recent studies about the American diet and concludes that while some people are eating better, any overall change in national eating habits will need to be driven by changes in the economy (income inequality, for example), rather than in the food system.

From Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, to Green Acres, people have made fun of city folks who want to be farmers. But if you are seriously considering it, this piece from Modern Farmer might be a helpful read.

The U.S. Postal Service is honoring chefs with a new series of stamps. The article that explains this also discusses stamps in other countries that honor iconic foods. It might be even better if the stamps were scratch and sniff (maybe not the chef stamps, however).

School lunch has become one of the battle fields for the American culture wars. This article, by Franco-American journalist Hélène Crié-Wiesner, tries to make sense of the fight for French readers. The article, which is in French, suggests that the debate is less about food and kids and more about anti-Obama propaganda.

We have not seen the first issue of Render: Feminist Food & Culture Quarterly, but the web site is pretty interesting and you may want to take a look. For example, Phylisa Wisdom’s article on loving Mexican food in the context of U.S. immigration debates poses some sharp questions about culture, representation, labor, immigration, and other issues and might help start a robust discussion in a food studies class.

On the subject of journals, there is a new(ish) Canadian Food Studies journal and it is open access, so you can go ahead a read it even now. And if you want, you can also submit articles. Details and issues (well, 1.5 issues, it looks like so far) on the web site.

And on the subject of immigration and labor, this recent article in The New Yorker describes the efforts to organize fast food workers that have resulted in increasingly large protests, sit-ins and strikes in the last few years. The central demand is for a $15 hourly minimum wage in the industry along with recognition for unions, but the industry objects that this is too much. From the daily lives of workers, to the history of unions, the organization of the fast food and broader restaurant industry, there is much in this article for class discussions.

What are other food anthropologists reading? Let us know!

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Filed under anthropology, food activism, food policy, Food Studies, labor, nutrition

Will Work For Food?

Making Cheese Eataly

Food and Work

Call for Papers

 Special issue of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas

Susan Levine (University of Illinois at Chicago) and Steve Striffler (University of New Orleans), co-editors

Food studies has become an important field for research as well as for activist-oriented students and faculty.  A spate of new literature looks at foodways and identity, agricultural policy and the industrialization of the food system, commodity chains and globalization.  What is missing from this new work is a historical look at food and agriculture as sites of work.   The classic labor histories of meat-packing, restaurant work, or food boycotts, for example, have yet to be up-dated in response to this new research.

We will be editing a special volume of Labor focusing on the history of food work broadly defined.  Possible topics include:

  • Cooking as domestic labor (slaves, servants, maids)
  • Agricultural labor in the context of globalization
  • The impact of fair trade on local agricultural labor
  • Food workers as political actors – eg, the anti-GMO movement in Mexico; the role of food workers in the Civil Rights Movement
  • Restaurant/food-service worker organizing
  • Working class diets – nutrition, malnutrition, and obesity as class issues
  • The work and industrialization in food service corporations
  • Agricultural policy (eg, the Green Revolution) as labor policy
  • Military rations – keeping soldiers healthy
  • Food politics – boycotts, food-strikes
  • Home Economics – gender and professional work/the de-skilling of cooks

Prospective authors should send abstract (300 words) and short CV to slevine@uic.edu andstriffler@hotmail.com by October 1, 2013.  The editors will determine whether the proposed work fits thematically in the special issue.  Articles will be due June 1, 2014.   The special issue will appear as the Spring 2015 volume of Labor.

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Filed under anthropology, Call for Papers, CFP, Food Studies, history, labor, unions, work