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16.6: Low Wages and the Deserving Worker

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  • So far in this chapter we have focused on food consumption, on what people eat. But how that food is produced and exchanged is important in its own right. Indeed, if we include all the jobs involved in providing food – from farming and fishing through processing and distribution, right up to retailing and cooking – then it is arguably the most important income-generating sector in the world. In the United States (US), there has been a long history of struggles over food work. John Steinbeck captured a slice of it in his 1939 book Grapes of Wrath, writing about a family of tenant farmers evicted from their home in Oklahoma and who end up working on a peach plantation in California for a pittance. This fictional book based on real events echoes in the lives of farmworkers in the United States today. Jobs like picking fruit and weeding vegetables are still tough and still done by migrants – only now they typically come from Latin America. In 2012, their average pay was less than $19,000 a year. The US government’s own statistics would place this income thousands of dollars below the minimum threshold for meeting the basic needs of a family of four. In other words, even though they were living in the world’s richest nation, they were living in relative poverty.

    There are some differences between Steinbeck’s story and contemporary events, though. In Grapes of Wrath, a preacher called Casy tries to organise his fellow workers into a trade union and is murdered by the police for his troubles. For the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of immigrant tomato pickers based in Immokalee Florida, their initial meetings in a local church grew into something much bigger. They first used tactics like work stoppages and hunger strikes to demand higher wages from their employers, but as their public profile grew they sought to reorganise the food supply chain itself. In 2011 the Coalition launched the Fair Food Program. Major restaurant and supermarket chains were encouraged to pay a few cents more for a pound of tomatoes and to buy these tomatoes from suppliers who pledged to follow labour law and put the extra money in their workers’ wage packets. The Coalition scored its biggest success when the biggest retailer in the world, Walmart, agreed to join the Fair Food Program and to extend it beyond just tomatoes.

    But while Walmart made commitments to these workers, with its own workers it has been less forthcoming. In 2012 its regular employees like cashiers, cleaners and warehouse assistants were paid on average just $8.81 an hour (Buchheit 2013). This meant that they, too, were paid a poverty wage and thus qualified for additional social security benefits like food vouchers, many of which were then spent by workers back in Walmart stores! This costs the government billions per year and is surely the grand paradox of the American economy. For all its wealth and Wall Street millionaires, the national minimum wage is so low that many people in full-time work still cannot make ends meet. Nor is it just Walmart where this happens. Supermarket cashiers, farm labourers, fast food servers, cooks, dishwashers, bartenders and waiting staff are all among America’s lowest paid workers. The price of cheap food in the country has been gross inequality.

    In both the Walmart case and that of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the position of the deserving worker has been crucial in contesting this inequality. We can see this first in the way that immigration policy has been conducted. For years US farm companies lobbied the government to allow them access to cheap foreign labour, which the government achieved by issuing temporary immigration visas and turning a blind eye to the use of additional undocumented workers. This created tensions with the general public, some of whom were worried about wages being undercut and others about the decline of ‘American values’. A 2013 proposal by Republican and Democratic Party senators to offer permanent citizenship to undocumented farm workers thus had to cast them in a particular light. They were not called ‘illegal immigrants’, as was more usual in political discourse, but portrayed as ‘individuals who … have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America’s food supply’ (Plumer 2013). What the politicians were implying was that these were honest and hardworking people that could and should be made into Americans.

    A second example is the way that trade unions have tried to organise Walmart employees across national borders. The company’s takeover of food retailers in other countries has given it a truly global workforce. Walmart now employs over two million people worldwide; only the United States and Chinese militaries employ more. Concerned that the labour standards in its American operations might be adopted in these supermarkets and their supply chains too, groups like the UNI Global Union have thus tried to link people together through the shared subjectivity of the deserving worker and create a sense of international solidarity between them. As a UNI coordinator put it: ‘When I can connect a Chinese worker with a Mexican worker then it doesn’t become about a Chinese worker taking their job. Workers can see, “Oh they [Walmart] are screwing us both. We have to unite to win”’ (Jackson 2014).