It takes coordination and skill to work three large deep fryers.
Imagine yourself timing the chicken nuggets, tenders, and potatoes; preparing the cups, re-checking the order, and ensuring that your fry station is stocked. My time at Wendy’s left me with a sore eyeball for days, a ruined contact lens, and an angry desperation many food service workers feel every day. At $7.25 an hour without health benefits, I thought a restaurant position that would pay me an extraordinary $8 per hour would improve my condition––I was wrong.
In every state, it remains difficult to survive as a worker in the food industry: long hours of lifting, standing, smiling and working through sick days creates wear-and tear on the body and mind. In the South, these difficult conditions are compounded by disastrously low wages.
In nearly every Southern state, including North Carolina where I live and work, wages for tipped workers have stayed at a grotesque $2.13 an hour since 1991. Many food service workers, both in the fast-food and restaurant industry, receive neither paid nor unpaid breaks. Most people work non-stop for ten or more hours. Workers are often not paid for this grueling overtime work––and when they have the time, effort and money to complain to the Department of Labor, their demand for the pay they earned typically goes unmet.
A 2017 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that workers in the food and drink industry suffer the highest rates of minimum wage violations, noting that women, young people, Black and undocumented individuals are disproportionately affected by wage theft. And women face not only wage theft, but a gender pay gap; women in North Carolina make little over eighty cents for every dollar a man earns.
However, food service workers don’t need a multitude of statistics to know how dire the situation is.
My former co-worker who has worked in fast food for fifteen years, says she can “never call in sick because the boss won't allow it.” This is common.
My experiences in fast food, as a server, and as a low-wage worker in a casual dining restaurant have taught me that Black and Brown people who feed the state are severely overworked and underpaid.
My former co-worker who has worked in fast food for 15 years, says she can “never call in sick because the boss won't allow it.” This is common.
Another fast food worker who is a friend of mine works two jobs to pay the rent. “Things end up piling up and it’s hard to manage at times,” he told me. “It’d be easier to save up with a living wage. I pretty much live paycheck to paycheck.”
Now, Democrats in the North Carolina state legislature have introduced the “Economic Security Act,” House Bill 46, which aims to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 over five years, require paid sick leave, and enforce protections against wage theft, among other reforms. But this represents the bare minimum and is not enough for working people.
According to the EPI report, in North Carolina, 12.3 percent of low wage workers who are covered by minimum wage laws are not receiving minimum wage— in fact they’re losing almost a third of the wages they are due to employer theft.
The report’s authors chalk this up to an ineffective labor commissioner who has done little to enforce the law, pointing out that during her 15-year tenure, she’s sued companies only 35 times for failing to pay wages. In a blog about the report, NC Policy Watch summed up the problem as a “lack of political will.” But it is much more than a lack of political will––the pervasiveness of wage theft exemplifies the racist, sexist, capitalist system that continues to benefit the ruling class.
For Socialists like myself, all profit is wage theft. Hadas Their writes in Karl Marx and the Case of the Never-ending Theft:
“... profits are not the result of good accounting or the inventive ideas of the super-rich, but rather by an exploitative relationship between two classes of people: bosses and workers. Under capitalism, employers and workers meet each other on a very unequal playing field, in which one owns the means of production (land, factories, tools and machinery, technology, etc.) and the other has no choice but to sell their labor to live.”
The rise of socialism in the United States presents an important task for young people: we must differentiate between social democracy that is needed for improved social welfare, and the ultimate goal of an equitable society: working-class people owning the means of production.
The food industry in North Carolina (and elsewhere) is not broken, rather it’s working as it is meant to under capitalism––owners create profits by stealing from hard-working people. The entire food industry would crumble if not for undocumented individuals and people of color pulling seventy (or more) hours a week.
The food industry in North Carolina (and elsewhere) is not broken, rather it’s working as it is meant to under capitalism––owners create profits by stealing from hard-working people.
This fact necessitates an international perspective, given the interconnectedness of the world food system. La Via Campesina (a worldwide peasant movement of about 200 million) and the International Women’s Strike on March 8, both connect the relationship between food sovereignty, the power of the strike and liberation. The revolutionary uprisings in Haiti, Mexico, Zimbabwe and France have reinvigorated the international working-class to the streets.
An unstoppable wave of striking teachers has surged across the United States, beginning last year with educators in West Virginia, reminding the working-class of our collective power. The Free Alabama Movement, a network of incarcerated people, organized an unprecedented nationwide prison strike to protest slave labor in 2016, an event that has led to more prison strikes in the years since then.
Why wait for incremental reforms when we can gain what’s ours by leveraging our collective labor power?
Now, it’s estimated that well over 500,000 individuals (led by women) have participated in a strike since the beginning of 2018, the largest number of people since 1986. Why wait for incremental reforms when we can gain what’s ours by leveraging our collective labor power? Food service workers of the South, unite!