Beyond Foodworkers’ Karmic Tip Jar This Thanksgiving

By on 11/27/2013 in Uncategorized

Via the Huffington Post

Thanksgiving is an odd holiday for those of us born outside the U.S. I studied it for the citizenship test, where it’s an answer to the question “Name two national U.S. holidays.” But I never managed to shake the feeling that I was doing it wrong. This year, though, I’ll be getting the hang of it thanks to a lot of people who won’t be at my table.

It’s an almost universal experience that the best Thanksgivings are about a larger meal, sharing food with new and old friends, immigrants, those passing through, wastrels, wanderers, in short, the cast list of Howl. We grow, shop, cook, eat and drink. The cooking is always fun, even if someone loses a fingertip. The food’s always all good, even when it not all of it is good. Then — usually while intoxicated — we do the washing up.

Thanksgiving is a rare moment in U.S. gastronomic life. It’s a chance for everyone to connect with the work of preparing and serving food, and to recognize the labor that makes eating possible on every other day of the year. We are grateful to one another, to the planet, and to those whose work made our food possible, even if they are not at our table. But although recognizing this work is a start, it can’t be the end. Otherwise, Thanksgiving isn’t really giving much gratitude — it’s just a circle of hands held around a karmic tip-jar.

In no small part because of its history, Thanksgiving doesn’t come with much of a call to action. My friend, and British feminist economist Diane Elson can help. She shared with me a maxim that helps think about what comes after saying ‘thank you’: recognize, reward, reduce.

These three words were first developed as a shorthand for thinking about women’s unpaid labor: you know, the cooking, cleaning, housekeeping, caring that disproportionately is women’s work. Here’s how to use the slogan. Elson suggests we first remove all work from the cognitive shadows. We need to ‘de-invisibilize’ it. We need to recognize that this labor is actually work, and hard work at that. Then we need think about how to compensate workers for it. It needs to be rewarded, because in a capitalist society, that’s how we value work. Then we think about reducing the drudgery involved in it.

Recognize, Reward, Reduce is a slogan that moves us to more substantial thanks at Thanksgiving. First, we need to recognize something that’s often hidden: the fastest growing sector of the economy, with over 20 million low wage workers, is the food system. Eight out of ten of the lowest paid jobs in the country are in the food industry, as Saru Jayaraman has shown, and seventy percent of tipped restaurant workers are women. They’ve been stuck on the bottom wage rung for over two decades. The Food Chain Workers Alliance points out that the minimum wage for tipped workers was $2.13 when Kristen Stewart was born. It still is.

It takes effort to shield a minimum wage from the very basic idea, one almost universally shared, that wages ought to keep up with inflation. That work is done by the National Restaurant Association, whose lobbyists in Congress have knee-capped wage increases for America’s lowest wage workers.

The NRA isn’t the only agent of poverty for food chain workers. ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and billionaire Charles Koch have squealed against a higher minimum wage because it will hurt small business. But, as Joann Lo of the Food Chain Workers Alliance points out, “The truth is that two-thirds of all low-wage workers in the U.S. are employed by large corporations. The vast majority of these companies are making strong profits and can afford to pay a higher wage.”

Few businesses that depend on poor workers will actually raise wages unless they’re forced to. Luckily, the Fair Minimum Wage Act is currently being brought before Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour over the next three years, and increase the minimum wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage. It’ll double food service workers wages, the vast majority of whom currently work under the poverty line. And the cost to consumers is trivial: just 10 cents a day.

This Thanksgiving, there’s no good reason not to lend your thanks to this struggle. It’s aneasy click to recognize low-waged workers in the food industry, and support their efforts to be rewarded for their hard work. But let’s be honest. Although the legislation that might emerge from supporting this campaign will matter a great deal to many people, $10.10 an hour isn’t going to keep anyone in Bentleys.

Luckily the dinner table can be, even in the U.S., a place to talk about politics. This Thanksgiving, after recognizing the work, and acting to reward it, it’ll be time to start talking about what ‘reducing’ McJobs might look like. A living wage? The end of Big Food? How about unalienated labor, now that socialism’s making a comeback? Who knows? With the right conversation followed by the right kinds of action, we may have even more to be thankful for next year. And that, surely, is how to do Thanksgiving right.