Fast Times at WalSmart U: Collective Consciousness vs. “Cannibal Capitalism”

Fast Times at WalSmart U: Collective Consciousness vs. “Cannibal Capitalism”

(Tiffany Kraft is an adjunct as well as activist and organizer with the Faculty Forward Network and

Sao Paulo 18.08.2015 Demonstration against the Mc Donalds and its illegal and immoral labor practices at Avenida Paulista, in the hart of Sao Paulo city, with the participation of several labor unions and Mc Donalds workers from all around the world. Pictures: Fernando Cavalcanti

Sao Paulo 18.08.2015
Demonstration against the Mc Donalds and its illegal and immoral labor practices at Avenida Paulista, in the hart of Sao Paulo city, with the participation of several labor unions and Mc Donalds workers from all around the world.
Pictures: Fernando Cavalcanti

joined other workers in a global solidarity mission to Brazil in August 2015. This is an account of her experiences)

Fast Food Global ignited and united a multi-sector labor movement of workers, members of parliament, union presidents, organizers, campaign coordinators and directors, translators, legislators, prosecutors, and labor activists from around the globe in Sãu Paulo, Brazil (August 14 – 21, 2015) with a collective mission: to hold McDonald’s, and by extension all bad actors, accountable for shady labor practices. The week culminated in a senate hearing in Brasilia where powerful testimonials revealed the extent and impact of what Scott Courtney of the Service Employees International Union calls “cannibal capitalism.”

The global solidarity I witnessed firsthand is nothing less than phenomenal, and the world will know that this issue is not negotiable: McDonald’s will pay their workers a living wage, raise standards in the workplace, and operate lawfully or face the light. As Courtney sees it:

McDonald’s could either go down this road of having issue after issue raised and public light shined on it, and they’re not going to look good, … or they can say, ‘We’re going to lead, we’re going to turn our reputation around by turning our company’s basic business model around.’

And though the light in Brazil shined on McDonald’s in particular, substitute any WalSmart U (for-profit, not-for-profit private, or public) that operates on the profit-over-mission model, and you see the massive scope and standardization of the 21st-century labor crisis. We are not just looking at fast food, but fast health, fast service and hospitality, fast childcare, and fast higher education. Our social institutions and service industries are crumbling under the weight of corporatization and contingency.

Like McDonald’s, higher ed shows no signs of turning the basic business model around, and instead of getting Happy Tuition Deals, students pay the price in higher debt while faculty earn poverty wages, and administrators, executives, and shareholders get rich off the scheme. It’s time for students, faculty, alum, and allies to shine a floodlight on higher-ed’s bad actors, join the national movement to transform it, and fight to take back our colleges and universities.

In a move to better the conditions for all workers, Fight For $15 National Organizing Committee (NOC) Leader Clint Cuyler told me he joined the fight because he’s seen firsthand how “workers are faced with injustice on the job, including wage theft, disrespect, and poor working conditions.” Clint says he’s “committed to putting an end to this trend that’s destroying the middle class, the working class.” Why, when McDonald’s is the second largest private employer in the world, should their workers live in poverty? Why, when “some 41 million Americans collectively carry more than $1.1 trillion in education loans owned or guaranteed by the Education Department, a total that surpasses every form of consumer credit in the U.S. except home mortgages” do we condition students that debt is the exchange for success? (“New Federal Data Show Student Loan Borrowers Suffering More Than Previously Believed”).

McDonald’s and WalSmart U’s can afford to do better and still make an obscene profit, but as it stands they are leading the global race to the bottom and their top-down business models are contagious. This impacts our whole economy. Cuyler’s leadership is impressive because it’s collective: it doesn’t end at his store or community borders; that is, he fights for the middle class, and he’s taken that fight global because cannibal capitalism knows no boundaries.

We cannot accept income inequality as the new global standard. It’s well known in higher ed that faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, and professors cannot teach from a place of fear, just as all workers cannot perform or produce at optimal levels when faced with income inequality and poor-by-design working conditions. Knowing this, it’s also clear that until the collective majority come together and fight back, nothing will change, and conditions will worsen.

Thanks to the global solidarity witnessed in Brazil, the world has seen the two faces of McDonald’s and their ilk. The question is, now that they’ve also seen and heard from workers in various sectors, will a new collective consciousness rise to put an end to cannibal capitalism? As I listened to McDonald’s worker Adriana Alvarez give testimony in the hearing about how she and her son struggle to make ends meet and how she is forced to work off the clock it became all too clear that workers and their families need help, now.

Does it concern parents, students, alum, and allies of higher ed that the professoriate is devalued to the point where adjuncts with professional, graduate, and post-graduate degrees earn minimum wage and work without job security? Adjuncts face similar working and living conditions as the poorest and least educated workers in our country, and our testimonials all bleed together.

Despite the ugly truths, we’re conditioned to believe that education is the gateway to a secure future. Meanwhile, there are increasingly more PhD’s on welfare and students who are not gainfully employed post-graduation because instruction isn’t fairly funded and many schools aren’t tightly regulated, accredited, or held accountable for student success; yet Title IV Funds and G.I. Bill dollars feed administrative bloat. Everyone, really, is affected by this multifaceted crisis; even those seemingly far removed from poverty and its abject conditions are impacted because we live in a global economy.

The bottom line is this: any worker who performs their reasonable duties satisfactorily should be paid a living wage. When corporations build their businesses on the backs of their workers they have a responsibility to pay their workers a decent income, not figure out more ways to further devalue workers by cutting their hours, withholding resources, and generally crushing their spirit while making impossible demands. This creeping corporate mentality is an unconscionable global crisis, and it’s time to stop it.

Because of what I witnessed in Brazil, I know that change is not only possible, it’s happening. Political and organizational leaders such as SEIU’s Courtney, Dawn Butler, Member of Parliament from the United Kingdom, Iaian Lees-Galloway, Member of Parliament in New Zealand, National President of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, Ian Hodson, and Secretary of Human Rights and Citizenship for Sãu Paulo, Eduardo Suplicy, and many more key leaders, are all fighting with and for all workers impacted by low-road corporate practices. MP Butler coined a phrase that is inclusive and powerful: “This is a massive, militant movement.” Yes. It. Is.

It’s up to us to take this call seriously. Contact your legislators. If you are a low-wage service worker, contact Fight For $15 for resources and support. If you are an adjunct, student, parent, alum, or higher-ed ally contact Faculty Forward Network and become an active part of the solution. We are all in this together, and we have the resources, organizers, momentum, and global solidarity to win. We can only win when leaders unite and take bold action to transform the workplace. We have nothing more to lose, but dignity.

Katharine Bullard

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