EssaysFeature

Bitter Grapes

An excerpt from 'We Are All Fast Food Workers Now'

In We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now, Annelise Orleck traces a new labor movement sparked and sustained by low-wage workers from across the globe. Orleck illuminates globalization as seen through the eyes of worker-activists: small farmers, fast-food servers, retail workers, hotel housekeepers, home-healthcare aides, airport workers, and adjunct professors who are fighting for respect, safety, and a living wage. With original photographs by Liz Cooke and drawing on interviews with activists in many US cities and countries around the world, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Mexico, South Africa, and the Philippines, it features stories of resistance and rebellion, as well as reflections on hope and change as it rises from the bottom up. Read chapter 34, “Bitter Grapes”, below.

Henriette Abrahams, a leader in South Africa’s Sikhula Sonke farmworkers’ union, says that “farmworker communities are the forgotten segment of our society, hidden away and ignored in our rural areas, where exploitation is rife.” Legacies of slavery continue, and she believes that “the farmer appears to see the workers as subjects and property.” as a result, “the struggle for decent lives and decent work . . . is a long and arduous fight.” and it has not generally been taken up by well-funded big unions but by “small, independent, under-resourced trade unions.”

Still, in the summer of 2012, women workers in the Western Cape Winelands came out of the shadows and got the world’s attention — at least for a while. over centuries, in a region where white afrikaner nationalism still rules, the hard labor of black South Africans has profited white winemakers. In the twenty-first century, wine became South Africa’s most lucrative agricultural export. And yet starvation wages, abysmal living conditions, brutal mistreatment and exposure to pesticides afflicted workers who pruned the vines, picked the grapes, and made the wine.

Then something snapped. An old vineyard was sold. The new owners slashed workers’ wages, and eight hundred pickers walked out. Conflict between workers and bosses in this region was nothing new, nor were brutal crackdowns by growers and police. Both dated back to the era of colonial slavery. But something was different here. This strike spread quickly, sweeping up thousands of workers in sixteen towns. By fall, the strike had engulfed the Western cape and threatened to spread across South Africa.

At one winery after another, workers decried “hunger wages.” Police and private security guards shot into peaceful crowds, wounding and killing strikers. Infuriated, the strikers blocked roads, set fire to vine- yards, cars, and farm machinery, and clashed hand-to-hand with police.

Government officials and growers condemned the destruction, but the workers were unapologetic. No one pays attention, they said, until the vineyards burn. In November, workers rejoiced when authorities arrested a farmer who had shot live ammunition into a crowd of protesters, killing three. They felt sure that were it not for the strike, he would not have been charged with murder. Still, larger victories were a long way off.

The strike lasted seven months, workers say, because they wanted a lot: improved housing, free water and discounted electricity, an end to evictions and police brutality, and a chance for their children to attend local public schools. (Local authorities often refused to enroll migrants’ children because they were born in other towns or countries.) Women strikers demanded equal pay with men, paid maternity leave, yearly paid vacations, hourly rather than daily wages, and the right to negotiate directly with employers instead of labor brokers. By strike’s end, they had made progress on all of these goals, raising their salaries by 52 percent. They still did not earn enough to live on, they said, but they had demonstrated the power of organizing. They knew they could rise again.

Media and politicians described the strike as “leaderless” and “organic,” words so often attached to workers’ actions, especially those led by women. It was true that the strike had not been organized by one of South Africa’s large, male-dominated labor unions. But it was hardly a spontaneous, emotional outburst. It was a well-planned action.

Journalists and union leaders have frequently used those words to describe woman-led political actions: the 1909 general strike by women garment workers in New York; the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. It wasn’t true of those actions. nor was it true of the 2012 Cape strike.

The strike had been planned by a self-described “feminist social movement union” called Sikhula Sonke, Xhosa for “We Grow together.” Founded in 2004, the union attracted mostly mothers from 112 Western cape farms. The women banded together around safety and health issues, children’s education, violence against women. And they had been organizing collective actions for years whenever farmers mistreated members or stole their wages.

Sikhula Sonke was a rare creature: a women-led trade union in South Africa. Though men could and did join, the bylaws mandated that the secretary-general, president, and two-thirds of delegates to union congresses must be women. And the union explicitly addressed women’s issues: unequal pay; sexual harassment; maternal and infant health; farmers who paid “family wages” to husbands but not wives; migrant children’s rights; and government refusal to recognize women’s title to land. They also fought “contractualization,” because most women grape workers were classified as “temporary” or “seasonal.” As such, they were unprotected by South African labor laws and ineligible for social security and disability benefits.

Above all, the union focused on stopping violence against women and children. Sikhula Sonke members (male and female) had to promise to fight violence against women wherever they found it. Whether the perpetrator was a farm owner, a foreman, or a male farmworker, union members promised to intervene, and they did.

The union was interested in women’s whole lives — in and outside of work, says founder Wendy Pekeur. And that resonated strongly with workers. a child of farmworkers, Pekeur saw vineyard bosses pay workers in alcohol, a practice she says damaged worker health and family life. Pekeur fought for payment in cash, hoping to reduce fetal alcohol syndrome among winery workers’ children. Rates in the Western cape are some of the highest in the world.

By 2009, Sikhula Sonke had five thousand members on two hundred farms. Three years later, it had over six thousand spread over three hundred farms. There were many reasons the movement grew so quickly.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) likened the lives of Cape wine workers in the 2010s to slavery. South African activists said conditions were worse than under apartheid. They had deteriorated over thirty years of land grabs. From 1984 to 2015, between two and three million South Africans were evicted, creating a vast pool of desperate labor, vulnerable to unscrupulous labor brokers and field bosses.

HRW found grape workers living in pig stalls, wooden shacks, and tin sheds without heat, electricity, or running water. Farmers beat and tasered workers for not picking quickly enough. Some workers were shot for minor offenses, including picking a bit of fruit for their families to eat. Though the practice was banned in 1960, farmers continued to pay workers in alcohol or scrip. Reports of extreme cruelty abounded. In 2015, Henriette Abrahams received a letter describing a horrifying public punishment. a farmer bound two women to ox harnesses and forced them to pull a tree up by the roots while other workers watched.

Sikhula Sonke leaders understood that such cruelty deeply damaged workers. So they developed exercises to build members’ self-esteem. Like United Sisterhood Alliance in Phnom Penh and Bangladesh center for Worker solidarity, they ran consciousness-raising groups. Two feminist NGOs — Gender at Work and Women on Farms — provided funding and training.

Women workers said the groups were transformative. One recalled: “I was a closed flower. I never spoke and always thought that everything I am about to say is wrong and that people will laugh at me. . . . I began to grow and the flower opened. . . . I have learned to stand up for my rights and to practice my rights. I tell my children: I am leaving my footprint for you.” Another felt a surge of power: “If I can speak to farmers and change things, then . . . I am not afraid of anyone — farmer, man, policeman, president. . . . I can now look at the farmer’s eyes without being intimidated. I am able to listen to my fellow workers more. I am now confident and speak English without feeling inferior. I am able to stand up.”

The workers have needed such resolve. Though the 2012 strike raised farmworkers’ wages, attracted attention from South Africa’s large unions, and opened cape wineries to investigation by global human rights and consumer groups, conditions for many wine workers remained dismal. In 2016, Danish television exposed them in a documentary called Bitter Grapes. After it aired, Scandinavian unionists asked to inspect South Africa’s wineries. Since Scandinavia is among the largest buyers of South African wines, the move caused a fuss.

Workers at Robertson winery, featured in Bitter Grapes, struck for fourteen weeks in the autumn of 2016. Consumers demanded that Danish supermarkets stop carrying their wines and many did. Still, the vintners refused to settle. The workers wanted $615 a month. The winery paid $300. striker David Everson says his family survived the strike by “borrowing and friends giving us food.” The union sent food, but as creditors closed in, Everson told his kids there would be “no Christmas goodies” this year. Through it all, Robertson wines continued to sell well in the US. a global economy has seemingly endless markets.

Since then, workers have continued to organize, and a new Sikhula Sonke continues to educate, running a network of early childhood education centers. They boast of sending their students on to good public schools. Cooperative wineries are popping up on the cape, black-owned and worker-led. still, for workers on the worst white-owned wine estates, progress is hard-won. “My dream is like everyone’s dream,” says one worker. “To have a proper job that can pay you a living salary, so you know that at the end of your life your family will benefit.” Sikhula Sonke’s optimistic slogan remains aspirational: “We Grow Together.”

Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of five books on the history of US women, politics, immigration, and activism, including Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. This excerpt from We Are All Fast Food Workers Now is published with permission from, and gratitude to, Beacon Press. It is available for purchase online on the Beacon Press website and on Amazon.

Also for you:

Annelise Orleck

Previous post

The Bodies that Matter

Next post

Tempest Tossed