Many years ago, I was a college student at home in Mississippi for the summer and in need of a temporary job. Lured by the promise of good pay, I took a job on the production line at a chicken plant.
I will never forget the air, pungent with the smell of feathers and machinery. Amid the sounds of clanging metal and whirring conveyor belts, dozens of chickens whizzed by every minute. My coworkers and I, clad in protective gear, worked as fast as we could to pluck feathers, detach limbs, and prep the carcasses for packaging. The work involved performing repetitive motions like cutting and slashing, hundreds of times every minute, for hours. If you were not precise, it was easy to wound yourself. It was exhausting and dangerous work, and I did not last long.
The grueling conditions left me aching and disillusioned—and while it was one of the better paying jobs around, my coworkers and I were underpaid given the work involved and the skill required to do it safely. My experience at the chicken plant led me to ask, “What is a good job? What would it take to make these jobs better?”
These are questions that I have worked to answer throughout my advocacy career—questions that have taken on renewed significance today, as worker organizing efforts gain momentum across industries and challenge major corporations. From Starbucks to Amazon, REI to Trader Joe’s, and Hollywood writers and actors to L.A. city workers, fed-up workers have been joining forces to assert their rights and improve their working conditions through collective action. According to the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, there were 424 work stoppages of all sizes in 2022, involving at least 224,000 workers, representing a 52 percent increase compared to the previous year. Most strikes last year were in the food services and accommodations sector, which accounted for 34 percent of all work stoppages.
As these workers know, a good job means more than just monetary compensation; it encompasses safety, dignity, a role in determining working conditions, and the assurance of a brighter future. Through labor unions, worker centers, and community-based organizations, workers are challenging power imbalances and demanding just working conditions across a range of issues, including fair/living wages, the right to unionize, and the right to refuse unsafe work.