Blog / 2019 / Job with Justice Travel Log, Part 4

April 28, 2019

I’m contributing to a book about collective bargaining and how it can be used by more than just labor unions. Since I’m painting portraits of the workers whose stories are featured in the book, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling to meet these workers and photograph them.

What follows are some of my notes from my travels. There’s a part 1 about West Virginia and DC as well as a part 2 about Mississippi and Missouri and a part 3 about Philadelphia and New York.

Hope Mills, North Carolina

March 12

We met up with Lidia, who works at a meat-processing factory that’s famous for violating human rights as well as animal rights and environmental regulations. The plant slaughters and butchers over 30,000 pigs per day, with each animal taking just 10 minutes to go through the disassembly line.

The factory accomplishes all this cheaply in part by employing a number of undocumented workers whom it regularly terrorizes by reporting individual workers to ICE. In this way, the company holds up its end of a deal with the government, and ICE does not raid the factory floor.

In the 90s and 00s, the company repeatedly tried to stop workers who wanted to improve factory conditions from joining a union. After a few court battles and a union-led boycott of the company’s products, the workers were finally allowed another vote—a fair one this time—and were able to unionize.

This was a victory for these workers, of course, but also for anyone who cares about sustainable agriculture and the environment. Justice in these forums is attainable only when the people who run companies are required to get back in touch with their own humanity. Unions have the ability to refocus the trajectory of corporations. Organized workers can push those in charge to see beyond today’s profits and consider what the world would gain from a more conscientious approach to business, a point that’s well-made in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc.—a film which also shows footage from the factory where Lidia works.

work in process by Gwenn Seemel
photo by Gwenn Seemel

Lidia told us that though she might have liked to have been a lawyer, being a union rep isn’t that far off. She loves helping coworkers, listening to them, and making sure that they know their rights. She also does not understand our capitalist overlords, and I love the way she talks about them. As she says: you can’t eat a whole cow by yourself anyway, so you might as well make sure that everyone has a steak. She’s so obviously right, and I am so tired of people who don’t get this basic truth.

Atlanta, Georgia

March 13

For years, Rubynell worked in food services for a college. Like all school workers employed by private companies that the state hires, in the summer she was laid off and received unemployment until the academic year began again. This system wasn’t perfect: it allowed these corporations to force the state to subsidize their employees’ breaks. Still, it was how things were done.

Then, in 2011, a new labor commissioner suddenly decided to take away school workers’ break unemployment. Instead of demanding that private companies pay their workers year round (like the government does when it employs workers in education), Commissioner Mark Butler chose to harm the workers.

As Rubynell described the fallout, it was as if a tornado had hit. Many families have still not recovered from the devastation caused by this one ill-informed decision.

I come away from each of portrait interview I do with an overall feeling about the people I’m going to paint. It’s often general things like who’s more outgoing and who’s more pensive with these two brothers, and sometimes it’s more subtle, like the quiet resilience that makes this woman’s advocacy possible. With Rubynell, the theme from our conversation was that the promise of “no child left behind” has always been broken, both in education and in a wider sense. When Rubynell looks at her community, she sees far too many children and adults who have been forgotten by the rest of society.

Listening to her, I kept thinking of the Swedish documentary Can We Do It Ourselves? that came out in 2015. The film explains economic democracy, the idea that companies don’t have to be run like oligarchies where the shareholders’ concerns are the only ones that matter. Instead, workers can be in charge of corporations. They can decide how profits are used and how the work is done. It’s a system that places a real value on the workers’ expertise, and one that would give the Rubynells of the world the ability to ensure that no one gets left behind.

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