First Advisor

Nathan McClintock

Date of Publication

Summer 7-17-2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Urban Studies


Urban Studies and Planning




Food service employees -- Labor unions -- Case studies, Social responsibility of business -- Political aspects -- Case studies, Fast food restaurants -- Employees -- Social conditions, Labor movement



Physical Description

1 online resource (vii, 199 pages)


Although conscious consumers flock to sustainability-branded restaurants and grocery stores to "vote with their forks" for environmental sustainability and vibrant local economies, workers in these industries face the same poverty wages, discrimination, and exploitative labor practices that plague the food service and retail industries at large. Despite rapid growth and labor degradation, low-wage workers in these industries have largely been left behind by the mainstream labor movement and the alternative food movement. Whereas in the past, progressive social movements worked to alter power relations between labor and capital through collective action, today's mainstream labor movement focuses on servicing its dwindling membership and winning minimum wage increases through local ballot box measures and legislation. For its part, the alternative food movement focuses narrowly on achieving environmental sustainability through market-based mechanisms and consumption politics that do not adequately attend to the struggles of food chain workers. Through research conducted in partnership with the Burgerville Workers Union (BVWU) and the Industrial Workers of the World, I investigate three empirical research questions: 1) How do sustainability-branded institutions deploy values-based discourse and how does this relate to labor practices?, 2) How do worker-organizers understand and expose the contradictions of sustainability branding?, and 3) How do worker-organizers engage with social reproduction as a terrain of political struggle, and to what ends? I attend to these questions through activist scholarship aimed at informing my broad theoretical question: How might social reproduction "as discourse and practice" be marshaled to generate more inclusive organizing strategies, forge more just conceptions of sustainability, and build worker power? Drawing on over two years of ethnographic research, content analysis, and interviews with 48 worker-organizers involved in four labor organizing campaigns, I examine their efforts to build worker power through mutual aid programs, political education, and coalition politics. My analysis reveals that these strategies embody an inclusionary intersectional politics that prioritizes the needs of women, parents, and people of color, but that worker-organizers also face significant challenges. I demonstrate that organizing against neoliberal policies and practices requires moving beyond consumption politics and single-issue campaigns and deploying what I term (re)production politics which are fundamentally about how work is organized and how we care for society and the planet. Politicizing the labor, locations, and practices of social reproduction as landscapes of struggle, I conclude, offers an opportunity to build a broad class consciousness across interconnected issues and envision more liberatory ways of organizing social reproduction based on solidarity, mutuality, and interdependence.


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