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An interview with a storefront clerk at Eat Local Sudbury

by Workers Struggle - Sudbury


Sue Vival has been a storefront clerk at Eat Local Sudbury (ELS) for over a year. Her hourly wage is $13 per hour. She has also struggled to find work in her field as a farm worker which is forcing her to consider owning a farm.

The main struggles in Sue’s workplace/field are: 
     • Precarious, low and unpaid work 
     • Risk of injury

Rachael: How many hours do you work a week [at ELS]?

Sue: It's usually between, 20 to 30, and most of the time, it would be 25 to 27.

Rachael: And recently, your hours have been cut?

Sue: Yes. This week's kind of a weird week because of the holidays, but next week, for instance, I'm working about fourteen hours. And it looks like it'll be around that or less in the coming weeks.

Rachael: And what was the reason given to you for this cutback in hours?

Sue: It was just because of the financial situation of Eat Local. We've had to cut back on all HR hours, and so all positions have been cut in terms of hours. There's two funded positions [government grants] right now at Eat Local and their hours have not been cut, and the one funded position, his hours have been increased-

Rachael: To compensate for the hours that were cut for the [clerks]?

Sue: Yeah. And then, the other funded position, that person's taking on more responsibilities than she had before, to make up for, again, cuts to hourly workers. And then two salary workers [management] that I know of [whose] hours have been cut, one more significantly than the other.

Rachael: So, will all the storefront hours be covered by the [funded] positions, or will management also be working storefront hours?

Sue: It's both. So the funded positions are in the store more often now, and management is also taking a shift here or there. And then the rest of the balance is just sticking the hourly workers in when no one else can do it, essentially, when no one else can work.

Rachael: And you don't have any protection set up in your job to counter management being able to do the clerks' work?

Sue: No.

Rachael: When did you first learn that ELS was having difficulty, or when did you first become aware?

Sue: It was probably in February, maybe early February, when we were no longer able to order from our regular distributor.

Rachael: When was staff officially notified that there [are] problems?

Sue: We did have a board meeting in March to talk about it.

Rachael: Were you surprised to learn of the difficulties?

Sue: Yeah, I was, I was definitely surprised. It's always a struggle at the co-op, to compete on the market, and that our sales are not booming, but I didn't know what stage we were at in terms of other financial difficulties.

Rachael: So, before the crisis, what were the main struggles in your workplace?

Sue: Consistent and regular hours, and consistent and regular scheduling. And because of the tightness with our budget, there was no overlap between shifts. One clerk would be leaving as soon as the other one came on [with] no overlap to discuss what’s taken place and we have a lot of tasks at the end of the day that would get done usually on free time, essentially. All of our end of shift tasks would take place after our shift had already ended, taking garbage out, or recycling, or doing some clean-up or something. It would happen after we'd cashed out. Anyway, so no overlap of shifts, which meant I did work a lot when I was technically off the clock.

Rachael: So, you did unpaid work?

Sue: Yeah, and that’s actually something that had never been addressed. I’d never addressed it with the employer, actually. Technically, I could have left, but I chose to stay in the spirit of the co-op. Last month they did start doing a half hour overlap between shift 1 and 2….Another struggle was being alone in the workplace for a few hours from time to time.

Rachael: And so, when that became an issue, how was that resolved?

Sue: It was decided that the store would close an hour earlier, and that we would try to always have someone on until 6 pm. But that's just during the week. On weekends, I'd still work a few hours alone. And it's still like that now.

Rachael: And, so, were those hours that were cut off the schedule for the store-

Sue: Operating hours.

Rachael: So those weren't reassigned, they were just deducted from the [workers’] schedule?

Sue: Yep.

Rachael: In your experience, has ELS, as a co-op, been exempt from [the growth] imperative [of capitalism]?

Sue: No. It's essentially been told to us by outside bodies, informed bodies, and bodies that have been respected by the co-op that in order to succeed, we have to grow. We have to move and grow.

Rachael: And when it is time to expand, such as the board is saying now, that the co-op has to expand or die- it's the workers that have to pay for that expansion with a reduction in their hours. Do you think it's fair for the workers to have to pay for this crisis? 

Sue: Well, I think, given the choices about, how are we gonna deal with this financial situation, and is it a question of raising prices in the store in order to increase margins, or doing whatever we can to increase margins, and it seemed like a lot of the dactual staff felt like that was not a good decision to increase prices. I knew that cuts to my hours were coming, and I mean, I guess we could have said, "Don't cut our hours. Raise the prices." So, is it fair? I mean, no, of course it's not fair, but I don't know any other way. I don't know what else we could have done.

Rachael: Do you think co-op workers should be entitled to regular and consistent hours that they can count on to conduct their lives, pay bills, be able to do all the necessities of life that they need to?

Sue: Yeah, for sure. But in the situation we're in it doesn't seem like that's an option, because there's not enough money to do that. It's such a catch-22 because we can't get paid our normal hours and the store operate as normal. If we were getting paid our hours and there would be nothing in the store and then people wouldn't come to the store and then the store would close, so we have to essentially accept fewer hours in order for our place of employment to continue operating.

Rachael: Can you afford to buy the food at ELS as an employee?

Sue: Technically, no, I can't afford it.

Rachael: Do you think that's fair?

Sue: No? [raising tone to a question]

Rachael: If we're trying to recreate a more just food system, but the workers working in the store that sell that food can't afford that food for themselves?

Sue: No, it's not fair, and that's the thing. People earning below the poverty line – and I think I definitely am operating below the poverty line – the amount of people coming into Eat Local who are working or living within the poverty line, that's a very small number of people so no, it's not fair.

Rachael: What is your sense of the classes that shop at ELS?

Sue: It's definitely middle to upper class, lots of retired people. We do offer a student discount, but even then, we don't get a whole lot of students in, but we do get some. But it's definitely middle to upper class, for sure.

Rachael: How do you feel about the store's accessibility?

Sue: I would love for it to be more accessible. It's really hard, because in order to make our food accessible, we couldn't be paying the farmers what they want to be paid. We're more expensive than the grocery store so we're not accessible in that sense.

Rachael: Do you have any disillusionment around localism, or if disillusionment's too strong of a word, do you have any areas that you think are really prime for improvement?

Sue: You want everyone to be able to access safe, healthy food that's sourced locally, if that's what we want to talk about, then, I want everyone to be able to do that, but it doesn't seem possible if you wanna be able to pay your farmers, cover their costs and then pay the cost of operating a store that's trying to bridge that gap. It obviously is not super viable.

Rachael: You're actually really answering something which is important from my perspective, which is that we're structurally prevented from meeting our needs collectively [under capitalism]. [Do] you see that structural limitation?

Sue: M-hm. So that's where a farmer's market comes in to play, where there is no- there's a little bit of overhead if the farmer's paying a wage to someone to run the booth, but it's not a store being staffed and [run].

Rachael: So you feel like the farmer’s markets have a better opportunity to be more accessible than the storefront?

Sue:  Yes.

Rachael: Proponents of localism like to believe that capitalism has sacrificed local agriculture, but in reality, local agriculture was a precondition for capitalism, this embryonic form of capital was actually formed on farms. So if you're trying to reverse engineer capitalism, it's a good idea to know how it worked in the first place because actually, this is how capitalism started, was in the switch from feudalism, when people were working land.

Sue: M-hm.

Rachael: Do we wanna talk about that at all?

Sue: Yeah. I think that would be informative for other people to know the roots of agriculture.

John: Basically, this small imbalance came into being, where certain peasants were doing better than others, and that imbalance was exploited, and a lot of the peasants were disenfranchised, and had to go to work for the more successful ones.

Rachael: They became exploited workers instead of peasants. And that form right there, when they absorbed them, made them hugely more productive, and that little bit that they exploited them for was the beginning of capitalism. 

John: Enclosure had a big part to do with that.

Rachael: Bringing small scale farming to Northern Ontario is very possibly opening Northern Ontario up to very large scale farming, factory farming, because that is what started the consolidation a long time ago. Now it's not to say there's never been farming here before. There has been, but everything's always a moment in history, right? One moment in history might not get capitalized, another one might. So, really, for farming, for food production to be anti-capital in any way we'd actually have to be focussing our work on helping farm workers organize themselves….So, do you think most locavores or farmers that you've met would be interested in doing this, helping farm workers organize themselves?

Sue: I think that a lot of the small scale ecological farmers that I have worked for would love it if there was even a workforce possible to organize. And that's the whole issue, is that there is no local workforce essentially, for their farms. There's not. If they could find workers who wanted to come and work hard for the amount of money the migrant workers are working for, but there's no one willing.

Rachael: I think we have to clarify [the word] “farmers” because I think you're almost exclusively referring to small scale farmers and I'm almost always referring to large scale farmers, because really, you could almost use the term capitalist and farmer as synonyms.

Sue: Right.

Rachael: How far north have you interacted with migrant farm workers, and how were they treated when you did encounter them?

Sue: From the knowledge I have of the two large organic farms operating in Southern Ontario that do use mostly migrant labour I'd say one would absolutely not allow organization and would just send everybody home and say, "I want new workers." And the other one, they seem committed to their workers, they have the same ones return, they seem to have good relationships with them. So, I don't know if they would be as quick to send them away, or as quick to denounce organization.

Rachael: Would you say these farms are comparably sized?

Sue: Yes.

Rachael: But still small scale?

Sue: No, I would call [these] industrial farm[s] – highly, highly mechanized, hundreds of acres of production. And then, I have worked on a farm with a migrant worker before as well, a small scale farm where we had one migrant worker working beside us.

Rachael: And what was that experience like? 

Sue: That farmer was very oppressive and awful. I don't know the treatment of the migrant worker. [The farmer] seemed to oppress us, the interns, more than the migrant worker. The migrant worker would be sent in at a normal hour, I guess, and because we were free, essentially free labour, we were made to work way longer than the migrant worker. And the migrant worker wasn't happy about that, 'cause he wants to work, he wants to make as much money as he can, but then there's also all the rules about the amount of hours he can work, and all that.

Rachael: So the interns are much less regulated than the-

Sue: There's no regulation. There's none.

Rachael: How do you feel about that?

Sue: I think that's a huge problem, and that's something that needs to happen is interns have to be organized because what I experienced was extreme exploitation. [And] that migrant worker, he said, "I need to work really, really fast, because if I don't, he could send me home, or I won't get rehired next year." So, he felt the pressure to work extremely, extremely hard.

Rachael: So, what are your struggles to become a farm worker then?

Sue: So I guess just in terms of getting a living wage, that's a struggle, because farmers can't afford to pay a living wage, especially not a small scale farmer. To hire a full-time employee would be a big stretch. [And] even if I did start my own farm, I wouldn't be paying myself technically a living wage, so it's really hard, but- 

John: If anyone's struggling to get something that would pay them a living wage, and a possible alternative to [employment] is to lease some land and become your own farmer, but you said that's also very precarious. I'm just trying to figure out how would your conditions change? If you were working on a farm, and not making enough to live, you would have to continue living at home, or whatever the situation was. So if you were leasing land, and working that plot of land, all of your other conditions would kind of remain the same. So, you'd go from someone who's being paid a small amount of money to someone who's selling a small amount of food.

Sue: I also feel like as a farm worker, like if you were guaranteed an hourly wage, even if it was, like, seven dollars an hour you'd still be making more than if you went off and started your own farm, because nothing is guaranteed in that way, and you end up working way more hours than you could ever possibly pay yourself for.

Rachael: The lower levels of petit bourgeoisie [small scale farmer] can be quite brutal [and can be] lower paid than working class jobs, but that, because of individualism, a lot of petit bourgeoisie prefer the [culture of] self-reliance over joining the working class. In indigenous societies, they would have regarded the individualism of self-reliance a death sentence, this idea of going it alone on a piece of land would have been considered banishment, the idea that you have to work collectively to survive. It is a wonder how they're attracting as many [interns] as they are [given] the extreme hard nature of it – it’s quite physically demanding. Do you wanna talk at all about that?

Sue: Yeah, well, it is. Almost all the farmers I know now have injured themselves in some way. Me too. I have a pinched nerve now. So, injury is expected, and there's no insurance.

John: So, interning, you work, and in exchange you get some place to live, and do you get paid anything at all?

Sue: Yeah, normally you would, but there's no regulatory body saying how much, or if you do. But most internships will pay like a monthly stipend. So you live for free, eat for free.

John: So, basically, room and board. 

Sue: Room and board, and then, depending on the farmer, you'll get a monthly stipend.

John: What's in it for the intern?

Sue: Most of the time, it's skill building and some people go there because they know that maybe they're not making a whole bunch of money, but they're also not spending any money to live for a summer. So, if you have absolutely no other option, and you can go live and eat for free, and work, and get paid a little bit, so you know that you don't have to pay rent for six months or eight months, and don't have to worry about feeding yourself for eight months. And I mean when you think of all things in, room and board, that's a lot of money, to feed yourself with pretty good food and to live in a space that's adequate, that is value. It does have monetary value. It's just not being handed over to you.

Rachael: I wanted to talk about some of the challenges with small scale agriculture that, because of the economy of scale, because they can't really compete once it goes to market, that this tends to relegate small scale producers to filling niche markets, as opposed to replacing large scale agriculture. How you feel about the usefulness or viability of those resources being directed into niche markets like rainbow coloured carrots and expensive greens?

Sue: Yeah, for sure, that's what everyone talks about at school, in sustainable agriculture, "Find your niche market, find your niche market, find your niche market." So in terms of competing or replacing large scale agriculture, it's not. I mean, some farmers do a really good job at mixed food production, but the niche market [might be making local] food even less accessible.

Rachael: Another phenomenon that I certainly noticed a lot in my own experience [of more than] ten years [as a] localist  – is tokenism, which is a huge trend, and actually why I thought it was a big mistake [for ELS} to try to become a grocery store. I remember my first experience understanding what tokenism was for localists when I placed my order for dozens of chickens [from Dalew]. Chantal was surprised by my order and told me most people just order two. And I [thought], what does two do? Do you have anything that you wanna say about that phenomenon? I also want to tie it into feelgoodism or lifestyle politics, this idea that, "Oh, did you get your two chickens from Dalew? Yeah. Yeah, me too."

Sue: Yeah, that's a reality. It exists. Just even at the food co-op, people came in just at Christmas time, for instance, and said, "I'm shopping local for the holidays." Someone on tv must have told them to, like Dr. Oz or something. Oprah, maybe. "Shop local this year." And then, so these people came in once and bought whatever, a stocking stuffer or something to think what they're doing is the best thing on Earth.

Rachael: In the board's recent statement to the membership, they [stated] that [most] of [the] membership [shops less] than once a month. So that would also be tokenism. This is one of the arguments that Sharzer makes in No Local, that these projects like Rethink Green and ELS, that they tend to become self-justifying, which I think is what we're seeing. With the crisis at ELS right now, I think we see the board just moving into that self-justification argument, and that this also actually has to do with class interests, and it's actually hiding a pretty deep pessimism that large scale transformation is possible. It's just sort of saying, "Look, let's just do this because we can't transform society, and we'll all feel better, okay?" And it's sort of a way for the petit bourgeoisie to wait the storm out and feel like they're contributing in some way, but really also not helping to- this sort of idea that, you build social movements over here, we'll build farmers' markets over here, and eventually, the two will add up, and that we don't really have to choose. Sharzer states the kind of energy that's being put into localism is crazy. And that energy, if it was being put into social transformation, would be huge.

Sue: Nothing changes for the capitalists, nothing changes at all. If a million dollars [ELS sales] stops going into the pockets of the owners of larger grocery stores in Sudbury, the implications of that are that it is somewhat going into the pockets of local farmers who are competing against the evils of industrial agriculture that is not ecological. So in terms of environmental devastation, it has merit there if money's going into something that's hurting the planet less, then-

Rachael: I think it's a drop in the bucket, though, compared to industrial pollution. I don't think it can compete with that kind of damage.

Sue: Yeah exactly, that's the thing. So, the shift to putting our food dollars towards something like Eat Local doesn't do much [in the fight against capitalism]. It helps some farmers.

Rachael: Who are a specific class, or at least trying to hang on to a certain class, I would add.

Sue: Yeah. So it helps specific farmers, and if those farmers had employees, it would help those specific employees. So it would mean that for instance, if we could give more money to a farm that's gonna treat their [workers] more equitably, or that doesn't expose them to really toxic pesticides then I feel like that's good. So, in terms of affecting the workers, Eat Local would help that, in a sense, I guess.

Rachael: What about all the factory farm workers who are working and producing most of our food still, and we're not mobilizing ourselves in their support so that they can actually organize against capital. Is worrying about international farm workers much of a concern in your experiences working with the different classes who access local food?

Sue: I don't think it's on people's radars. Maybe a little bit because of fair trade. That's as much thought as people give it is, oh this banana says fair trade on it, or this chocolate says fair trade on it.

Rachael: I think that idea that consumer choices can thwart capital is a really big problem we have to overcome. There are a lot of organizations and interests still arguing that consumer choices are an important and determinant variable in capital production, when we know that in the most ideal circumstances, consumerism impacts about 25% of [production]. So, consumer choices don't play a very big role in capital production, so to put all our eggs in the consumer basket is just hugely problematic. It would be against the co-op's interests to tell people that consumer choices aren't very determinant, and that we're gonna have to start thinking of different ways to organize against a system that is making our food supply toxic. 

Sue: Also, just issues with bees, like if it's killing bees, and all of our food is dependent on bees-

Rachael: Ecocide is huge. So, that's a problem right there, that ELS can't act even as an education point to help people understand that because people would have no reason to shop there if consumer choices aren't important.

I wanted to ask about your hours being cut at ELS, how this affects your ability to plan for your immediate future?

Sue: Yeah, it definitely has. Like, right now 'cause I am planning to farm this summer, it's preventing me from being able to cover my upfront costs for wanting to produce food. So, that's an interesting outcome. And it's precarious right now. I don't know if I'll continue getting hours as a clerk at the co-op. I don't know. My job's up in the air right now, as far as I'm concerned.

Rachael: Is there anything else you wanna talk about?

Sue: The variation in types of treatment as an intern on different farms. I think something that is important would be trying to organize interns.

Rachael: I feel like that's kind of an interesting idea, the idea of interns organizing. Would you be interested in creating an intern-led organization?

Sue: Yeah, and now that I think about it, there's a new- Ecological Farmers [Association] of Ontario (EFAO), we have a new young farmer committee that's forming. We're having one of our first meetings next week, and that's something that potentially that body could spearhead.

Rachael: Generally, it's a good idea [for your organization] to have autonomy, but I don't know anything about that organization.

Rachael: How many programs are graduating farming students right now?

Sue: Most farm interns are are not going to school for farming.

Rachael: So, if the interns are organized and fighting against their own exploitation and demanding living wages, you're gonna see a big drop in the desire for interns.

Sue: Right. And that's the thing. Interns don't require a wage, an hourly wage. You don't get paid an hourly wage as an intern. And technically, the internships are illegal.

Rachael: So why were you willing to undertake this very difficult work for a stipend?

Sue: For one, to learn how to farm. The best way to do that is to go live and work for a farmer. And then it was a requirement of my school program. So I was required to work 800 hours on farms for me to get my graduate certificate.

Rachael: What do you think of this- because it's not just farming that has this trend of internships after school. What do you think of [this] erosion of what students can expect after graduation?

Sue: It's conditioning to get us used to the precarious nature of the workforce, and it's testing people to see how much people will do for nothing in this type of system. Like, how much will people put up with? And it seems like a lot. It’s about slavery, I guess, in a sense.

Rachael: What do you think about that desperation? What do you think is inspiring people to persevere with such little opportunity, no guarantees, no anything, really?

Sue: I think it's just like, desperation, like, if I don't do this, what am I gonna do? At least if I go to school, I intern and I get these skills, and there's a chance that I'll be able to have an income someday, and be able to have some financial autonomy. That's the question right now, and a lot of people are questioning that, right, and kind of waking up. A lot of people my age, for sure, are thinking about it, like, this sucks.

Rachael: What do you think about, so this is downward mobility, right? There's a lot of downward mobility, and people are trying to avoid these downward pressures.

Sue: Right. Like, so I don't have to work at Tim Hortons. That's what it is.

Rachael: Right. So, do you think culturally, for students with your class position, that the idea of working at Tim Hortons is just so horrible that they would endure other things? You've worked at Tim Hortons, so which was worse?

Sue: Working for free, or working for Tim Hortons?

Rachael: And hard, really hard, long hours for free, right?

Sue: But that's the thing, I would take farming but that's because I am in a privileged position where I don't have to worry about- while I'm on that farm, I don't have to worry about rent or food, and right now, because of my class position, when I left the farm, I didn't really have to worry about what I was doing, because I'm still dependent on my parents. So it's like a very unusual thing, but I despised working at Tim Hortons. I couldn’t' stand it. It made me ill. And you don't work very hard, in terms of labour, but you're certainly berated by lots of very rude people and rude co-workers. And so that for me is harder, it's mentally harder than doing lots of hard work on the farm. But it's all about respect, right, so I will work for free, and I will work hard for free, without a wage, and I will work hard if I'm getting treated right, and if I believe in the cause. But if I'm not getting treated well, from customers or from co-workers, but I'm getting paid a wage and I don't believe in the cause, I'm not going to choose that. But it's because I don't have to right now. But a lot of people have to.

Commentary

In No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World, Greg Sharzer describes localism as “the belief that small ethical alternatives can build quality communities, outcompete big corporations and maybe even transform capitalism.” I believed it once too, but it turned out not to be true. And with ELS in crisis, it’s time to try to convince the class who most likes to believe localism can transform society: the petit bourgeoisie. 

The petit bourgeoisie are relegated to the circulation of capital by having to sell either their services or goods. Generally, the petit bourgeoisie aspire to belong to the ruling class, with whom they are allied on many issues – especially capitalism itself – and for whom they serve as a buffer against working class militancy. Due to their indirect and non-autonomous relationship to capital production, the petit bourgeoisie tend to strive for personal advancement, comforts, market power and security and stability within capitalism’s framework. We can see their desire for comforts in the ideology of localism: personal relationships with their farmers, trendy vegetables, grass fed animals, handmade arts and crafts, etc.

Alternatively, the working class produces capital by transforming raw materials into commodities. Not token commodities, but the vast majority of commodities we use every single minute of every day. Due to its direct antagonism in relation to capital, the working class strives to overthrow capital so we can be free to meet our needs collectively as a society. However, the amount of time that the working class can devote to overthrowing capital is quite limited due to the amount of time they must spend producing the surplus value that’s reinvested as new capital.

This contradiction at the point of production is the fundamental contradiction of society: capital vs. labour. Sharzer argues that if most localists understood capitalism, they wouldn’t be localists. However, I disagree with him on that point. Localists are not so by accident. Their political line corresponds to their class position.

Lifestyle politics such as localism, having emerged from the classes who do not have an autonomous or antagonistic relationship with capital, are a way to feel better about having to ally with capitalist exploiters. But the petit bourgeoisie also have a tendency to think they can outsmart capitalists, but it’s not only a matter of intellect or creativity, it’s a matter of power, of relation to capital. When militants say the working class has to lead the struggle against capitalism, this is what we mean: the petit bourgeoisie will always bring us back to capitalism. It’s not a moral failing, it’s due their relationship to capital.

As capitalism’s crises deepen, competition increases between individual capitalists and blocs, which includes local competition. Local competition doesn’t hurt the capitalist class overall, it just redistributes wealth within the capitalist class. This increased competition puts pressure on the rate of profit to fall. Wages are the largest variable cost for most capitalists, as most other costs are fixed. With decreasing profit margins, capitalists are innovating ways to get very low cost or free labour. Prison labour in the US is one example of this trend, as are internships in Ontario. By lowering or eliminating wages, capitalists can increase their competitiveness and stay in the game for another round.

This is how global capitalists achieve the profits they do, by the extraordinarily low wages imperialism imposes on international farm workers (a factor small scale domestic farmers have underestimated). If a carrot is grown for free in Ontario, the profit margin will be higher, but the price of commodities in general is always subject to the price the most mechanized farm can offer.

A carrot is being dangled in front of farm interns: maybe a few of them could become farmers if they work really hard, but all the while they are being compelled to accept unpaid work. They are being deceived into thinking they’re learning something when, in reality, they’re just being trained how to do lots of work for free. Sue alluded to this when she described feeling conditioned to put up with a lot. We should consider whether this trend is a new form of slavery: a kind of slavery-meets-temp agency thing. And it could even be argued that young people are, in a way, scabbing against migrant labour for free. 

Why is the state, via grants, so interested in advancing farming in Northern Ontario now? If we understand that small farms are a precondition for capitalist expansion, this is an important question to ask. Northern Ontario is expected to be a temporary beneficiary of climate change and it’s the state’s responsibility to optimize business opportunities to keep capital flowing. Is the ground work being done to set up factory farming here? Does this have anything to do with the pressure on ELS to expand?

Working at ELS is precarious. I stopped counting how many clerks we had to say goodbye to because their funding ran out. Due to variability in funding schemes, Sue’s hours were never guaranteed. Now there’s a financial crisis and she has no seniority protection and no protection against management doing her work. Is this really the embryo of a new society we can feel good about?

Sue is engaged in class struggle, the struggle for existence. Because she may have to become a farmer, she is sympathetic to their side, but she also sees the struggle as a worker. There are several examples of this conflict: during the interview, she struggled to make class distinctions between management and workers, although she often corrected herself when she did. She expressed a psychological preference for alliances with the petit bourgeoisie vs. capitalists (small scale farmers vs. Tim Hortons). She prefers to work harder for free in a respectful environment rather than not as hard in an indifferent but paid environment. A loss of ideological ground, of principles, is indicated when we prefer to be appreciated over getting paid. The middle classes tend to avoid struggle, but respect and dignity can be struggled for, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that.

It’s possible Sue will not be able to make a living with any of the options currently in front of her. For young people like Sue, once the accumulated wealth of their parents runs out, they will have nowhere to go economically. These conditions are not sustainable and educated-yet-unemployable young people are becoming an important rebellious force (both on the Left and the Right) in many social formations (Arab Spring, Occupy, Euromaidan, Indignados, Movement of the Squares, Maple Spring). 

For anyone concerned about the fate of our food supply and ecocide more generally, or what young people will do to survive, we should be able to agree that capitalism is destroying all of these things. That should be the level of unity at which we work together. Attempts to solve any of these crises without first overcoming the structural aspects are bound to fail, and we can see that a little more clearly with the crisis at ELS. When we’re trying to create the embryo of a new society, we have to be inclusive from the beginning. We need to overcome our problems for the benefit everyone, not just the middle and upper classes. We can’t add on classes later. If we don’t include everyone from the beginning, we will remain a class-divided society.

In the meantime, we all have to compete to survive under capitalism and so, in that sense, we’re all dominated by it. It doesn’t matter what work we do to survive, nor does it matter where we shop. We can still shop at ELS if we want to, if it remains open, but we shouldn’t pretend it’s an alternative to capitalism. It’s important not to draw precious time and energy from the struggle by pretending that shopping can change the world. Ethical consumption is a tactic devised by advertisers. It’s impossible to be ethical in a system dependent on so much misery. All the dominated classes should be working together to put pressure on capitalism at the point of production. We’ll have to organize in our spare time, which is much less convenient, but at least it has the potential to be effective.

The great news is that every group organizing and/or every individual shopping today can re-orient their practice to become anti-capital. The best way to do this is to take up autonomous working class struggles, specifically industrial working class struggles, but also generally, other autonomous workers’ struggles are very important too. For example, if you’re in the GTA, try to meet migrant farm workers and help them to figure out how to lead their own struggles. Or you could familiarize yourself with Haitian textile workers who are organizing autonomously with Batay Ouvriye, and support their struggle. Or every time you hear a worker complain about their working conditions, encourage them to talk to their co-workers and organize autonomously. Find or create autonomous working class led struggles near and far, and join us in building a working class led mass movement. 
  

Originally posted on Workers Struggle Sudbury.


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