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The Moral Economy of Los Angeles Restaurant Workers


This study examines the everyday struggles of Los Angeles restaurant workers as they experience, perceive and contest exploitative work conditions. The restaurant industry employs an estimated eleven million workers in the United States, making it one of the largest private employers in the nation. The restaurant industry is thriving; yet, one has to ask, thriving for whom? In spite of their employment in the largest complex of restaurants in the nation, in a growing industry with soaring profits, Los Angeles workers have not reaped rewards commensurate with their labor. As a concentrated site of low-wage employment, restaurant workplace conditions serve as a generative site for researching the impact of neoliberal policies of flexible accumulation regimes in the production of a vulnerable racialized workforce. This project applies James C. Scott’s concept of the moral economy to understand the expectations and notions of justice that workers articulate in response to exploitative conditions. Scholarly research has generally defined exploitation of low-wage workers as the surplus taken from workers’ wages. Securing surplus value by exploiting labor power is indeed a central part of the process that enables exploitation to occur, yet it tells us little about the subjective feelings of the exploited. Through the use of interviews with nine restaurant workers of color, participant observation, and archival research, this study will explore how restaurant workers define exploitation, navigate tensions, and create solidarities in their everyday lives.

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