This article is part of The Wisconsin Idea, an investigative reporting initiative focused on rural Wisconsin.
When Covid-19 forced Wisconsin to shut down in late March last year, supply shocks to the agricultural industry delivered a staggering blow to family farmers, many of whom have long teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Decades of consolidation and monopolization have made the industry inflexible to changes in demand brought about by school, restaurant and commercial closures. Processing plants soon bottlenecked with sudden oversupply, forcing farmers around the state to dump millions of gallons of raw milk, destroy crops and euthanize livestock en masse. All the while, over 500,000 Wisconsinites faced record-level food insecurity.
At the same time, on the factory floor waning OSHA regulations and delayed responses by meatpacking companies to adopt Covid-19 guidance (if done at all) left thousands of workers completely unprotected, allowing outbreaks of the virus to tear through processing plants and surrounding rural communities.
For decades, Big Ag has starved out small farms, hastening the decline of rural communities, and worsened working conditions for its labor. This fraught food system, exacerbated by the pandemic, has ignited a new statewide movement of solidarity from farm to factory. Led by family farm unions operating in small towns like Chippewa Falls, labor unions and immigrant rights groups organizing in population centers like Milwaukee, their work builds upon a history of progressive populist organizing in Wisconsin.
At its most basic level, “farm-labor solidarity is recognition that workers at all stages of the food chain should be compensated fairly for the work that they’re doing,” says Melanie Bartholf, Political Director for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 1473, “and that the economy does better when farmers and workers are compensated fairly.”
For groups like the Wisconsin Farmers Union, a small and mid-sized farm collective with over 2,000 members in rural communities around the state, this unity is essential to goals of carving out an alternative, sustainable model for a cooperative food system. “We’re based on the idea that it’s better for 10 families to be milking 100 cows than 1 farm milking 1,000 cows. Having small scale agriculture and a healthy agricultural economy that’s built on cooperatives and is democratic, that’s the food system that we’re fighting for out here” says Charlie Mitchell, a journalist and WFU farm-labor solidarity organizer.
“You see farmer power when billions [in federal farm relief] get activated without thinking of farm support,” Mitchell adds. “ But then our brothers and sisters in the slaughterhouse and grocery don’t get a penny of hazard pay to account for the fact that they’re risking their lives to bring us food.”
In October, condemning the loss of Hero Pay for essential food workers as Covid-19 cases surged across the state, WFU and UFCW joined forces to form a farmer-labor alliance. This alliance, the first and largest of its kind in years, is working to pressure county officials to intervene at meatpacking plants to increase worker testing and PPE access, as well as strengthen workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
The alliance also marks the first time in its history that UFCW, the largest labor union in the state with over 12,000 members, has come out in full support of farmers’ demands for parity, stronger antitrust enforcement and dairy supply management.
In Wisconsin, the spirit of this agrarian organizing can be traced back nearly a century. At the height of the Great Depression, when milk prices plummeted to unsustainable lows, thousands of farmers and laid off factory workers enacted a series of milk strikes in pursuit of parity. Led by the Farmers’ Holiday Association and the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool, farmers and their urban allies staged hundreds of pickets along major highways and railroads, assembling crude blockades to intercept milk shipments bound for factories. Months of violent protest, milk-dumping and the bombing of a cheese factory in 1933 succeeded in drawing federal attention to the plight of dairy farmers. Raised prices and a short-lived period of parity followed.
“Organized farmers and organized workers have the same general aim,” reads a 1939 pledge of solidarity penned by the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Wisconsin State Federation of Labor. “They both desire to maintain and raise the American Standard of Living. Cooperation between these two most vital forces in American society is essential if we are to realize that goal.”
Mexican-American and Mexican migrant farmworkers, without whom there would be no agricultural industry, have also played a crucial role in the advancement of labor. Organizing against hostile working conditions, housing “unfit for human occupancy,” unlivable wages and lack of access to education or medical care, thousands of farmworkers joined together to form Obreros Unidos in 1967, the first sustained attempt at a farmworkers union in the Midwest, and one of the few outside of United Farmworkers in California. With considerable support from local labor groups, churches and community members, as well as the backing of the AFL-CIO, Obreros Unidos succeeded in raising the minimum wage for farmworkers, improved housing conditions and established the Governor’s Council on Migrant Labor. Jesus Salas, the union’s co-founder, would also go on to lead United Migrant Opportunity Services, an organization serving nearly 300,000 migrants in the state.
The 1980’s farm crisis, followed by decades of disastrous trade deals and agricultural policies laid the groundwork for the industrial agricultural takeover that continues to this day. While most dairy farms in the state are still small, family operations, they’re shuttering at rapid rates. Since 2015, over 2,500 have gone out of business, nearly a quarter of the state’s total swallowed by CAFOs. Yet, in the midst of this crisis, when public sector unions infamously came under attack in 2011, farmers once again rallied in support. In a massive display of opposition against Act 10, hundreds of farmers from around the state drove their tractors and combines to Madison for a solidarity tractorcade around Capitol Square, garnering crowds of nearly 85,000, the state’s largest protest to date.
“We pulled together that tractorcade because we were trying to show that the Scott Walker austerity program wasn’t just attacking labor unions, it was attacking all sorts of things in our society, including collective bargaining rights by co-ops,” says John Peck, Executive Director of Family Farm Defenders and an organizer of the tractorcade along with WFU. “We were trying to show that farmers and workers actually have this common heritage, organizing together to create unions and co-ops comes out of the same populist tradition.”
Despite the eventual passage of Act 10, and subsequent right-to-work legislation, the fight for labor continues. In February 2016, when an anti-sanctuary city bill in the state legislature posed an attack on immigrant labor, the statewide strike “A Day Without Latinx and Immigrants” once again rallied tens of thousands to the Capitol. Organized by Voces de la Frontera, the state’s leading immigrant and migrant workers’ rights group, the strike successfully defeated the bill, in large part due to inroads made with rural communities, and went on to inspire strikes nationwide.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, founder of Voces, writes of this watershed moment, “Two days before the strike, Voces de la Frontera held an emergency meeting with farmers to draft an open letter calling on farmworkers and farmers to support each other by forming skeleton crews to care for the cows while the rest of the workers struck.” In turn, Neumann-Ortiz writes, “farmers used their voices to lobby Republican state leaders to defeat the bill.” For Voces, building relationships with groups like the Farmers Union has been essential for expanding their reach into rural districts, tapping into an important constituency capable of influencing their Republican representatives. “Farmers understand that immigration is critical to the survival of rural communities and are becoming a key partner in our efforts to advance policies that make our communities more welcoming to immigrants,” writes Neumann-Ortiz.
Through nonpartisan rhetoric appealing instead to shared values, Voces and the Wisconsin Farmers Union are working to draw solidarity between small farm owners and immigrant farmworkers, who make up over half of the dairy industry’s workforce and account for 79 percent of the nation’s milk supply. According to Jacquelyn Kovarik, Voces Communications Director, this approach has seen considerable success. “Small farm owners and undocumented laborers have a lot of shared values because both are being taken advantage of by big dairy.”
“Corporate agriculture is in the business of extraction… The things that farmers and laborers do, that’s where the wealth comes from, and that’s forgotten,” echoes Hans Breitenmoser, a second generation dairy farmer from Merrill, Wisconsin. “Financially, we as farmers just have a hell of a lot more in common with laborers than we do with the CEO of a multinational conglomerate.”
Last year alone, over $46 billion in federal aid was paid out to farmers (including the annual $10 billion federal farm subsidy), accounting for nearly 40% of their income. Food workers, who account for some of the lowest wages across industries, continue to be among the hardest hit by Covid-19, with over 81,000 positive cases as of January. Routinely failed by the government and exploited by employers, many farmers and food service workers believe farmer-labor solidarity is key to achieving a safer, sustainable and cooperative food system; a system built on fair wages for farmers and workers, and one which supports workers’ rights to organize.
“This has been a really hard time for progressive politics in Wisconsin. … and a fair amount of divisiveness had been developing in farmers for sure,” says Thomas Quinn, retired director of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. “When I first started organizing and farming in the 1980’s, there was a lot more openness to the idea that farmers needed to build solidarity with labor and that the unions were on our side, rather than our opponents.” For Quinn, despite the increasing political division he sees in rural communities, remembering the achievements of solidarity-movements past gives reason to be hopeful. “It’s so important to hang onto that history and carry it forward, otherwise it gets lost, and people think it can never happen. But it can, and it has.”
Hannah Faris is associate editor at The Wisconsin Idea, an independent reporting project of People’s Action Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund and In These Times.