Food Movement, Meet Labor Movement

Rebecca Burns

On November 20, farmworkers and their supporters marched through Manhattan to demand that Wendy's join the Fair Food Program of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. (Photo courtesy of CIW)

Though the food movement has expanded rapidly during the past decade, there’s much to rue about the direction it’s taken. Spend some time browsing the cashew butter and overpriced handicrafts peddled at your local farmer’s market by urban homesteading types, and you may become convinced that the push for sustainable food has been evacuated of its political edge. But there are also signs that the food movement is on its way to adding a missing ingredient: food workers. And a string of recent victories utilizing the combined power of workers, consumers and communities suggests that this could provide a recipe for success.

Today, food advocates are marking the second-annual Food Day” celebration, a nationwide event designed to bring together Americans from all walks of life to push for healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way.” They will be joined at events in several cities by dining hall workers represented by Unite Here!, which last month launched a Real Food Real Jobs” pledge calling for leaders in the food movement to forge closer partnerships with workers.

The pledge is the latest step in Unite’s efforts to unionize food service workers and plug them into the fight for sustainable food. In May, Unite Here Local 1, which represents 3,200 cafeteria workers in Chicago Public Schools, won contract provisions halting the transition to warming kitchens” in schools, which would have meant both more pre-made food for students and less job security for food workers. At a Food Day event in Washington, DC food service workers at five universities about to enter contract negotiations will meet with students and community allies to bolster support for both good jobs and good food on campuses.

We need to stop seeing food and labor as two separate issues — the move towards highly-mechanized food production has been a way to cut labor costs,” says Kyle Schafer, coordinator of the Real Food Real Jobs campaign. We want to change the dynamic where food workers don’t have any voice in the food system they’re a part of.”

This dynamic frequently results when university dining halls are outsourced to to private companies that bring in fast food (just three companies — Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group—now operate a majority of such services), but has also occurred when changes made to incorporate healthier food in campus dining exclude the voice of workers. Yesterday, food service workers at the University of Laverne announced their intention to seek a union from their employer, Bon Appetit Management Company, which began operating on campus earlier this year. Bon Appetit bills itself as a socially responsible company committed to sustainable food, and Schafer says that on Food Day, its employees will begin reaching out to food movement allies in the Los Angeles area to support their right to organize.

Meanwhile, non-unionized food workers are also winning victories through innovative rank-and-file mobilization and solidarity across the supply chain. As Michelle Chen reported recently at Working In These Times, a federal judge last month awarded $950,000 in damages to a group of Latino processing workers, citing repeated and willful labor violations by the distribution company Beverage Plus. Chen notes that Focus on the Food Chain, a campaign run by one of the coalitions who aided the workers in court, represents an emergent radical strain in labor organizing that approaches the entire supply chain holistically.” 

Another prime example of the growing success of this approach is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the Florida-based group that earlier this month successfully pressured Chipotle to sign an agreement pledging that it will only purchase tomatoes from growers following fair food” rules. Though CIW doesn’t seek formal recognition or union contracts, eleven companies have now signed agreements with the farmworkers’ group, a feat accomplished in part through close collaboration with consumer groups such as the Student Farmworker Alliance. 

Though CIW’s experience shows that companies staking their reputation on sustainability may be especially vulnerable to labor organizing, a July 2012 study by the Applied Research Center notes that the movements for good food and good jobs are rarely integrated. Good Jobs and Good Food For All” finds that the disporportionate incidence of obesity and the high rate of food insecurity Black and Latino households experience (three times higher than that of white households) correlates directly to the frequent wage and hour violations that impede their ability to afford healthy food. Due to low wages and lack of benefits, food chain workers themselves rely on food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. workforce, according to the Food Chain Workers Alliance.

Why are such links made so infrequently? In a 2010 essay on the rise of the food movement for the New York Review of Books, Michael Pollan wrote:

[It] makes sense that food and farming should become a locus of attention for Americans disenchanted with consumer capitalism. Food is the place in daily life where corporatization can be most vividly felt: think about the homogenization of taste and experience represented by fast food. By the same token, food offers us one of the shortest, most appealing paths out of the corporate labyrinth, and into the sheer diversity of local flavors, varieties, and characters on offer at the farmers’ market.

But the shortness and ease of this path of opting out” of consumer capitalism has meant that the fight for sustainable food is more readily associated with individual consumer action than collective struggles for control of the commons and workers’ rights. The vision of justice espoused by much of the food movement is a nostalgia for the halcyon days of small, family-owned farms. Even among the most radical edge of the food movement, as Raj Patel has argued, food sovereignty groups like Via Campesina may be reluctant to talk about democratizing the means of food production in order to preserve an alliance between landed farmers and landless farmworkers. Food movements must contend with not only the recent history of corporate consolidation, but the history of land displacement and slave and under-waged labor that have also shaped today’s agricultural economy. An emerging focus on the most exploited workers in the industry could represent — forgive me — the pièce de résistance. 

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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