Once upon a time in the labor movement, a rebellious vanguard emerged at the margins of American industry, braiding together workers on society’s fringes — immigrants, African Americans, women, unskilled laborers — under a broad banner of class struggle.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, raised hell in the early 20th century with unapologetically militant protests and strikes.
Their vision of a locally rooted, globally oriented anti-capitalist movement was eclipsed by mainstream unions, which had more political muscle. But grassroots direct action is today undergoing a resurgence in the corners of the workforce that have remained isolated from union structures.
Such alternative campaigns have a special resonance in today’s food industries, which employ the roughly 20 million people (one-sixth of the total workforce) who harvest, process, distribute and sell the food we eat. This marginalized, low-wage group is hungry for organizing models that move as nimbly as the corporations that run the production chains. The IWW’s signature organizing model, syndicalism (which prioritizes direct action in the workplace), meshes with the growing trend in the labor movement toward less bureaucratic labor groups, such as worker centers and immigrant advocacy campaigns. Flexible mobilization that doesn’t require formal votes or union certification is well-suited to precarious laborers seeking to outmaneuver the multinationals.
Since 2007, the Wobbly-affiliated coalition Focus on the Food Chain (FOFC) has empowered workers in New York City’s food sectors to challenge abusive employers on the streets and in the courts. The group — an alliance between the local IWW and the advocacy group Brandworkers International—aims to “carry out member-led workplace justice campaigns to transform the industry” and focuses on the oft-neglected links between farm and fridge. According to Brandworkers Executive Director Daniel Gross, these processing and distribution industries are a “sweatshop corridor.”
“The business model,” he says, “is exploitation of recent immigrants.”
But in New York, the workers at these companies — some of which cater to high-end natural gourmet markets — are tied into the local food system as consumers as well. So groups such as Brandworkers envision empowering working-class communities holistically, with well-paying jobs that ensure families’ access to the literal fruits of their labor. In the long term, Gross says, FOFC aims to “transform this sector to provide the good manufacturing jobs that we want to see and to create a sustainable food system that provides fresh local food.”
That vision is far from fulfilled, but workplace-based campaigns have yielded victories. In Brandworkers’ lawsuit against the Queens-based distributor Beverage Plus, a federal court awarded $950,000 in damages to Latino warehouse workers and drivers who complained of wage theft and harsh working conditions, including up-to-12-hour days. FOFC also challenged local kosher foods producer Flaum Appetizing, a company notorious for underpaying and abusing immigrant employees. In a two-pronged strategy, FOFC launched a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board for discriminatory retaliation against immigrant workers, and also worked with an Orthodox community activist group to pressure some 120 grocery stores to stop doing business with Flaum until it met workers’ demands. The disputes ended earlier this year, with workers winning a $577,000 settlement.
On a national scale, advocacy and community groups (including Brandworkers) have organized the Food Chain Workers Alliance, promoting economically and ecologically sustainable ways of eating. Member groups have campaigned for the rights of restaurant staff and of child farmworkers, and have established “fair food procurement” principles to pressure employers for solid wages, better working conditions and the use of local food.
Creative direct-action organizing has trickled into food service sectors as well. In September, after the management of a Hot and Crusty bakery in Manhattan attempted to lock out workers seeking to unionize, 23 employees didn’t just picket, but launched their own enterprise to reclaim a space in the city’s foodscape. With the backing of the local labor group Laundry Workers Center, the Worker Justice Café served coffee and bagels outdoors — à la Hooverville-meets-Occupy — until their union gained recognition.
The range of tactics employed by urban food workers reveals the great ecosystem that is labor. When farm wages are driven down by exploitation of migrant workers, that shapes labor struggles higher up the food chain in processing plants and restaurants. When cooks and servers organize, they gain leverage to demand that restaurants source from growers of ethically produced food. The monopolies of agribusiness and the service and retail industries embody how a corporatized supply chain systematically cheats workers and impoverishes communities.
And while the heyday of syndicalism has faded, the food economy’s sheer mass and dynamism may prove fertile ground for its resurgence. Just as our food is sourced on a local, regional and transnational scale, immigrant workers’ struggles are inherently local and global. As corporations tighten their grip on systems of production, workers can only respond through a combination of direct-action and cross-industry solidarity, spanning a long chain of linked injustices.
UPDATE: Reflecting the same uncompromising energy as the Hot and Crusty workers earlier this year, New York City has just seen a spectacular surge of strikes by non-union fast food workers demanding decent wages and working conditions. For more, see David Moberg and Josh Eidelson’s coverage of this potentially groundbreaking workers’ movement.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.