A lot of the heavy lifting in today’s labor movement is coming from an unexpected place: the warehouses and processing facilities that bridge the retail and wholesale markets. Alienated from traditional labor union structures, these more obscure links in the supply chain offer a new breeding ground for innovative rank-and-file mobilizing. The recent Wal-Mart warehouse strikes in California and Illinois showed how precarious low-wage workers organize on their own in defiance of temp bosses, the police, and the nation’s retail giant.
Meanwhile, in Queens, New York, a landmark legal victory for warehouse workers and truck drivers at a local food distributor reveals the value of a more nimble-footed approach to empowering non-unionized workers.
Late last month, a federal judge ruled that distribution company Beverage Plus must pay a group of Latino workers about $950,000 in damages. The decision cited repeated and willful labor violations by the company, including denying overtime to employees who worked up to 12-hour days.
The abuse escalated after workers dared to speak up. According to the lawsuit, after plaintiff Richard Merino was fired in retaliation for taking legal action, he “was unable to send his mother money in Mexico and became ‘constantly stressed and unable to sleep because he was worried about how he would support himself.”
The Beverage Plus suit was an unusual victory in part because the workers didn’t just seek a settlement to avoid burdensome litigation, but instead went through the full court process. It also stands out as part of an emergent radical strain in labor organizing that approaches the entire supply chain holistically. The coalition of workers and activist lawyers group aiding the litigation, Brandworkers International, together with New York City Industrial Workers of the World, jointly run Focus on the Food Chain, a campaign for sustainability in New York City’s food infrastructure through organizing the food processing and distribution sectors.
Brandworkers sees wage theft as an especially devastating issue for marginalized immigrant workers because they are often supporting families back home. Daniel Gross, an attorney with Brandworkers, tells Working In These Times, “Our members sent a huge portion of their earnings back home – to Mexico, to Ecuador, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Peru – and that money has extreme importance back home, whether it’s building a home, or accessing clean water, or education or medical care,” he says. “So [this is an] extremely egregious assault on a family’s financial future.”
One of the Focus on the Food Chain’s first victories was a showdown with gourmet seafood supplier Wild Edibles. Brandworkers exposed abuses of the mostly Latino processing workers that included “large-scale wage theft” and failure to provide adequate safety equipment. The workplace-justice campaign, braiding together litigation, boycotts and public protests, spurred dozens of image-conscious restaurants to drop the company. The ordeal eventually precipitated a bankruptcy, which in turn led to a legal settlement that provided workers with back pay as well as a long-term commitment to comply with fair labor practices.
Brandworkers is now targeting Queens-based industrial bread producer Tom Cat Bakery, where truck drivers complain of abusive working conditions and “being threatened with severe healthcare cutbacks.” Backed by community-based organizations, including the labor advocacy group Domestic Workers United, the drivers have demanded that the private-equity firm behind the management protect their health benefits and guarantee equitable treatment of drivers.
Brandworkers has also drawn the attention of authorities to food-industry abuses through public protests against Tortilleria Chinantla, a notoriously abusive tortilla factory where Juan Baten, a young Guatemalan worker, was crushed to death in a dough machine accident in 2011. Federal safety investigators found that the machine lacked the required safety guard, and the owner is now facing a state attorney general investigation.
In a way, Brandworkers and the IWW-inspired Focus on the Food Chain are rebranding old syndicalist organizing traditions, which center on workplace-based direct action and rank-and-file mobilizing. The genealogy is fitting, since today’s warehouses and food businesses often resemble modern-day sweatshops, in which people of color and immigrants remain marginalized from government protections and from mainstream labor unions. Gross says that organizing these laborers who feed the city can make the food system more sustainable and “transform this sector to provide the good manufacturing jobs that we want to see.”
The idea is to elucidate the interconnectedness of food chain labor struggles: It starts with farms, like the tomato fields where the Coalition of Immokalee Workers holds both growers and grocers accountable for labor exploitation, and it moves through warehouse and processor activism all the way up to high-end city restaurants, where the Restaurant Opportunities Center mobilizes both workers and consumers to fight racial discrimination and unhealthy working conditions lurking beneath the white tablecloths.
Given the current climate for organized labor – with unions savaged by politicians and ensnared by the labyrinthine National Labor Relations Board bureaucracy–these nascent movements need to organize creatively to stay ahead of the corporate food chain. “I don’t think we’ll ever arrive at place where workers who are pushed up against the wall will not stick up and fight collectively for a better future,” Gross says. “So I think we’re going to see a lot of different innovations and experimentation.”
There’s no set recipe for protest; the secret is just to keep your boss guessing about what’s coming next.
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.