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PORTSIDE  December 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE December 2011, Week 1

Subject:

Workers Challenge Big Food

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Date:

Sat, 3 Dec 2011 12:42:51 -0500

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Workers Challenge Big Food

By Jenny Brown
Labor Notes
November 23, 2011

http://labornotes.org/2011/11/workers-challenge-big-food

"Farm to fork" may sound like a doctrine for foodies,
but for workers in food production struggling for
decent jobs, it's an organizing goal.

Workers along the food chain-on farms, in warehouses
and supermarkets, in restaurants and cafeterias-are
seeking to make common cause with each other and
against the corporations that run the food industry.

Big food purveyors like Walmart and Sodexo indirectly
set the pay of the farm workers who pick fresh
vegetables in the sun and the warehouse workers who
move the frozen variety in and out of windowless
buildings.

They do so by setting low prices and squeezing their
suppliers, pushing contractors to underpay workers all
along the chain. They goad farms and food processors to
cut corners in a production system that values quantity
over quality and appearance over nutritional content.

Corporate consolidation in the food system has become
so extreme that the Department of Justice held
investigative hearings last year. Firms seek to control
food "from gene to supermarket shelf," said a report
for the National Farmers Union, with five companies now
controlling 50 percent of the retail food market and
four firms controlling 85 percent of beef production.

Joann Lo of the Food Chain Workers Alliance says this
means "workers need to be united across the food supply
chain." Her organization brings together farmworker
groups, worker centers, and unions.

Supermarket workers in Food and Commercial Workers
(UFCW) locals in the New York and Los Angeles areas are
part of the alliance, as is the hotel and culinary
union UNITE HERE, Restaurant Opportunities Center,
Warehouse Workers for Justice, the Coalition of
Immokalee Workers in Florida, and the Farmworker
Support Committee (CATA) in New Jersey and
Pennsylvania.

FAIR FOOD

The alliance is connecting workers with
consumers-leveraging fresh interest in locally grown,
healthy, and sustainable food into backing for
sustainable jobs.

"You care about the food you're eating?" asks Diana
Robinson of UFCW Local 1500 in New York. "Well, let me
tell you about the person behind your food."

Campus food workers had a median wage of $17,176 in
2010, according to UNITE HERE, and 28 percent of cooks
live in "food-insecure" households, where nutritionally
adequate food is limited or uncertain. Many Florida
pickers still make 45 cents per 30-pound bucket of
tomatoes, the same rate they did decades ago.

Connections between food workers and consumers can make
managers nervous. At Pomona College in Claremont,
California, the administration has banned students from
talking to dining hall workers, even during their
breaks. The gag rule came down a week after workers
cooked and shared a meal with students as part of a
union-supported "Food Day" event in October.

But people who are concerned about getting healthy
local food to low-income communities often aren't
making the connection to the workers involved in food
production, Lo said.

That connection came into sharp focus in January when
Michelle Obama, whose signature issue is healthy food,
praised Walmart for its promise to reduce hydrogenated
fats and salt in its brands, and to locate stores in
underserved neighborhoods.

Unions shot back that Walmart is a prime cause of
poverty, as it drives out unionized stores that pay
better, squeezes its food suppliers, and pays its own
workers so little they need food stamps to survive.

FOOD WORKERS ON BOTTOM

Low pay and harsh working conditions face nearly every
worker in the long food production chain, from
farmworkers, meatpackers, and warehouse workers to
grocery clerks, cooks, and servers.

"They're stealing our wages, they're treating us
poorly, and they're stealing our dignity, like it's
nothing," said Deathrice Jimerson, a former warehouse
worker who's now a volunteer organizer with Warehouse
Workers for Justice south of Chicago.

Farmworkers are still organizing for basic labor
protections, while at the other end of the chain,
kitchen staff working for food service companies like
Sodexo and Aramark have been struggling over a decade
to win union recognition.

Because of their low pay, food workers are
disproportionately affected by nutrition-related
illnesses-diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart
disease, said Jessica Choy, a California UNITE HERE
organizer. "Workers are affected not only where they
work by this broken food system," she said.

The union organized "Food Day" events at dozens of
campuses in October, where students and kitchen staff
cooked, ate, and talked together. UNITE HERE connects
its union drives to students' growing desire for
cafeteria food that isn't processed slop-favored by
institutions to cut costs.

"Bringing in packaged food, to a lot of people that are
passionate about feeding people, it's sort of like an
insult," said LaShanda Bell, a cook at Northwestern
University. "We want to mix sauces and make our own
stocks and actually produce food with our hands versus
unthawing, heating, and serving."

RE-SKILLING THE KITCHEN

Union food workers at Yale successfully fought back
against a de-skilling of their kitchen and the closing
of their bakery.

After Yale contracted with Sysco, the food distribution
company, "we went right to canned sauce, processed
cheese, pizza dough out of a box," chef Stu Comen told
the student paper. "Here we are, with our chef coats
with our names on them, and we're opening up cans of
sauce."

The workers, members of UNITE HERE Local 35, made
common cause with students, holding taste tests and
posting ingredient lists so students could compare the
processed baked goods provided by Sysco to those
produced in Yale's bakeshop.

Now the college aims to get 40 percent of its food from
sustainable sources in the next two years.

Harvard dining hall workers, members of UNITE HERE
Local 26, ratified a contract in September that sets up
a union-management committee to implement
"environmentally responsible" food practices.

Dining hall workers say these initiatives lead to more
work as well as better, healthier food. At Harvard,
workers were getting hours cut. They hope to see those
hours return as real cooking increases.

PITFALLS AT POMONA

At Pomona College, it's been easier to get the school
to switch to unprocessed food than to win union
recognition.

On Food Day kitchen staff reported that the
sustainable-food initiative won by students and workers
has led to speed-up in the kitchen rather than to more
hours or more jobs.

"They're putting skill back in the work, adding to the
workload, and not taking into account how it may be
affecting the workers," said Choy.

More than 90 percent of kitchen staffers signed a
petition for a union in March 2010, but the college
doesn't recognize their organization, despite many
meetings in which management promised neutrality, a
promise workers say has been broken.

In powerful videos the group has posted online, workers
say they were fired for being sick, had vital medical
care delayed due to management shenanigans, and were
unable to afford health coverage, which runs up to $600
a month. Some workers were still making less than $12
an hour after 20 years of service.

ALL ALONG THE FOOD CHAIN

The Food Chain Workers Alliance is using worker-to-
worker, worker-to-farmer, and worker-to-consumer
connections to plan a larger campaign, expected to
launch next year, focused on one corporate target that
can impact work from farms to tables, Lo said.

Each group of workers will figure out specific demands,
she said. They're compiling their knowledge of the
industry and studying winning models employed by
members of their coalition:

> Warehouse Workers for Justice has successfully used
community outrage to win back jobs for 10 workers fired
in warehouses southwest of Chicago. An ethnic food
distributor charged with discriminating against Latino
workers got an earful from community leaders who
threatened to boycott.

> In a 10-year campaign, Florida farmworkers and
students joined forces to pressure highly advertised
brands like Taco Bell to sign on to fair wages for
tomato pickers. They have nipped other brands into line
with marches, campus actions, and boycotts, and are now
focused on specialty grocer Trader Joe's and the
Florida-based Publix supermarket chain.

But farmworkers are able to employ boycotts partly
because they are excluded from U.S. labor law. Workers
covered by the National Labor Relations Act are hog-
tied by legal restrictions on "secondary boycotts,"
which target a company that is not their direct
employer.

On campuses, kitchen workers usually labor for
contractors like Aramark, rather than the university
itself. In warehouses, workers are often temps, way
down the chain from companies with a recognizable name.
When confronted, the corporate behemoths point to their
contractors as the culprits.

Successes have been won by cutting through the layers
of subcontractors, finding where the real power lies,
and then finding leverage to shift that target
directly. By creating connections and a deeper
understanding of what is at stake, food chain workers
hope to scale up and "build a campaign that will fight
for all of us on the supply line to America's tables,"
said Jimerson.

[Eduardo Soriano-Castillo contributed to this story.]

___________________________________________

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