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Food Worker Justice


Twilight Greenaway’s piece entitled, “The Food Movement’s Final Frontier: Taking Care of Workers,” is a bit of a misnomer, since the food movement has a lot of frontiers to deal with (and I’d prefer avoiding the use of a loaded term like “frontier” with all its conquest over indigenous people meanings). But certainly it’s about time that the food movement start taking worker justice seriously. After all, who produces that food at Whole Foods? What kind of lives do these people live? Are they paid well? Do they have access to decent lifestyles?

And the answer to these questions is that food producers are impoverished and overworked, subject to disease and workplace accidents, and without good housing or educational opportunities. Basically, food production is a really hard job.

There’s an excellent report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance laying these conditions out. It’s pretty depressing–very high rates of workers on medicaid, long working hours, racial and gendered discrimination, etc.

What are the answers? The FCWA suggests:

There is tremendous potential to engage consumers, small-to-midsize employers and workers to change the food system for all. For starters policymakers can increase the minimum wage and guarantee workers health benefits and the right to organize. Consumers can support businesses that are providing livable wages and benefits, and speak out against those that are not. Employers can increase wages and benefits; adopt systematic and fair hiring and promotion practices; and adopt benefits, such as paid sick days, that would allow employees to care for themselves and their families.

OK I guess. But that’s awful vague.

Here’s my answer:

Unions. Or some kind of worker organization, however defined.

Store chains that care about organic/local/grass-fed/etc should also care about the workers who make the food. These stores should highlight companies that treat workers well and specifically cut deals with farms and suppliers who use union labor, broadly defined. Could be tomatoes picked at farms that have deals with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida for instance. Workplace justice should be made into a marketing tool for consumers to choose, knowing that the tomato they bought was not picked by quasi-slave labor.

Of course this would also force the food movement to confront its own libertarian, individualistic, anti-labor mentality, perhaps most personified in the hard-core anti-union stance of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who has compared a union shop to having herpes.

But this is the answer. If foodies care about the planet and the people upon it, they have to care about food production workers. And the way to show that care is to support labor organizing so those workers can have a voice in their wages, hours, and working conditions to live a dignified life.

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  • Sherm

    No one seems to care that the food chains themselves are non-union, so why would they possibly care about the workers they can’t even see? If I had a dollar for every so-called liberal who shops at Whole Foods,…

    • MosesZD

      You wouldn’t be getting a dollar from me… Considering what they charge for groceries and what kind of business practices in which they engage, I just can’t see it.

      They’re way over-priced. They’re like the Apple of the food world. You’re paying way too much for what you get because ‘it’s cool.’

      And, in the mean time, they really pretend to care about their employees, but they don’t. They’ll do as much damage to them as they can, whenever they can, to boost their profits.

      • Joe

        They have their own brand and certain foods, especially if you are a vegan/vegetarian, are not available in many regular markets.

        When I do go, which isn’t much these days, it is usually for these things, not the over-priced stuff.

    • Richard

      You generalize far too much. Most of the food chains – like Ralphs/Safeway, Albertsons and others in the Southern California – are unionized. Whole Foods is not but Whole Foods is a fairly minor player in the food chain here and I suspect elsewhere. Trader Joe’s is not unionized but its wages and benefits exceed those at the major, unionized supermarkets (and they also offer more worktime flexibility than the supermarkets).

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        And you lack personal experience in these things. Have you worked full time at a grocery store in the past several years yourself? I did, at Whole Foods, and its hardly a minor player in the grocery business. The difference with being in a union and not being unionized, is that with WF, when you are told the company is cutting back on its benefits and you’ll have to pay more, you have no recourse. At least with a union you have solidarity and bargaining power. I’d have done anything to have been able to have unions whilst at WF.

        • Richard

          I’m not praising Whole Foods at all but its sales are less than one tenth what the sales of Ralphs or Albertson are. Thats what I mean by not being a major player. I’m fully in support of Whole Foods being unionized.

          With regard to Trader Joes, my daughter works at the Trader Joes in Manhattan so, although I don’t have personal experience working there, I know something about it.

          But you seem to miss the point of my comment – the majority of retail food store workers in Southern California ARE unionized. Sherm, above, claimed that the food chains are not unionized. Thats incorrect

      • Sherm

        Perhaps, but in the NYC metropolitan area, the cool organic store is Whole Foods, with Trader Joe’s being the cheap alternative. My point was that people could show that they care and could impact the union busters financially by shopping at unionized grocery chains (there are plenty of them) and at farmers markets, rather than at Whole Foods.

        • Richard

          I dont have a problem with that. I was just pointing out that your claim that the major food chains are not unionized is not correct at least here in California

          • Sherm

            The initial post referenced “chains that care about organic/local/grass-fed/etc”. So, I was referring to organic chains, rather than general supermarkets. And if your daughter works at the Trader Joe’s on Sixth Avenue, I walk past her twice a day. Small world.

            • Richard

              No, she works at the one at Union Square. And actually now works at the Trader Joe Wine Store, two doors down.

              If you were just referring to the organic chains, you’re right. But chain food stores in general are mostly unionized (although I don’t know if that holds true for the South)

  • c u n d gulag

    If you buy locally, you have a pretty good idea of the practices that go on.

    We have a farm that sells local produce, and I know the family that owns it, and a lot of the people who work it – they’re local, too.

    In season, people can go and pick their own tomato’s, apples, and whatever else the owner feels comfortable letting them pick, without ruining the fields.

    And local farms that do use seasonal, mobile, farm workers from other states and countries, have an incentive to treat them well – lest their farm’s reputation is ruined.

    It’s Big Agra that abuses most of these workers. And uses the low pay to increase profits.

    They’ll tell people that allowing workers to unionize for better pay, working conditions, and benefits, will make their fast-foods, and canned goods, go up in price dramatically for the consumers, or else make their food’s cost-prohibitive, and limit choice.

    It’ll only lower the profit’s for shareholders, and lower the Exec’s pay.
    FECK ‘EM!!!

    • Rosa

      I don’t know any local farmers who pay a living wage, most often not even to themselves. The whole market is set by underwaged workers (with or without papers, since farm workers are exempt from so many labor laws.)

  • DrDick

    There is also an enormous amount of wage theft, outright slavery/indenture, and labor law violations entailed in food production. For all its faults, there is a reason that Cesar Chavez & the UFW gained such prominence. That needs to be broadly extended.

  • Jeffrey Beaumont

    “Final Frontier” is a Star Trek reference, Eric, as you know. It isn’t a loaded term about conquering indigenous people. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    • Jeffrey Beaumont

      Sorry, Erik.

    • CaptBackslap


    • You may be surprised to know that Star Trek did not invent the term “frontier.”

      • rea

        They stole it from JFK.

        I guess I don”t see that it has much more connotation of “conquering indigenous people” than, say, “New Meixco” or “Colorado” does.

        It’s a geographic concept, and too useful a term to be abandoned simply because people once did bad things on some frontiers.

        • firefall

          Actually, after an extended period studying the limitanei and ripenses of the late roman empire, I’m not sure the appropriate definition of frontier might not be ‘place where bad things are guaranteed to be done’

      • Jeffrey Beaumont

        Yes, but saying something is the “final frontier” is directly channeling “space, the final frontier”. So it is at least two levels removed from anything that might mean conquest or imperialism or whatever. Hell, star trek’s frontier was a socialist utopia of sorts, no?

  • Heron

    Coincidentally, this is also a good way for unions to increase their relevance. The food-service sector(and the service sector generally) and agriculture are significant parts of the modern US economy, and unions have, by and large, not made a serious attempt to organize them. Even when these workers have tried organizing themselves, as in the case of the UFW, the old-school industrial and transportation unions have typically responded not with solidarity, but with confusion and sometimes hostility.

  • David Kaib

    Unite Here is also doing work on this, with their Real Foods, Real Jobs campaign.

    1. Real Food: We support a food system that emphasizes fresh cooked meals rather than processed items, prioritizes the local and ethical sourcing of ingredients, and utilizes production methods that are humane and respect our environment.

    2. Real Jobs: Food workers should be paid a living wage (with health and retirement benefits), including enough to afford real food for their families. Workers should be free to publicly disclose food safety or quality issues, and to form a union through a legal and democratic process of their own choosing without threats and intimidation.

    3. Transparency: Transparency is fundamental in changing our food system. Universities — and all food service institutions — should fully disclose the source of their food purchases, and the wages and benefits paid to food workers.


    • rea

      a food system that emphasizes fresh cooked meals rather than processed items, prioritizes the local and ethical sourcing of ingredients

      It would be nice to have an economic system under which we could all afford that, and in which families would have enough time and energy to make fresh food from scratch at every meal. Absent that utopia, this in one of those things that only a member of the upper middle class would wish for.

      • snarkout

        Or, you know, UNITE HERE, which represents restaurant workers.

      • David Kaib

        Attacking ambitious goals as utopian and smearing the (imagined) background of those who make claims to suggest they may not make those claims are two tried and true tactics of reaction. But they don’t really add much to the conversation.

        Also, what Snarkout said.

        • rea

          speaking as someone trying to raise 4 kids while working 10 hour days (as does my partner, with both of us also having serious health problems) and not making all that much money, well, I could no more abandon the grocery store for “local and ethical” nonprocessed foods and more time and effort cooking than I could sprout wings and fly to the moon. And, as we well know, there are an awful lot of people in this country having a worse time of it than us. Adding, say, another 10% to our food budget, or another half hour a day to food prep time, is out of the question, and that’s a very modest estimate of the time and money required by your proposal. Go run your suggestions by some actual low income people before wrapping yourself in a mantle of progressive righteousness.

          • David Kaib

            That was a pretty righteous rant. No one is suggesting that everything would be the same or then you’d be forced to do more. Your anger is pretty seriously misplaced.

      • Joe

        In one of the Asian countries, freshly made lunch boxes that are delivered in mass qualities has been shown to be possible.

        Various cultures still make food from scratch today in the U.S. and this sounds like a potentially promising means of income if done the right way, especially in certain communities.

        And, “emphasizes” doesn’t mean “every meal.”

      • Absent that utopia, this in one of those things that only a member of the upper middle class would wish for.

        Absent what I wish for I wouldn’t wish for it? I know just what you mean about affordability – and every parent needs some easy out just to keep their brain from melting – but none of the goals of Unite Here sound crazy.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    Hmm…speaking as a recent veteran of working at Whole Foods, I have to say, I’m sorta skeptical about the grocery business in general. I mean, I think that climate change and peak oil are going to inevitably drive up prices more (and I saw prices rise on a regular basis at my Whole Foods over 3 years).

    Sooner or later, there’s only so much you can charge for food. Sure, the kind of people who shop at the Cupertino store on Stevens Creek-affluent techies who make north of 6 figures-can afford uber nice food, but I wonder about the long term viability of the company.

    • Richard

      Well, I understand scepticism about the high end, organic, frou frou grocery business but the grocery business in general isn’t going away. Global warming or not, people will need a convenient place to buy all or most of their groceries.

      While you were at Whole Foods, was there any attempt to unionize? Organizors going around trying to get enough card signatures to force an election?

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        LOL, yeah right. Lots of mandatory meetings and company propaganda, but people know better than to unionize at WF.

        • Richard


          I dont understand your derisive response. I asked because I am curious whether organizing efforts were even attempted. Clearly Whole Foods would have tried to oppose the effort, probably both legally and illegally, but was the prospect of defeat so great that no attempts were even made?

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            Its not worth losing your means of survival.

            • Richard

              I understand why workers would be very reluctant to sign a card or organize. The question I am posing, however, is whether the grocery clerk’s union even made an attempt or didn’t bother because they considered it a lost cause.

      • Ruviana

        Amanda can check me if I’m wrong (she’s worked there and I just read about it) but WF treats union organizing much like Walmart does, with intense anti-union organizing,”educating” and outright scare tactics, such that people who show even a slight interest are in jeopardy of losing their jobs. Hence Amanda’s comment about keeping a livelihood.

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          Pretty much. AFAIK, there’s only been one WF store that has been unionized (in Madison, of all places). WF is pretty anti-union, and its almost certain that anyone who starts a union is going to lose their job, which no one can ill afford in this economy.

        • Richard

          And I understand that. And I sympathize with that. But the question I am asking is whether the union even made an attempt to have workers sign union rep cards or did the union just consider it to be hopeless.

  • James E Powell

    I’ve wasted a lot of time and talk, and worn out some friendships, trying to get middle class and upper middle class liberals to care about economic justice. It is one of those things that people like that want to be known as ‘caring’ about but never to be doing anything about.

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