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.