Yesterday, Coca-Cola held a mandatory anti-union meeting in an Atlanta warehouse. The workers were not happy. You can listen to the entire thing here.
The prison-industrial complex finds new ways to generate profit. So it’s hardly surprising that probably the industry most exploitative of labor in American history–agriculture–is more than happy to take advantage. What may surprise some people is that it’s the high end artisanal food companies that cater to Whole Foods and other such stores who are involved. This story focuses on Haystack Mountain, a Colorado goat cheese company that is buying its milk from a prison company farm.
Says John Scaggs, Haystack’s marketing and sales director, referring to CCI: “They have land. They have human capital, the equipment. If you can think it up, they can do it, and do it fast.”
That diverse and nimble operation has attracted visits by officials from 22 prisons as well as steady interest from companies that want to tap CCI’s workforce. “I get one to two calls a week from companies,” says CCI director Steve Smith, adding that he declines those that simply want cheap labor.
The practice has long been controversial. Prisoners earn meager wages and have no recourse if they’re mistreated, LeBaron argues. Plus, they can take jobs from law-abiding citizens. “It’s hugely concerning in the face of economic instability and unemployment,” she says.
Counters Smith: “These are coveted jobs.” Base pay starts at 60¢ a day, but most prisoners earn $300 to $400 a month with incentives, he says. To be hired, inmates must get a GED and maintain good behavior for six months.
60 cents a day. In 2014. Now that’s the kind of labor exploitation I know from the history of American agriculture.
There was also this Twitter exchange between labor and justice writers Sarah Jaffe and Alexis Goldstein with some PR flack from Haystack Mountain who is not very good at his job because he reveals way too much. According to the PR person, Haystack Mountain isn’t even saving money on the milk compared to what they would pay on the open market, meaning all that money is going to the prison capitalists. Everyone wins but workers. And the idea that all these prisoners are earning skills they will take into the workforce of goat farming is so ridiculous as to be laughable.
This is a great graph on the decline of meatpacking wages compared to industrial work as a whole. All industrial work has stagnate for 35 years (real wage decline of 1.5% since 1979). Meatpacking–real wage decline by a mere 28.3%.
How did this happen?
Meatpacking has a somewhat unique position in the American economy. Like many other industries, it found capital mobility a great way to cut wages and increase profits. It discovered this early on, busting unions by the 1960s through transition production out of the cities and into small Midwestern towns. But unlike other industries like textiles, the vast majority of the work has remained in the United States. Over 99 percent of our chickens, 92 percent of beef, and 97 percent of pork are produced domestically. This means it has basically found ways to create as exploitative conditions as possible within the U.S. The history of union-busting (which I discussed in detail here) in the meat industry (a phenomenon in fact closely related to the exploitation of truckers since trucking companies played a leading role in this new economy) led to plummeting wages, making it a dangerous and low-paid job in 2014.
Outside of the GoT podcasts, this site seems even more dour than normal the last couple of days. So since we all like maps and most of us like food (sometimes even food-like substances like ketchup) here’s 40 interesting food maps of the U.S. I was particularly amused by this:
FEMA has been using Waffle Houses as unofficial indicators of disaster recovery in recent years. Why? First of all, the chains are conveniently located (red dots) across the hurricane zones of the US (the gray lines on this map are hurricane and tropical storm tracks since 1851), as you can see in this map from Popular Science. Waffle Houses usually operate 24 hours a day and have exceptional disaster preparedness that lets them open back up quickly after a storm, the magazine reported. So whether a Waffle House has made it through an extreme weather event can be a handy thing to know. Because of this, Waffle Houses have been reporting their statuses to FEMA since 2012.
And here I thought they were testing whether the grease was made of an indestructible superproduct to be used against our national enemies.
Now back to our regularly scheduled bad news.
While I am open to an argument that part of an immigration reform package should include a guestworker program, I am extraordinarily skeptical. Why? Because guestworker programs have ALWAYS been used to bust strikes. They give employers even greater leverage over their workers than trucking in strikebreakers from a different part of the country because they have no right to stay and thus no investment in not crossing the picket lines or showing solidarity with the workers, a solidarity they may well feel but what choice do they have? Such was the very plan for Sakuma Farms in Washington, even under the limited guestworker program already in existence:
This year Sakuma Farms applied for H-2A work visas for 438 workers it intends to bring from Mexico to work during the harvest, from June 18 to October 15. Afterward, they would have to go back to Mexico. Sakuma, one of the largest berry growers in Washington state, hires about 500 workers each picking season. If it recruits 438 of them in Mexico, there will not be enough work for those like Ventura, who have been laboring in its fields every year…
What is happening to Rosario Ventura… is a window into a possible future for farm workers. For workers already here, that future includes lost jobs. For growers, the same future holds government-administered programs giving them a source of temporary workers at close to minimum wage, who go back to Mexico when the work is done…
Workers question the company’s eligibility to recruit H-2A workers. [The Department of Labor] Fact Sheet #26 says clearly: “Employers must also assure that there is no strike or lockout in the course of a labor dispute at the worksite.” Last year Ventura, Galicia and 250 workers went on strike at Sakuma Farms several times…
In the course of the work stoppages workers formed an independent association, Familias Unidas por la Justicia—Families United for Justice…
Last year Familias Unidas por la Justicia wanted an improvement in both hourly wages and the piece rate—a $14 hourly guarantee, and a minimum price of $6 for a fifteen-pound box of blueberries. The company would not pay more than $4 a box, and a $12 per hour guarantee, saying that the higher demand would raise its labor costs too much.
When the company was questioned about why it needed H-2A workers, it said a labor shortage had led to the loss of blackberries and strawberries—it couldn’t find enough workers to pick them. But the farm was also unwilling to raise its wages to attract additional pickers.
Sakura has since withdrawn their application, possibly because of bad publicity, more likely because it was going to be rejected. But a bigger guestworker program would only undermine organizing. Immigrant labor must have the opportunity to stay in the country to create a fair playing field for them and for the workers already here.
I talked a bit about the emissions problems at the Sriracha factory last fall. In short, residents living near a chile sauce factory that is indifferent to emissions violations do not have a good life. The conflict has come to a conclusion and how that went down says so much about the problems with the economy and, really, a lot of modern American life.
As a condition of Irwindale dismissing the suit, Huy Fong Foods has promised to make improvements to its factory’s rooftop ventilation system—but, as Mark Berman points out in the Washington Post, there won’t be any way to tell whether the improvements make a difference until August, when the plant begins production again. The likelier cause of the dropped suit is the public flirtation between Huy Fong Foods and officials from other cities that would be happy to subject their citizens to acrid capsaicin-smog in exchange for sweet moolah—but, whatever!
Perfect. You have a voluntary system of corporate reform with no enforcement, which Irwindale agreed to because Sriracha was looking to move the factory to a city even more desperate for jobs. The scourge of capital mobility in a nutshell. Company after company, move after move, citizen concession after citizen concession, this aggregates into the destruction of the entire set of economic, social, and environmental victories American citizens enacted to tame corporate pathology in the 20th century. This is how the New Gilded Age is created.
The explosion in temp work has happened because employers see it as a profitable way to exploit labor, getting rid of troublemakers, avoiding legal responsibility, and keeping wages and benefits to a minimum. This is an excellent story on temp workers in California lettuce fields–some of which having worked there for a mere 10 years:
Thanks to this arrangement the two-thirds of Taylor Farms’ 900 Tracy workers who work for subcontractors are considered temporary workers – even though some have worked at Taylor plants for 10 years. They can be fired at the drop of a foreman’s hat for questioning an instruction or calling in sick.
Taylor Farms’ reliance on temporary, low-wage workers is part of a management revolution that has radically changed the fundamental expectation that hard work will be rewarded with fair compensation. Whether this outsourcing trend continues will determine how unstable the national workplace becomes — and how difficult entry into the middle class will be for American workers.
Capital & Main learned that in addition to procuring workers for Taylor Farms, Mendoza, which also supplies temp field labor, sells its own $7 boxed lunches to its field hands and even rents cash-only apartments to its mostly undocumented workers. Teamster representatives say that Mendoza even supplied hecklers who tried to crash Roger Hernandez’s meeting with Taylor Farms workers.
“I would rate Abel Mendoza, SlingShot and Taylor Farms as the most abusive employers I’ve encountered in my 20 years of doing this work,” says Doug Bloch, the political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7, which has been leading an organizing effort in Tracy. “There’s always a need for temporary labor in any agricultural industry, but at Taylor Farms you have people who have been working five years or 10 years or longer as a ‘temp.’ There is nothing temporary about their employment whatsoever.”
A 2012 University of California, Berkeley Labor Center study concluded that temporary workers in California are twice as likely as non-temps to live in poverty, face lower wages and less job security. They are also twice as likely to receive food stamps and be on Medi-Cal as other employees. For temporary workers employed in manual occupations, particularly, it may also mean being subject to unsafe working conditions and other abuses as host companies and temp agencies each blame the other for health and safety violations.
“When somebody files a workers comp claim, nobody wants to take responsibility for it,” says the Teamsters’ Bloch. “The insurer gets bounced back and forth like a pinball between Taylor Farms and Abel Mendoza. The same thing happens when workers file claims with the Labor Commissioner. Everybody’s pointing their finger and saying, ‘I’m not the employer, it’s the other guy.’”
California Assemblyman Roger Hernandez has introduced a bill making companies responsible for what happens to workers when they use labor contractors. Such an idea needs to become central to labor activism worldwide and should be applied through the entirety of supply chains, making Wal-Mart legally responsible for what happens to workers in the sweatshop where they toil because the company demands huge shipments of product for very low prices.
I know there is such a thing as Taco Tuesday, but how about we celebrate a late night Burrito Thursday by considering the 10 most important burritos in history.
A cowboy poet/singer in the early 20th century talking about the glories of evaporated milk:
Carnation milk, best in the lan’
Comes to the table in a little red can.
No teats to pull, no hay to pitch
Just punch a hole in the sonofabitch.
Carnation was founded in 1899, so I assume this was relatively soon after it. It’s quoted in David Nye’s Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies, but without a date.
Canned food was central to the cowboy diet. For that matter, canned food dominates most food narratives of the 19th century American West. The idea of living off the land was mostly a myth. Living off the land is really hard. Opening canned food is very easy. Which would you choose.
I’ve long thought GMOs were the most overrated scary issue current liberals care about. But I never quite had the right words. Mark Bittman does:
Then there are G.M.O.’s: OMG (the palindrome is irresistible). Someone recently said to me, “The important issues are food policy, sustainability and G.M.O.’s.” That’s like saying, “The important issues are poverty, war and dynamite.” G.M.O.’s are cogs in industrial agriculture, the way dynamite is in war; take either away, and you have solved virtually nothing.
By themselves and in their current primitive form, G.M.O.s are probably harmless; the technology itself is not even a little bit nervous making. (Neither we nor plants would be possible without “foreign DNA” in our cells.) But to date G.M.O.’s have been used by companies like Monsanto to maximize profits and further removing the accumulated expertise of generations of farmers from agriculture; in those goals, they’ve succeeded brilliantly. They have not been successful in moving sustainable agriculture forward (which is relevant because that was their claim), nor has their deployment been harmless: It’s helped accelerate industrial agriculture and its problems and strengthened the positions of unprincipled companies.
But the technology itself has not been found to be harmful, and we should recognize the possibility that the underlying science could well be useful (as dynamite can be useful for good), particularly with greater public investment and oversight.
Let’s be clear: Biotech in agriculture has been overrated both in its benefits and in its dangers. And by overrating its dangers, the otherwise generally rational “food movement” allows itself to be framed as “anti-science.”
Right–technology is neither a miracle nor evil. GMOs are part of the larger problem with modern agribusiness but it’s not like monstrous Frankenfood is going to destroy your body or put chips in your brain so that Obama can follow your thoughts. The actual evidence that GMOs are harmful is pretty much nil and while I do think there are problems around patents and non-reproducing plants that are serious, this is one left of center issue I just can’t relate to.
Thanks 7-Up. This 1953 book of suggested recipes to incorporate the soda into cooking will change your life,
as will much of American cooking from the Cold War. Mother’s Day is a mere week away and I know Mom will love that tasty drink mixing 7-Up and milk.
A few victual related items for your Friday afternoon:
1. The fad of celebrity chefs making “runway food” to promote the conspicuous consumption of rich people that then gets celebrated like the 80s is stupid. Is Anthony Bourdain turning into a sort of modern version of Robin Leach, at least for one form of consumption?
increasingly mezcal). This is a bit more of a celebratory post than I’d like because there are some real legitimate questions about the sustainability of the agave-based booze industry. As my wife is a scholar of Mexico specializing in Oaxaca, I spend a decent amount of time there when she is researching. So I’ve been lucky enough to explore mezcal a bit and the quality can be really outstanding. At this point I generally prefer it to tequila while drinking straight, although I tend to think the smokiness of it overwhelms cocktails. The cost however isn’t really all that cheap, even in Mexico, especially if we compare it to bourbon. The bottle I brought
back last summer of a weird forest-based mezcal runs about $70 here and I got it for around $45 at a mezcal fair (at which you pay a $4 admission fee and then can taste all the mezcal you want). I assume the real difference is that it’s just much more expensive to produce because of the size of the plant, as opposed to the corn that makes up bourbon.