The Real Food Chain
Food Chain Workers Alliance are strengthening the forgotten link
Deathrice Jimerson works in warehouses outside of Chicago. Chicago is a major logistics hub, the only place in North America where six Class I railroads (the largest type of railroad) meet, connecting all corners of the continent. In the fall of 2010, Dee was hired by the temporary work agency Reliable Staffing and sent to work at a Walmart warehouse run by a subcontractor called Schneider Logistics.
“This company told me when I got hired I was getting paid $10 an hour and then they changed that to ‘production’ without giving me a note.” “Production” means that Dee and his co-workers were paid $10 for each large pallet of goods that they unloaded from shipping trucks. Sometimes, that $10 had to be shared by all of the workers who were unloading the trucks. These rates rarely added up to minimum wage or overtime pay as required by labor laws. So Dee and other workers filed a class action lawsuit against the temp agency in February 2011. The next day, Dee was told not to return to work.
This is not unique. Temporary work, low wages and wage theft are now the norm in the warehouse industry.
In another warehouse, the company also paid “by production rate,” but this time it meant for every “5,000 boxes you move off this truck, this truck is only worth $62. There is no way you can finish a 5,000-box truck in 8 hours,” Dee said during a December 2011 retreat with other worker leaders in the food system. “So that means by my production rate, I’m working 8 hours per day for $62 per truck. And then I come back tomorrow and I still gotta work this truck. And it is still $62 a truck. So I am working today for free, basically. Seven hours, for free, for this day.”
Plant, grow, harvest, process, ship, sell, cook, and serve
The situation of Dee and warehouse workers in the Chicago area is very much like that of workers throughout the food chain. Close to 20 million people in the US work in the food system. They join millions more around the world who plant, grow, harvest, process, ship, sell, cook, and serve food. Frontline food workers often lack job security, are paid low or sub-minimum wages and face unsafe and unhealthy working conditions.
It’s no secret that the food system is broken. Less known is that it’s also corrupt. Walmart controls one-third of the US grocery market and for most major food products, just three or four corporations control the entire market. Billions of taxpayers’ dollars annually go towards commodity crops like corn, soy and wheat, while independent fruit and vegetable farmers fight for basically pennies.
The corporate consolidation in the food system and its undue influence over policy makers have led to fewer family farmers and small food businesses, cheaper unhealthy food, and contamination of our water and land. In response, the food justice movement has grown substantially in the past decade and has made wonderful advances in the growth of community gardens, urban agriculture and food access.
This corruption in the food system has also led to the exploitation of food workers. The issues facing food-system workers have not received as much attention from food justice activists. Sustainable food should include sustainable jobs for the people who work in the food system. In a survey of 319 warehouse workers, Warehouse Workers for Justice found that 63% were temporary hires. And the median hourly wage for a temp worker was $9.00/hour, $3.48/hour less than directly hired workers.
From an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we found that the average wage for a frontline food worker is just $9.90 per hour, with an average annual salary of $18,900, substantially lower than the poverty level for a family four, which is $22,350. And workers are still subjected to racist and discriminatory treatment. Not surprisingly, whites dominate high-wage jobs, and white men earn the highest wages of all race and gender groups.
Justice from farm to plate
To challenge the corporate control of the food system, educate the food justice movement, and improve wages and working conditions for food workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United in January of 2008 convened a number of worker centers and unions and in May 2008 brought together eight organizations at the Labor Notes Conference in Detroit. The Food Chain Workers Alliance was officially formed in July of 2009.
The alliance is a unique national coalition that includes creative, cutting-edge unions, worker centers and workers’ rights advocacy organizations representing workers in the food system from farm to plate – in agriculture, food processing, meat packing, logistics and warehouse, food service and restaurant, and grocery. Our 13 member groups represent a collective membership of almost 160,000 workers of all races. The members include: Brandworkers International, CATA– the Farmworkers Support Committee, the Center for New Community, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the International Labor Rights Forum, Just Harvest USA, Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, ROC United, UFCW Local 770, UFCW Local 1500, UNITE HERE Food Service Division and Warehouse Workers for Justice.
How we do it
The alliance’s work is organized into four program areas:
Leadership development and solidarity. We organize annual worker leaders’ retreats that bring together workers from throughout the food chain to share experiences and strategies, learn new skills, and take action in support of each other. For example, in March 2011, over 20 workers and organizers from alliance member groups went to Florida to participate in a day-long march and rally with the tomato farm workers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Afterwards, Luis DeLeon, a restaurant worker from Chicago, said, “I think I had a real awakening. Every time I see a tomato, I’ll think about who picked this, who distributed this, and were they treated fairly. I’ll remember this weekend my whole life.”
Campaigns. The industries of agriculture, food production, processing, distribution, retail and service sold over $1.8 trillion dollars in goods and services in 2007. That was 13.2% of GDP that year. But, according to the Kellogg Foundation, only 2% of the food consumed in the US is organic or sustainably produced. So, with close to 20 million people working in the US food system, food workers have the potential to build tremendous collective power to transform the food system into one that is sustainable, not only in terms of the environment and public health, but also sustainable for workers.
Policy and standards. We are preparing the first-ever comprehensive report on the state of US food workers that will include policy recommendations to increase protections and standards for food workers. We need to hear the workers’ voices in their own words, so the foundation of this report is over 600 surveys of food workers collected mostly by workers themselves in 2011. The report will be released at a special Food Workers & Food Justice conference on June 6, 2012, in New York City. Dee, the warehouse worker from the Chicago area, attended our training that we held in Immokalee, Florida, after we marched with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. He learned how to conduct the surveys and how to train other workers to do so. Dee then went back home to become the volunteer survey coordinator for his organization, Warehouse Workers for Justice. Dee did such a good job, in fact, that WWJ was the first organization to reach its target number of surveys.
Education and communications. We have developed an educational curriculum that you can download from our website and are now creating a short video with testimonies of workers from throughout the food supply chain – we will see and hear from workers like Dee and many others telling their own stories.
The future of the food system
On May 4, 2012, at this year’s Labor Notes conference, we plan to publicly launch a coordinated workers organizing campaign with three to four member organizations that are organizing workers in different segments of the food supply chain for a major multinational corporation, as well as direct employees of this corporation. This type of campaign involving workers in multiple points of a supply chain has never before been won. We have no illusions that this will be an easy fight, but we also know that with many industries, and the food system especially, subcontracting is used as a tool to race to the bottom. We have to be able to organize across a supply chain in order to build the power needed to stop the exploitation of workers.
We know from history that social change happens when those who are oppressed and marginalized organize together, build strong coalitions, and take direct action. We are using these lessons to build and develop the power of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. In addition to being a coalition ourselves, we also are a member of the Domestic Fair Trade Association and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance. In the long term, we hope to become an international alliance, as the food system is a global system.
I believe we are at an historic moment–the food justice movement is growing. More and more people are thinking about where their food comes from and looking for local, healthy, sustainably grown food. Now we are connecting them to the people, the workers that bring the food to their plate.