Food Workers and Food Justice Conference 2012: Food Workers Unite!

On June 6, 2012 the FCWA released an unprecedented report “The Hands That Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers along the Food Chain” at the Food Workers and Food Justice Conference in New York City.  The conference was co-organized with Alliance member UFCW Local 1500 and the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN).

To kick off the conference, the FCWA sponsored the “Dignity at Darden and Justice at Chipotle March” on June 5, which really honed in on our motto “organizing from farm to plate.”  During the action, members, volunteers and attendees were able to educate consumers about the organizing efforts of workers at Capital Grille Restaurant and about the conditions Florida farmworkers who pick Chipotle’s tomatoes face.

The next day over 180 people attended the conference, including students, press, academics, workers and employers.  The opening plenary focused on the key findings of the report about the fact that there are some living wage jobs in the food system, although a majority of jobs provide low wages and little to no benefits; about corporate consolidation; and about creating a healthier and more equitable food system.  Attendees also had the opportunity to listen to workers in warehouses and poultry processing. The workers talked about the racial discrimination and sexual harassment they experience on the job.  In addition, a high-road restaurant employer, Barbara Sibley of La Palapa in New York City, spoke about the benefits of providing workers with a fair and equal working environment

The U.S. employs approximately 20 million workers who constitute one in five private sector workers and one-sixth of the nation’s entire workforce. Additionally, the sectors of food production, processing, distribution, retail and service collectively sell over $1.8 trillion dollars in goods and services annually, accounting for over 13 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. What happens to food system workers impacts the economy, public health, and food safety.

The above statement couldn’t ring truer. The fact that 79% of over 600 surveyed food workers reported not having or not knowing if they had paid sick days and that 53% reported going to work while sick is both a public health and food safety issue.  There are documented cases of food workers going to work while sick and infecting consumers.  For example, in North Carolina, a worker at an Olive Garden restaurant tested positive for Hepatitis A, but had no paid sick days and could not afford to miss a day of work. Three thousand people in the community ended up having to get tested for Hepatitis A.

During the one-day Food Workers and Food Justice Conference, attendees were able to participate in a variety of workshops that tackled these issues and more.  The workshops focused on legislative policy initiatives that address issues affecting food workers, employers and consumers alike.  Attendees also heard from food workers and how their own personal experiences relate to the policies.  One key point that came up during the workshop sessions was the importance of raising the minimum wage, which would impact not only the lives of food workers, but all workers.  Another key point was the interconnectedness of so many issues – the fact that food workers use food stamps at double the rate of the general U.S. workforce and that 27.8% of food workers use government-sponsored heath insurance programs such as Medicaid is due to low wages and little to no benefits.

Moving forward, the FCWA, its members, and allies are committed to ensuring that policies that benefit food workers’ working conditions are enacted. Raising the minimum wage federally and locally in New York is a policy priority for the Alliance. As mentioned before, raising the minimum wage will impact many aspects of the problems food workers and other low-wage workers face, including food insecurity.  In addition, paid sick days legislation is another policy priority.  It is beneficial to workers, employers and consumers for workers to receive paid sick days.

The conference closed with a Skype call from crawfish workers in Louisiana who are on strike and organizing with the National Guestworkers Alliance.  The workers are from Mexico and are working in the U.S. with H2B visas. They work at seafood processing plant in Louisiana named CJ’s Seafood, which is a supplier to Wal-Mart.  Workers were forced to work up to 24-hour shifts with no overtime pay, locked up in the plant, threatened with beatings to make them work faster, and threatened with violence against their families back in Mexico after workers contacted law enforcement out of desperation.  Because of these actions by their employer, workers decided to go on strike and demand that Wal-Mart cancel its contract with CJ’s Seafood to show that it won’t profit from forced labor in Louisiana and reveal all the guestworkers on its Gulf Coast supply chain so the National Guestworker Alliance can ensure they are safe.  They have also started a petition, Wal-Mart: Stop Profiting from Foreced Labor in Louisiana.  On June 30, when the workers took part in a 24-hour fast, Wal-Mart suspended its contract with CJ’s Seafood because of the working conditions.  Read the New York Times article about it HERE.

From the conference emerged awareness about food workers and how, for our food system to be truly sustainable, workers need to part of it. The conference also lifted up the important role that consumers can play in supporting worker organizing campaigns.  For example, currently, FCWA member the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is leading the Campaign for Fair Food, which asks major corporate buyers of tomatoes from Florida to sign onto the Fair Food Agreement in which they commit to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes to the farmworkers, apply a zero-tolerance policy for forced or slave labor, purchase from farms that work with a worker-led health and safety committee, and implement a complaint process for workers to resolve issues at work.  With the support of religious, community and student allies, the CIW has so far been able to get 10 corporations to sign the agreement.  Currently in NYC and around the country, the CIW’s campaign is focused on supermarkets and Chipotle Mexican Grill, which so far have refused to sign on to the Fair Food Agreement.  The day before the conference, the FCWA sponsored a march from the Capital Grille restaurant to Chipotle in mid-town Manhattan. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC U), another FCWA member, is organizing the Dignity at Darden campaign, focused on the Darden Restaurant group, the largest full-service restaurant conglomerate in the world.  Darden owns Red Lobster, Capital Grille, Olive Garden, and a few other chains. Currently, workers are organizing at Capital Grille restaurants around the country.  Workers charge that Capital Grille: fired black servers because they did not “fit the company standard” at Capital Grille fine dining restaurant in Chevy Chase, MD; makes employees work through their breaks; work off the clock; work overtime without compensating them; and does not provide paid sick days for their employees, so they can stay home when they are ill and not handle food served to customers.

As the New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman wrote, “If you care about sustainability — the capacity to endure — it’s time to expand our definition to include workers. You can’t call food sustainable when it’s produced by people whose capacity to endure is challenged by poverty-level wages.”