Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Food Week for food workers

We close Food Week with a shout out in celebration of the millions of food workers around the world upon whose hard work the food system depends — from picking to packing, serving to selling. Sadly, these workers share one thing in common around the globe: they are among the worst paid workers in an industry that creates some of the largest corporate profits.

For an excellent analysis of the disparities between workers and corporate agriculture powers, mark your calendars for the November 21 debut of the film Food Chains. The film does a nice job placing the realities of U.S. food workers in a global perspective.

Food Chains focuses in on the challenges and successes of two farmworker organizations: United Farmworkers’ (UFW’s) California grape boycott of the 1960s and the current Fair Food Campaign of Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The groundwork for these battles was laid by decades of dedicated work, great sacrifice and organizing successes of farmworkers and farmworker advocates around the country. I’ve had the great pleasure and honor to work with some of these groups over the years.

I started by supporting the Campbell’s Soup boycott of the 1980s; this effort set the precedent for three-way negotiations among the workers, growers and the ultimate holders of the purse strings: the big buyers. Over the past 18 years here at PAN, I’ve had the pleasure of working with partners at the Farmworker Association of Florida, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), The Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), Centro Campesino and Líderes Campesinas, among others.

Most recently we’ve been collaborating with an inspiring coalition of national groups working hard to garner support — from the streets and fields to Congress — to pressure EPA to finalize a Worker Protection Standard that provides much better pesticide protections than farmworkers have had for the past 20 years. There are, of course, many more groups doing great farmworker support work, with which I have not yet had the pleasure and honor of working.

The power of food retailers

Over the years, PAN blogs have repeatedly described the undue power and influence that the Big 6 agrochemical companies wield over farmers and among policymakers in Washington, D.C. Their marketers and lobbyists work hard to ensure that the use of their hazardous products continues unabated.

What I didn’t fully realize until I previewed Food Chains was the extent to which mega food retailers have even greater economic power (and most certainly political power) than Monsanto — compare Walmart’s annual profits of over $300 billion with Monsanto’s $13 billion.

While the Big 6 may be particularly aggressive and politically savvy, it’s the supermarkets (and wholesalers) that hold the lion’s share of political and economic power in the food system. They thus largely hold the keys to either the continued impoverishment of, or improvement in, wages and working conditions for food workers up and down the food chain.

Restaurant & retail workers among the poor

The behemoth restaurant industry accounts for more than nine percent of U.S. private-sector jobs. Its workers’ median wage stands at $10 per hour, tips included — and hasn’t budged, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 2000. Compare this to $18 median hourly wage of non-restaurant workers in the U.S.

The overall poverty rate stands at 6.3 percent, yet for restaurant workers, the rate is 16.7 percent. And like farmworkers, the economic and political marginalization of these workers is exacerbated among those who are undocumented — about 15.7 percent of U.S. restaurant workers, nearly twice the rate for non-restaurant sectors.

An excellent report from UC Berkeley, together with Food Chain Workers and UFCW provided impressive detail on the economics of California food workers. In 2013 the California food retail industry generated a gross revenue of $98.2 billion. Yet wages are kept so low by the big corporate players (Costco excepted) that 36% of California food retail workers use some form of public assistance for a total annual cost to the state of $662 million.

Therefore, the people who harvest, sell, cook and serve our food likely live in poverty, and often cannot afford the very food they pick, prepare and sell.

Toward better food policies

Uniting diverse efforts to build the political power needed to make real, lasting food system change will require new collaboration. These various sectors are all negatively affected by corporate control — from highly toxic farm inputs to policies favoring low farm gate prices to poverty wages among all sectors of food workers. 

One inspiring story of the kind of collaboration needed is the Food Chain Workers Alliance. This innovative effort brings together worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food. They’re organizing to improve wages and working conditions for workers all along the food chain. This is precisely the kind of powerful cross-sector organizing needed.

And across other sectors we see similarly collaborative efforts to pass national food and agriculture policies that conserve vital resources, promote rural development, support the provision of healthy food to school children and others in need, and raise the national minimum wage so that 29 million low-wage workers in the food system can feed their families. These stories give me great optimism that there is indeed hope for us, together, to create a more just and healthy food system for all. ¡Sí, se puede!

Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves is a PAN Senior Scientist with expertise in agroecology and soil ecology. As a long-time farmworker advocate, Margaret serves on the Board of the Equitable Food Initiative and works with partners around the country to ensure worker-protective federal and state policy. Follow @MargaretatPAN

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