How Food-Labor Activists Are Preparing for President Trump
From farms and packing houses to grocery stores and restaurants, one in seven workers in the U.S. is employed in the food system. It is the single largest employment sector—and the lowest paying, with a median wage of $16,000, according to a new report by the Food Chain Workers Alliance.
Those fighting to improve the working conditions of food chain employees have focused on policies like increasing the minimum wage, implementing paid sick leave, anti-wage-theft legislation, and the right to organize. The effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour has been successful thanks to organizations like the Fight for $15. Yet with Republicans, led by President-elect Donald Trump, set to control the House, Senate, and White House come January, it is unlikely that food chain workers will see any new federal legislation in the next four years.
During that time, food system workers still have to go to their jobs, pay their rent and bills, and feed their families—and many cannot make ends meet. In 2016, nearly 13 percent of all food workers relied on food stamps—2.2 times the rate of other industries, according to the report, and an increase from the 1.8 percent of food system employees enrolled in the program in 2010. Wage disparities based on gender and race are also pronounced among food system employees. For every dollar earned by white men, for example, white women earn 47 cents, and black women earn just 42 cents, three cents more than Latinas.
“The issue of income inequality? That doesn’t just impact fast food workers but all of us,” said Joann Lo, executive director of the FCWA. When companies don’t pay workers enough, they turn to social safety net programs funded by taxpayers. Progress has been made in recent years, with cities and some states raising the minimum wage, and some farmworkers have won better pay through the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program.
But during a Trump administration, where can activists continue to make a difference? “On the policy side, we will continue our focus on the local and state levels because there isn’t much hope we’re going to win at the federal level,” said Lo. “But people can really make a difference at the local level; their vote is valuable.” She noted that the minimum wage has so far been a local issue, and consumers can contact companies and ask them to improve their environmental records or fair labor standards.
Beyond the policy realm, one word can make a world of difference for those employed in the food system: unions. Lo said that workers who are part of a union earn roughly 26 percent more than workers who are not organized. In the 1950s, one in three employees was in a union; today it's one in 20, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute. Employers generally don’t want them, Lo explained, because workers demand not only higher pay but also benefits and inclusion in business decisions. “It’s an issue of power,” she said.
When Daniel Blackwood, a truck driver for a food distribution company, started at his job, he said he and other employees were regularly overworked. “We were being not asked but told to go over our hours,” which are regulated by law, he said. Employees who asked too many questions were given the worst routes, while those who were “liked” could have “whatever route they wanted,” Blackwood said. If something broke down, “we were expected to be mechanics out on the road.” Complaints, he said, were met with the same response: If you don’t like the job, feel free to quit.
The drivers were fed up and decided it was time to unionize. They held meetings on the weekends, and during the week, the company brought in a union buster to discourage the drivers from starting a union. They had to go to court before the company would agree to a contract. “Going from nonunion to seeing how the union has improved everything, in some cases drastically, for the better, I don’t see how any worker doesn’t want to be union,” said Blackwood. “Now we have a voice in the company, and it has made a big impact on workers.” He mentioned that rather than the combative relationship between managers and employees that existed before the union, those in management greet workers with a “Good morning” now. “Before it was ‘Hurry up—get in your truck and go,’ ” Blackwood said.
Compared with passing sweeping legislation, gaining rights for food workers through unions is slow and piecemeal work. But it’s a bottom-up approach to achieving the same goals—increased pay and better working conditions—that the FCWA advocates. In some cases, a strong union can make a bigger difference than new minimum wage legislation. When Seattle raised its minimum wage, city officials estimated the pay of 100,000 workers would be affected. Walmart employs 1.5 million people in the United States. If workers were able to unionize (something the chain has vehemently pushed back against), the union would be much more powerful than most city or even state legislation. The effect would reach beyond even those 1.5 million employees: As the report states, “When Walmart demands that suppliers keep costs low, companies along the food chain must respond in order to remain in business.”
Reyna Martinez, who works at a unionized Albertson’s grocery store in California, said that the protection the union gives workers is invaluable. Martinez explained that working at a grocery store used to be “something you could make a career out of. We were middle class and could afford middle-class living.” That’s not the case any longer. But having a voice in the company she works for keeps her and her fellow employees from slipping farther down the economic ladder.
Many people have posited that the decline of unions led to the stagnation of the middle class and the resentment of the working class of establishment political parties. Where the union once gave workers a power and purpose, many are now left in jobs that command little respect from the outside world. Nowhere is this more obvious than among food system workers, who are removed from the public eye, much less the political one. But unions, Martinez said, “give me the ability to speak my mind, knowing that I’ll have a backup plan in case anything bad happens.”
In the last decade, farmers markets have proliferated as consumers have flocked to buy better food directly from growers, giving the people who produce and harvest those crops a better standard of living. Companies have discovered that fair trade is good for workers and their bottom lines as more people are willing to pay more for certified products. But many consumers still buy food at stores like Walmart—the country’s largest grocer—because it’s cheap.
“You’re paying less, but that’s because the worker is getting paid less too,” Martinez said. People have grown comfortable seeking out organic, local, and GMO-free foods, and retailers are happy to cater to that demand, but few stores make a point of advertising their fair wages and treatment of workers. So if consumers want to help the people who ring up their ethically sourced groceries, they can seek out stores where the people are treated as well as—and hopefully better than—the produce.