As 2021 comes to an end, we take stock of another momentous year that marked massive upheavals in the food system and across society. To lead us into 2022, we asked some of the leading thinkers and doers working on the frontlines of food, justice, and climate to share their thoughts with us about the most pressing issues, what they’ll be working toward in the new year, and what propels them to keep going.
Today, we hear from Devita Davison and Magaly Licolli about the power of organized workers, an engaged public, and the seismic shifts that the pandemic has brought to the food system and society.
Devita Davison, Executive Director, Food Lab Detroit
What were the biggest challenges you saw in the food system this year?
There were so many challenges in 2021, but the big overarching problem I see is that the restaurant industry was built on a structure of exploitation of labor. That’s how it was created. So how do you [change] an industry that’s been built on the premise that the only way to become a profitable business or, as some see it, the only way to survive as a business is by underpaying and undervaluing workers? How do you create a brand-new industry that is built upon pillars of care? How do you center workers—when that has not been the case? That’s one of the biggest challenges the restaurant industry faces in the next year and moving forward.
What do you think it will take to create change on any kind of scale?
Here in Detroit, I’m part of a group of people—from across the food value chain—who have been asking, “What has to happen in order for everyone working in the food ecosystem to build a more just and inclusive and diverse food economy? What conditions need to occur to shift the narrative and change behavior, so we can actually see measurable improvement?” And we’ve realized that what had to happen was a global pandemic. That was what needed to take place for people to understand our food system in a way they never had before.
People began to hear restaurant workers tell stories about how they are underpaid, how in many cases they’re exploited, don’t get paid time off, and face sexual harassment—especially tipped wage workers—or their wages are being stolen. I mean, it all came out!
At the very beginning, restauranteurs, large hospitality groups, and corporate chains called it a “labor shortage,” and I’m so glad workers were quickly able to mobilize and change the narrative. There was no labor shortage! There were plenty of people able to work. And these jobs are overabundant—they’re just shitty jobs. So, [the beginning of the change] has already happened, and it’s not going to stop there.
We’re starting to see a change with the compensation packages, especially at your larger hospitality groups, larger restaurants. But now what’s happening is a mass mobilization in organizing restaurant workers to form unions. Look what just happened at Starbucks in Buffalo. It took the global pandemic for workers to see that they have power if they are collectively working together.
I’m born and raised in Detroit, and the United Auto Workers had an outsized influence, specifically with African Americans’ upward mobility to the middle class. I have seen with my own eyes the power of unionization. And I also love the fact that the workers—specifically in the recent John Deere strike—pushed back against the union leadership. The union leadership was ready to settle with the corporation months before, but it was the workers who were like, “Oh no, we’re not taking it. Go back and fight some more!”
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