Amid historic protests, walkouts, and union votes, the pandemic put the impacts of income inequality on stark display—and galvanized a movement.
Amid historic protests, walkouts, and union votes, the pandemic put the impacts of income inequality on stark display—and galvanized a movement.
March 17, 2022
September 29, 2022 update: California Governor Gavin Newsom yesterday signed a bill allowing farmworkers to vote by mail for union elections, a bill he had previously vetoed, and which union organizers said would be key to increasing union membership in the state.
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If all goes as they’ve planned, Alendra Harris and her co-workers at Starbucks in Superior, Colorado, will hold a union election this spring and then, soon after, negotiate a contract that includes higher wages, more comprehensive benefits, and better staff training programs, among other improvements.
“People just aren’t getting paid enough,” said Harris, who has worked for the coffee giant for about four-and-a-half years. “Especially since [we’ve] shifted toward service-based industries, these service jobs should provide at least middle-class wages.”
Harris said she had been thinking about poverty wages for food workers and broader inequities for years, but like dozens of others around the country, she was finally inspired to act in December, when a group of employees in Buffalo, New York, successfully unionized the first Starbucks.
Now, it’s bigger than that, she said. “Solidarity across the board and across the industry is what’s going to make this happen.”
Indeed, the list is growing: Baristas making caramel macchiatos at Starbucks; farmworkers tending grapes at a Long Island vineyard; meatpacking workers processing chickens in Texas; and factory workers boxing chocolate bars at Hershey are all fighting for union representation and taking a stand for workers’ rights.
“This trend . . . of folks not just demanding better working conditions and better wages but actually organizing unions, it’s brand new, and it’s really exciting, and it doesn’t feel like it’s just a fad,” said Jose Oliva, who has been working on labor rights for food workers since 1999, first with the Food Chain Workers Alliance and now with the HEAL Food Alliance. “Momentum is at an all-time high.”
In fact, statistics suggest the pot of water has been simmering on the stovetop for decades; COVID-19 simply turned the heat up to a boil.
Over the past 70 years, union membership across all sectors dropped steadily, as Republican lawmakers and allied conservative groups passed state laws and other measures that made it harder for workers to unionize. The middle class shrunk and income inequality increased exponentially, with incomes rising fastest for the top 5 percent. One 2020 analysis found that from 1975 to 2018, increasing economic inequality resulted in $50 trillion going to the top 1 percent instead of the bottom 90 percent. And food workers have suffered badly: A 2016 report found workers across the food chain have the lowest average wage compared to other industries and are more likely to be food insecure and rely on public assistance programs.
In the food system, the pandemic put the impacts of that inequality—some of which were life and death—on stark display. Low-wage workers were forced to continue to go to work to pick, pluck, and package food for wealthier Americans who were able to stay home to keep their families safe. According to one California study, workers on farms and in restaurants and food production facilities faced the largest increased risk of death across all industries in the first six months of the pandemic.
Still, as the push for union protection builds, so do the challenges confronting the movement. In 2016, only 6 percent of food workers belonged to a union, compared to 12 percent across industries. Turnover in the industry is high, and many food workers are undocumented and fear retaliation from employers. And the unions that do already represent workers in meatpacking plants, grocery stores, and on farms have struggled to gain the influence necessary to go up against powerful food and agriculture giants in an industry where corporate consolidation continues to increase. For farmworkers, the barriers are stacked one on top of another: Coming into the U.S. on temporary H-2A visas makes them even more dependent on employers—as evidenced by a new Department of Labor investigation that found $1.3 million in back wages owed to workers on one Texas potato farm. The number of H-2A workers in the U.S. is increasing, and federal law still denies farmworkers the same right to organize afforded to others.
However, Oliva and others believe food worker organizing has reached a turning point. “For years, people have said, ‘That’s an unorganizable industry,’” he said. This moment is proving them wrong, he explained, and if workers all along the chain can come together—including the farms producing the milk, the factories packaging it, and the coffee shops foaming it into lattes—they won’t just be organized, they’ll be unstoppable.
In California, organizers with the United Farm Workers (UFW) are cheering on union successes and efforts in other sectors like food service, said Elizabeth Strater, the group’s director of strategic campaigns. But the same tipping point hasn’t reached farms. “The arsenal on the side of the employer has gotten bigger, and we are still working with really archaic laws,” Strater said.
The pandemic put the impacts of income inequality on stark display: Low-wage workers were forced to go to work to pick, pluck, and package food for wealthier Americans who could stay home to keep their families safe.
Under the early leadership of legendary activists Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong, UFW changed labor organizing altogether and forged a path for the first farmworker unions. And over the years, UFW has made many significant gains for workers in the state, including securing overtime pay and advancing rulemaking to get workers protection from the deadly heat they face in the fields. Their union contracts have secured high wages for groups picking mushrooms, tomatoes, citrus, and wine grapes in California, Washington, and Oregon.
But membership has declined over time, and the union now represents less than 1 percent of farmworkers in California. Strater said that on top of the fact that many farmworkers have always been isolated on farms and particularly vulnerable due to undocumented status, in recent years, employers have consolidated power, with farms increasingly owned by corporations and private equity firms.
At the same time, between 2010 and 2019, the number of temporary migrant workers hired by farms using H-2A visas more than tripled and is expected to continue increasing. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has had some success organizing H-2A workers on farms in North Carolina and other East Coast states, but it’s a much harder lift, since a worker’s right to stay in the country is tied completely to their employer.
Union representation is much higher in the meatpacking sector, where 260,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) process close to 70 percent of the beef and pork produced in the country, in plants owned by JBS, Tyson, Smithfield, and Cargill. According to UFCW International Vice President for Meatpacking Mark Lauritsen, UFCW members earn higher wages and are protected in other ways. Plants with UFCW contracts, for example, have industrial engineers employed by the union that evaluate line speeds for worker safety.
However, the industry is still known for mistreatment of workers, a fact that insiders attributed to a confluence of factors. Some said that in certain cases, traditional unions have become too cozy with the companies that employ workers that the union represents. But the companies are also bigger and more powerful than those that unions have confronted in the past. Cargill is the largest privately held company in the U.S; JBS is the largest meat company in the world, with operations on multiple continents and more than $52 billion in annual revenue.
During the early days of the pandemic, many plants with union contracts failed to protect their workers from COVID-19. According to a U.S. House of Representatives report, 59,000 meatpacking workers contracted COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic, and at least 269 died. Some of those deaths occurred at plants covered by UFCW, such as the JBS USA beef plant in Greeley, Colorado. Later, UFCW did negotiate new COVID-19 protections and significant pay increases for workers, but some workers said the changes were far from adequate.
Lauritsen said UFCW and its local unions were the first to intervene to help workers in the plants and they drove the introduction of PPE, social distancing, and vaccinations offered at meatpacking plants. “Largely because of our density, everybody had to move in that same direction,” he said. Lauritsen also pointed to the fact that UFCW membership increased at plants with union representation during the pandemic, “because workers actually saw the value.”
While the union has struggled to extend its reach into poultry in the past, 400 workers at a Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Waco, Texas, led a successful union drive in 2021, which resulted in a UFCW contract that raised wages by $4 per hour, created a worker safety committee, and implemented overtime protections. And in Mayfield, Kentucky, “our local union was able to sit down with that Pilgrim’s Pride plant and significantly increase wages,” Lauritsen added.
But UFCW also represents 835,000 grocery stores workers in North America, including Kroger-owned stores, which have been in the spotlight over the past month after news broke that many of its employees are homeless and rely on public assistance to feed their families. Meanwhile, Walmart and Amazon / Whole Foods, which together represent an increasing proportion of the grocery industry, have both aggressively fought union organizing among their employees.
One reason unions have not been as effective for food workers as they might have been, Oliva said, is that historically, organizing within various segments of the food sector have been seen as entirely separate. “Unions are effective when they have density, and I don’t think that even having density in a particular segment of a sector is enough to actually change the trends and the overall wages and conditions,” he said. In his mind, workers in fast food restaurants, on farms, in grocery stores, and in processing facilities are “all part of one sector that is the food system, and to the extent that we don’t see that, we don’t understand how the supply chain works.”
In other words, if workers banded together as part of a larger movement, their power would likely grow. There’s a precedent for this: For example, medical technicians have supported the strikes of custodians and bus drivers who work alongside them on university medical campuses, even though their own contracts were not affected.
Oliva also said that given the unique challenges of the food system, traditional labor unions are likely not enough, and a new, more expansive approach to labor organizing will be more effective. In places where union organizing is difficult, for example, states that do not grant farmworkers the right to organize or food warehouses where companies use temp agencies to prevent workers from being considered their employees, many workers have formed organizations called worker centers, which don’t engage in collective bargaining but offer other support.
“The point is working people across the board getting the legal representation that they deserve as workers.”
Outside Chicago in 2020, workers at Mars Wrigley were fired in retaliation after signing a petition asking for protections from COVID-19 and hazard pay. By organizing with the Warehouse Workers for Justice, many were able to get their jobs back and have their demands met. “What’s really interesting is that there’s a huge movement right now for worker centers and unions to work together . . . to essentially surround the industry,” Oliva said. “So if an employer busts the union, the worker center emerges. If the worker center is unable to organize the workers, the union organizes them.”
And rather than focusing exclusively on collective bargaining, unions like the UFW are also working on larger campaigns for state and federal laws that will provide protections from smoke and heat. Those efforts are aimed at improving conditions for workers regardless of whether they have the opportunity to join a union.
And yet, Strater said, “For the individual farmworker, nothing will protect them like a union contract. There is no substitute.”
Noemi Barrera agrees. As lead organizer for Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW, she helped organize a group of 12 workers who tend the grape vines at Pindar Vineyards on Long Island, New York. In September, the state’s Public Employment Relations Board certified the union, making it the first farmworker union in the state’s history. Now, the workers are in the process of negotiating their new contract to include provisions like sick and personal days and better overtime pay.
“It took a lot of courage for them to stand up for what was rightfully theirs and take advantage of this new law. They didn’t have that protection in the past,” Barrera said.
That law was New York’s Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which was put in place in 2019 and granted farmworkers the right to organize. At the federal level, farmworkers are still excluded from protections in the National Labor Relations Act that prevent employers from firing a worker for joining or supporting a union. So states like New York and Colorado have started to pass their own laws, following in the footsteps of states like California, which passed its law in 1975.
While nothing in the law prevents farmworkers, even those who are undocumented or on H-2A visas, from organizing or joining a union, without protections against retaliation, they’re unlikely to take the risk, explained Andrew Walchuk, a staff attorney at Farmworker Justice.
“There is this general fear of interacting with the government and providing identity information, and [concern] that that could result in deportation,” he said. “You see a lot of workers making this calculus: Is it worth it to me to potentially lose my family to try to vindicate my rights, or am I just going to continue experiencing these violations?” Even in food service, processing, and grocery jobs, where workers do have the right to organize, undocumented workers still make that calculus.
In the case of guest workers, the temporary nature of the work also makes organizing logistically difficult, since union drives can take years and workers are isolated on farms under the control of their employers. “We’re trying to think through ways that the H-2A program can start providing more protections for collective bargaining and start encouraging more collective bargaining agreements,” Walchuk said.
And while affording the right to organize to all farmworkers under federal law would be ideal, he said, state laws can help correct for the gap in the short term. Farmworker Justice is also pushing for Biden’s Departments of Homeland Security and Labor to use administrative action to remove threats of immigration enforcement against workers who choose to organize.
In November, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released a memo announcing new policies to ensure immigrant workers can “freely exercise their rights without retaliation.”
“We must zealously guard the right of immigrant workers to be free of immigration-related intimidation tactics that seek to silence employees, denigrate their right to act together to seek improved wages and working conditions, and thwart their willingness to report statutory violations,” NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a press release.
And on a broader level, the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment this month delivered a 46-page report to President Biden containing close to 70 recommendations to promote worker organizing and collective bargaining across all industries.
In Colorado, Alendra Harris and her Starbucks co-workers are waiting on a court to decide whether their drive will be able to move forward. But in the meantime, aware that she and her mainly young, progressive co-workers have advantages over many other workers throughout the food system, she intends to leverage that in the future.
“I’ve already been involved in multiple conversations and meetings . . . with people across different industries to inform them and educate them about how they can unionize,” she said. “It would be antithetical to not try to push for an industry-wide movement toward unionization. The point is working people across the board getting the legal representation that they deserve as workers.”
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