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  • A major challenge for many food workers who wish to organize themselves is their problematic immigration status.

  • Food workers need to be offered the skills and training to organize effectively.

  • The Food Purchasing Policy, which upholds fair labor practices and is being passed in many locales, could be game-changing for the food worker justice movement. 

  • Government subsidies benefit industrial agriculture businesses, artificially suppressing the price of foods across the spectrum. Those subsidies don't benefit small farmers or food workers. 

A Conversation with Jose Oliva of the Food Chain Workers Alliance

Contributor: Robert Raymond

Jose Oliva came to the states in1985 from Guatemala with his parents. His mother was a restaurant worker for many years. Being undocumented, he was unable to access grants or scholarships and became a restaurant worker himself to pay for his college credit hours. In that workplace he experienced injustices firsthand—overwork, a sexual harassment culture,  and risks to his health and safety.


That experience inspired him to organize his co-workers, and  to a job with a national restaurant worker organization. Over time, he realized that workers really weren't part of the conversation around what was fundamentally wrong with the food system. “A lot of folks were concerned about what food does to the human body in terms of health and nutrition and about what food does to the environment, both in the context of production and food waste,” he says. “But nobody was actually talking about the twenty one and a half million people who work in our food system. And so together with a few other organizations, we decided to create the Food Chain Workers Alliance as a way of making sure that food workers were a part of that ongoing national discourse around food.”


Can you describe the unique challenges that immigrant farm workers or food workers face?



Immigrant food workers face many challenges. For example, food workers are actually two and a half times more likely to face food insecurity than any other sector in the workforce, which, if you think about it, is actually not just ironic, but it's very sad. Folks who are literally working in industry and in the fields growing the food, transporting the food, processing the food, serving the food—they’re less likely to be able to eat healthy, nutritious food themselves. So it's a sad irony that we face in the food system, which is one of the reasons that we started the Food Chain Workers Alliance.


Another major challenge for immigrant workers is their immigration status. A lot of folks who work in the food system work and live in fear of deportation—this is an especially salient issue right now. The Trump administration recently announced that they're going to have a heightened series of raids and deportations and we’re already seeing it happen. There was a restaurant in Washington, D.C., an Indian restaurant that was raided and dozens of folks were deported. There was another one in San Francisco that was also raided. So folks are right to be scared. Although, I don't want to cause panic, because when people  read or hear about a heightened level of immigration enforcement, it usually causes more fear. So I don't want to cause panic, but I also want to be real about what's happening in the communities that workers live in. For instance, there were folks in Missouri who became shut-ins after that period of raids because they were terrified to go to work, to go to church, to go outside in general—they just sort of locked their doors and didn't leave. And the church literally had to intervene and was bringing food to their houses, and eventually it was a situation where they convinced a lot of these folks that there was less likelihood for them to be deported. But it's also not a guarantee—you can't guarantee to folks that they're safe if the documentation isn’t right.


Then there are also the challenges of working in an industry that has the lowest wages of any sector in the U.S. economy. Folks working in the food system generally make a median wage of $10/hour—and depending on where you are in the food system, that could be a lot less than $10/hour. Farm workers and restaurant workers, tipped workers in particular, were excluded from the minimum wage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act when it was passed. And so they are currently legally paid less than the legal minimum wage, which is already low enough. But if you're a tipped worker you can be paid as low as $2.13/hour federally. So, yes, there's a whole range of issues that folks see working in the food system.  

What are the goals of the Food Chain Workers Alliance and how are you going about implementation of those goals? 


It's really one strategy. We really think about the food system as a whole and I really try to get this point across to everyone that I talk to—it's sort of the old adage of the balloon: if you squeeze one end of a balloon, the other end of the balloon is going to blow up. In order to address the challenges that the whole range of the food system faces—from food workers to farmers to consumers—we have to address it as a system. We can't address it piecemeal—we can't address one part of it at a time. We have seen plenty of examples of that happening where it has consequences for other people in the food system that were unforeseen or unwanted—and usually those consequences are a negative effect.


So our strategy at Food Chain Workers Alliance to address the challenges that food workers face falls into three major categories. The first is for the individual workers who are in all of these sectors to participate in what we call Justice in the Food Chain trainings, which are really about giving those folks specific skills that they can use to organize their co-workers—to bring people together in their communities so that they can have more power and therefore improve their wages, improve their working conditions, improve their overall lives. And that is part of a campaign framework that we work with at the Food Chain Workers Alliance. So a lot of our work is really focused on supporting our members in their campaigns to improve their workplaces and improve their conditions.


One of those campaigns is the Food Purchasing Policy, which has these five categories from human health, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, local economies, and labor. We've passed these policies in seven cities so far, and we have campaigns in another dozen or so cities. The idea is that we identify large institutions like public school systems or cities that buy major amounts of food, and the policy requires them to meet at least a baseline for each of the five categories that I mentioned. So they don't get to pick and choose, like, “We're going to be really good on environmental issues,” or “We're going to be really good about labor issues, but we're going to ignore other stuff.” They have to meet baseline criteria on all five, which again is systemic—it's thinking about the food system as a whole, not about specific issues or specific demographics or populations. And the idea of passing these good food purchasing policies in cities across the U.S. is really that we are fostering a movement towards food system transformation.


Our third area of work is movement building— addressing the food system as a whole from a perspective of lifting up the voices of the people who are most affected by the ill effects of the system— workers, farmers, and other folks who are on the front lines of these impacts.

So that's essentially what we do—that's our work in a nutshell. Obviously, we're very far from accomplishing the goals that we’ve set out to accomplish, but we really do think that we've grown so much. When we started Food Chain Workers Alliance it was six organizations, we represented approximately 25,000 workers together. And now there's thirty-two organizations representing over 250,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada. So since we launched in the last decade we've definitely grown tremendously and feel hopeful about what we can accomplish in the next decade or even less—in the next five years or so.

“It's absolutely incumbent if we're going to survive as a species to transform the food system from one that is exploiting and literally destroying the planet and that peddles food that's destroying our bodies, to one that is cooperatively owned and that has our best interests in mind.”

Why do you think cooperatives are a potential solution to some of the challenges you've outlined in the food system?


Cooperative ownership of the food system is a really critical component of ensuring that we're moving towards a food system that's not just equitable but that also benefits the most marginalized, and that is empowering at the community level to control the food system.


One example of that is that there was a group of farm workers in Washington State that worked at a local dairy farmer. One day, one of the workers working in the field was not feeling well and asked if she could go home and was told no. That worker then died of heat stroke and the rest of her co-workers realized that they could all have been that worker—that they could have all suffered that same fate, and that really the only antidote to that potential was for them to organize. So they organized themselves into a union—it was the first independent farm worker union led by indigenous people in the State of Washington. It was a historic victory for them, and since they formed the union they're now earning $15/hour as part of a union contract. So  a huge victory. But after some time, it was still obvious to them that the power of ownership was not within their reach. And so what they did was they created a berry-growing cooperative with the promise being that you are your own boss and that you have control over the food system and that you're not just controlling what you're growing or what you're farming or the market that you're selling to, but that you are literally in control of your own destiny, of your own future.


That's a concrete example of a group of workers that put that vision to the test. And to us, that cannot just be replicated at the local level in multiple places, but it could also be replicated across industries. So it doesn't just have to be farms and farm workers. It could be processing plants, it could be a restaurant, it could be distribution networks that are cooperatively owned by the people who work in those places and the communities that are impacted by those enterprises. That's the ultimate vision that we have of where we want to take the food system.


We've seen the ill effects of the system that we currently have and a lot of people that I've talked to say that the food system is broken, or they claim that our food system is broken. I don't think it's broken—I think it's working perfectly fine for the people who set it up. There are some major corporations that run the food system and they're doing great. To them, this is exactly the food system that they designed. But it's not working well for the rest of the people, for 99 percent of the population—especially if you happen to be impoverished working in the food system and dealing with everything from the health effects of a food system that pushes the starchy, sugary salty food to the low wages that are paid to you by the corporations themselves that are selling you that food. So it's absolutely incumbent if we're going to survive as a species to transform that food system from one that is exploiting and literally destroying the planet and that peddles food that's destroying our bodies, to one that is cooperatively owned and that has our best interests in mind.


People often describe a potentially insurmountable tension in the food system between labor justice and financial viability. In your experience, is that a real tension? If so, what can be done to address it? What about farm owners who say that if they were to raise wages they would go out of business?


The problem is not the owner of the farm—the problem is the way the price point is set. The U.S. food system is predicated on a few major underpinnings, the first of which is that this is not a market system. The food system is not set up to work the way capitalism had intended for it to work, mostly because there are huge amounts of money that flow from the U.S. coffers to large agribusiness in the form of subsidies. And those subsidies are set up to bring the price down for all of the major commodities. So everything from beef to corn to pork to poultry, soy, and sugar—all of the major commodities are being heavily, heavily subsidized by the U.S. government. And what that does is it brings down the prices of all of those foodstuffs, which means that farmers, individual family farmers especially, can't grow those things if they want to make a living. If they want to make a living, they either have to exploit farm workers and pay them misery wages or they have to grow specialty crops that are not subsidized by the government, but that are subsidized by the consumer because they're organic or they come from farmer's markets—and that's literally the only way that farmer owners are able to eke out a living. And the farm worker—the folks who are working in the industry—are primarily working in the specialty crop field, everything from lettuce to all the other vegetables—broccoli, etc. Or they're working in processing fields, which is considered agriculture. You're talking about major CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations categorized as agricultural ventures—which they're not—they're industrial ventures, but they are categorized as agricultural. And so they can go on and pollute and they can go on and exploit people the way that agricultural ventures do.


So that's the framework that they're working in. And so when a farmer tells you we can't afford to pay our farm workers a livable wage, they're not lying to you, they're telling you the truth. Are they in a position to raise their own wages, their own ability to eke out a living? They are just not. They're squeezed between these major agribusinesses, these major corporations and consumers who are expecting them to offer goods at a low price—at a very low price. So that doesn't absolve them, it doesn't mean that they should exploit people—it means that we have a common enemy, it means that we should band together. It means that the farm workers and the farmers should all look at the way that subsidies work and the way that these large agribusinesses are literally the cause of their own poverty on both ends—both the farmer owner and the farm worker. So to me, the solution is really about organizing. It's really about bringing folks together to understand how the food system is structured and what we can do to dismantle the current system and create something that is beneficial to the communities and to the folks who are working in that food system.

“The solution is really about organizing. It's really about bringing folks together to understand how the food system is structured and what we can do to dismantle the current system and create something that is beneficial to the communities and to the folks who are working in that food system.”

Are there any other inspiring examples that you would point to as places that are on the right path or that have found successes?


Yes, absolutely. I mentioned a few examples that point to the kind of system that we are hoping to create, including Tierra y Libertad, which is up there in Washington State—the Familias Unidas por la Justicia that I mentioned that was created a few years ago. And then I also think there are some really exciting things happening with the Good Food Purchasing Policy—the places where we have passed that policy have really seen huge impacts. So L.A. was the first city to win a food purchasing policy back in 2012 and they have created hundreds of new livable wage jobs as a result of the policy. They've also saved billions of gallons of water just by implementing Meatless Mondays in the school system as well as other pretty impressive gains as a whole food system.


The really exciting thing about the Food Purchasing Policy for me is that we're creating these coalitions as a way of actually moving the policy forward in cities where people would normally never sit across the table from each other. So it's really bringing together environmentalists and labor unions and animal welfare activists, together with local economies folks and a host of other people who are concerned about the well-being of the food system. And those coalitions become permanent entities and they become the monitoring value for the policy. So once the policy passes, they then start to collect the data from these institutions that are implementing the policy and that's how we know this impact is taking place—because we are collecting the data from those institutions. And it's really systems-wide, because of the holistic nature of the policy—it really has an impact. And it also has an impact because of the scale. In Chicago, for instance, the public school system spends 30 to 50 million dollars a year in food purchases. So there's a huge amount of food, a huge amount of impact, if you think about the scale of that, that drives the market in the right direction—that's driving the entire market in the direction that we want it to go.

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