How foodies can become champions for workers' rights

Time to buy food that comes only from companies that treat their employees fairly

November 27, 2013 6:30AM ET
Produce at a farmers market.
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

As we head into the holiday season, an increasing number of Americans preparing their family meals will be asking questions that would have seemed bizarre just a couple of decades ago: Is the turkey free range? Are the cranberries organic? Can we find locally grown pumpkin for the pie?

Taken to extremes, such questions can seem like a "Portlandia" parody. But concerned eaters have actually leveraged significant change to the food industry. As "slow food" and gourmand culture have broken into the mainstream, desires to support local farms, ensure environmentally sustainable growing practices and avoid pesticides have resulted in a healthier and greener food system.

Recently, a new twist has arisen in the growing trend of food consciousness. Labor rights advocates are asking eaters who care about the origins of the ingredients in their dishes to consider one additional question: How were the workers treated who harvested, packaged and prepared this food?

The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) is fighting to popularize that question. Founded in 2009, the FCWA is a coalition of 22 food workers' advocacy groups, including unions representing food service, processing and retail workers, along with faith-based community groups and projects that bring together immigrant farmworkers. Their goal is to persuade consumers to demand that the employees who pick, process, ship, prepare and serve their food be paid livable wages and enjoy decent working conditions.

FCWA Associate Director Jose Oliva says that food enthusiasts can make a difference through their buying patterns. He has seen how consumers' embrace of organic produce and local, pastured meats has led restaurants, farmers and processors to source their ingredients carefully. If members of the FCWA succeed in their campaign, it could help to produce similar changes in the realm of labor rights.

One way conscious eaters can make a difference is by supporting an increase in the minimum wage. A push to raise it to $10.10 per hour (and 70 percent of that amount for tipped workers) is underway not only in highbrow food culture but also in family restaurants and fast-food franchises. Oliva says the minimum wage is "the most salient example of how foodies who have traditionally not really cared about labor issues are suddenly making a 180-degree turn" — including adding their names to an online petition to raise the minimum wage. Launched by a group of pro-workers' rights foodies called The Welcome Table, the petition is titled "Tell Congress: Don’t Let Food Workers Go Hungry," and now has over 100,000 signatures. Petition signers also pledge to pay 10 cents more per day to ensure that the minimum wage for food workers is also a livable one.

People are willing to pay more to have their food choices reflect their values.

The FCWA estimates that almost 8 million workers throughout the food system would benefit from a national minimum wage boost, and that 29 million workers over all industries would get a raise. In a Thanksgiving-themed "menu" of ways to help improve the lives of food workers, the FCWA asks foodies to sign its petition to raise the wage to $10.10, to spread the word via social media, and to write their members of Congress to urge passage of the raise.

Food workers are also mobilizing to win on three more fronts: they want nationally guaranteed paid sick days, so that they are not forced to show up to work while sick, thus contributing to the spread of infectious disease. They are demanding the right to safe workplaces: Many agricultural employers could easily provide better protections from harmful pesticides for harvest workers. Finally, the workers are demanding their right to a voice on the job, protesting against the abuse and intimidation that frequently occur in the restaurant industry when workers try to unionize.

To push for these rights, the FCWA's member groups are reaching out to consumers with messages about specific bad-actor employers in each of these areas. These employers include Wal-Mart, which has allegedly stolen wages from workers and routinely quashed unionization drives at its stores; and the Darden restaurant group, which owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden and other family-style chains. Workers at Darden establishments are still denied any paid sick days and must work for a $2.13-an-hour tipped wage even as Darden's CEO receives $8.5 million per year in salary.

One FCWA member group, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC), has already begun winning over consumers to the idea that good workplace practices — known as "high road practices" — can lead to a better dining experience. In Washington D.C., for instance, where the ROC was instrumental in winning a paid-sick-days law in 2008 covering all non-restaurant employers, workers' rights groups are still fighting to get restaurant workers included. But some employers already provide paid sick days despite not being required to do so. High road restaurateur Andy Shallal has won the ROC's endorsement — and broad public support — by vocally promoting his employment practices like providing paid sick time, health insurance and livable wages for all employees. Shallal announced this month that he is running for mayor, hoping to show that the cachet of being a high road restaurateur can even be a political boon.

Critics argue that benefits such as paid sick days and higher minimum wages are not in the interests of working people, since they will compel employers to cut staff. However, multiple studies into the effects of minimum wage increases on businesses, including recent research from the Center on Economic and Policy Research, indicate that higher minimum wages do not cause layoffs. Instead, the center's study finds, the likely results of raising the minimum wage include "reductions in labor turnover; improvements in organizational efficiency; reductions in wages of higher earners; and small price increases."

Will the prospect of small price increases sour consumers from making common cause with those who grow and prepare their food? Previous experience suggests otherwise. As food culture has taken hold, it has demonstrated that people are willing to pay more to have their food choices reflect their values. And FCWA advocates say that eaters knowledgeable about the benefits of fresh, sustainably grown food have shown enthusiasm for the principle that those who work most closely with food should be able to afford to eat organic too.

This Thanksgiving, Oliva says, "We're all going to be thinking about food and about how grateful and thankful we are for what we have. And we can also think about the workers, without whom we couldn't have that meal."

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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