Monday, September 3, 2012

A Labor Day 'Shout Out' to Food Workers

Since today is Labor Day and this is a blog about the politics of food, I feel that I should say a little bit about the workers who help to make our food.  It's worth taking a moment to reflect on how these workers fit into the labor movement and labor history.

First, there are farmworkers.  While the United Farm Workers (UFW) union sometimes rises up and wins benefits for farmworkers, these workers are generally quite vulnerable.  Not only are farmworkers frequently immigrant labor, but the federal government does not acknowledge or protect the right of farmworkers to organize.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 acknowledged and gave the the government the responsibility to protect workers' right to organize, but it explicitly excludes workers in agriculture.  This was, in part, because of the influence of southern Democrats -- and the southern planters, who were among there most influential constituents.  Southern Democrats, planters, and others did not want tenant farmers and sharecroppers organizing.  The Southern Farmers Tenant Union (STFU) faced violence and repression in the 1930s -- and the federal government, for the most part, looked the other way.

Still today, farmworkers do not have federal protection for organizing.  Some states, like California, have recognized the right of farmworkers to form unions and bargain collectively with employers.  In 1975, California passed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (CALRA).  This law grants the same rights to farmworkers as the NLRA grants to most other workers.  In other states, such as Florida and Georgia, farmworkers lack such protections.

Second, I want to mention meatpacking workers.  Unlike farmworkers, meatpacking workers are not excluded from the NLRA.  In fact, in the middle of the 1900s, meatpacking workers had quite formidable unions in Illinois, Iowa, and elsewhere.  During the 1950s and 1960s, unions helped to gain increased pay, health benefits, better working conditions, workplace representation, and other benefits for workers in the meatpacking industry.

Iowa Beef Processing (IBP) helped to pioneer methods and strategies to cuts costs, especially labor costs.  As they did, unions were weakened and the number of immigrants in the meatpacking industry increased.  Today, the meatpacking industry has high turnover and high rates of accidents.  And, of course, union representation has decreased significantly in the industry since the 1970s.

So, as we celebrate Labor Day with a variety of foods, we should consider for a moment the ongoing struggles and inequities faced by these workers, in particular.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Agricultural Commodities, Regionalism, and National Policy

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported on discussions and debates around the new farm bill.  The article could be directly out of my book.

The article outlines how cotton and peanut growers in the South have policy preferences that differ from farmers in the Corn and Wheat Belts.

Since the article is in a Georgia newspaper, the primary focus is on Georgia politicians, such as Saxby Chambliss (US senator) and Gary Black (state ag commissioner).  Notably, the southern Republican politicians are fighting to retain government protections from market instability for southern farmers.

Of course, it's also interesting that some of the same politicians are fighting to eliminate or reduce protections from market instability for the poor in the form of food stamps.  (Note that the cost of food stamps has risen in recent years as more and more families had to rely on such government support as the economy collapsed and unemployment increased 4 years ago.)

Anyway, the point is that this process -- divisions and shifting coalitions in agriculture leading to changes in agricultural policy -- has been going on for almost 100 years (if not longer).

Read all about it in my book!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Appearing on Wisconsin Public Radio

On Monday, April 30, at 11am EST, I will be a guest on the KATHLEEN DUNN SHOW with John Munson guest-hosting.  This is on Wisconsin Public Radio.

I'll be on with Elizabeth Ransom, who is an associate professor of sociology at University Richmond.  Elizabeth is a friend of mine who studies the global red meat trade, especially in Africa.  (Check out her research if you have the chance!)

John Munson, Elizabeth, and I will discuss the current food system.  It should be interesting, so listen in if you have the chance.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Chickens & Eggs; Capital & the State

I've had tried to make a common point in a number of posts: government regulation does not always mean socialism. Regulations do not always represent a fight between business and government.

Instead, companies often push for government regulations. In a number of other posts, I have offered examples of this: the restaurant trade association favoring nutrition regulations, some corporations favoring health care legislation, some conservative farm organizations supporting extensive economic regulations in agriculture, and so on.

This morning, I heard another classic example of this phenomenon on NPR in a story about egg-producing chickens. As the story indicates, the "United Egg Producers, which represents companies that produce about 95 percent of the country's eggs" is supporting federal regulation to improve conditions under which egg-laying chickens are kept.

For many years, egg-laying chickens have been kept in confined spaces with their environments -- temperature, lighting, etc. -- closely controlled to maximize their egg production. Under the proposed legislation, cages would be provide more space, room to perch, and a "nest box."

Now, there are several key points to this story. First, as already seen, a significant part of the egg industry is in favor of this legislation. Why? A couple of reasons. One reason is pressure from the Humane Society. This is important because it shows the role that pressure from a social movement organization can have.

Another reason for the industry favoring this legislation is that the United Egg Producers is seeking to smooth out potentially unfair competition and uneven state-level legislation. California already has a law regulating the conditions of chickens in the egg industry, and other states are likely to follow. (I might also add here that other countries, especially in Europe, already have such laws.) This creates the potential that producers in different states or selling to different places may be subject to different standards and regulations, thereby leading to different costs of production (and differing abilities to compete in the market).

Federal legislation would reduce this kind of competition by holding all companies to the same standards and regulations.

The second key point in this story is that the egg industry did not simply decide to support this legislation on ethical or moral grounds, or because the industry felt it was the right thing to do. Rather, the Humane Society -- an organization advocating for the welfare of animals -- created pressure and contributed to legislative successes that prompted the egg industry to move in this direction. In my view, then, this story helps to illuminate one way that social movements can be successful: by helping to forge a context in which the interests of a powerful group begins to coincide with policies pushed by the movement.

Finally, this story contains one more key point: the primary opponents of the legislation includes "some influential farm organizations" such as "Beef producers, hog farmers, dairy farmers and the American Farm Bureau have all lined up against it." The other segments of the meat industry are concerned about a federal law that would regulate the conditions of animals.

Note, that the conditions that animals -- chickens, hogs, cows, etc. -- are kept in is the result of the imperatives of profit and efficiency. What's the most cost efficient (i.e., lowest cost) way to keep chickens, etc.? A government regulation, such as the one supported by egg producers, can eliminate the competition that comes at the expense of the living conditions of animals.

Here again is the embodiment of the analysis found in The Politics of Food Supply: different segments of agriculture develop competing economic interests and form (sometimes surprising) coalitions to try to influence national policy.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Paperback Edition of The Politics of Food Supply is now available!

You can now get The Politics of Food Supply in paperback for just $22. Check it out from, Barnes & Noble, or the Yale University Press webpage.

The paperback edition includes a new preface that I wrote.

In the new preface, I briefly discuss how the book's analysis of changes in US agricultural policy relates to the 2008 food crisis, in which the number of people suffering from hunger in the world is estimated to have surpassed 1 billion for the first time and which led to food riots in more than 30 countries.

Check it out!