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.