For many, Labor Day has come to stand simply for the end of summer (although fall doesn’t technically start for a few more weeks) and the start of a new school year. But if you’ve got the first Monday of September off, it’s because New York City labor activists founded the holiday in the late 19th century, and if you're having a picnic or cookout, it's because someone (probably quite a few someones) worked to produce that food and get it to you.
The roots of farm labor in the US are tangled in the country’s early reliance on slave labor, and it shows. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1939 (which established the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage, overtime pay and restrictions on child labor) exempted farmworkers and still mostly does, though activists like Cesar Chavez won some protections in the 1960s.
These days, social media has made it easier for labor activists and concerned consumers to push corporations to treat workers more fairly, but old school organizing is still in the fight, too.
Here, to mark Labor Day 2015, is a snapshot of the evolving landscape of food labor.
Organizing and Minimum Wage
This summer’s big news is that fast food workers (and others who work for franchises, like nurses) can now bargain with parent companies rather than each individual franchise owner, which lends a lot more power to those pushing for better treatment.
Farmworkers in Washington State and San Quentin, Mexico have been engaged in a labor dispute with Sakuma Brothers Farm, a major supplier of Driscoll’s, since July 2013, when they sought to unionize. The state supreme court issued an historic ruling in July, saying that the farm must pay workers for rest breaks that the farm owners insisted were covered by piece work rates. The group continues to urge consumers to boycott Driscoll’s until Sakuma negotiates a union contract with the group.
In 2013, when fast food workers took the street in 2013, a $15 minimum wage looked like a bold, beautiful pipe dream – but two years on, check out the growing number of cities making moves to raise their minimums.
Will fast food joints go the way of so many grocery store chains, where self-checkout is on the rise? Maaaybe.
Definitely not. We're sorry if that idea gives you nightmares. They can’t cut close enough to the bones.
New hires start at $10/hr (the company promoted over 10,000 entry-level employees to management last year) with free guacamole. Starbucks and even McDonald’s are trying to up their game in order to attract and retain experienced workers.
Fair (and Safe) Working Conditions
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the group that has convinced fast food and grocery chains to help improve the working conditions of farmworkers through their Fair Food Program, has been working to engage Publix in dialog for six years, to little avail. In case you missed it, grocery chain Ahold signed on to the agreement earlier this summer, joining companies like Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and more.
Nubia Guajardo, the widow of a dairy worker who fell drowned in a manure lagoon at a Washington State dairy this summer, is working with the United Farm Workers to push Darigold to ensure safer conditions for farmworkers in the future.
Workers accusing restaurant owners of wage theft and other abuses are more frequently filing suits against their bosses, who most often settle out of court.
Employees for Tyson Foods, who say they spend up to 30 minutes getting suited up and sharpening knives before hitting the slaughterhouse line (and cleaning up and changing after their shifts) won a $20 million settlement earlier this year, but the win was overturned in federal appeals court in late August.
Retired farmworker Maria Garcia, one of six plaintiffs in a suit against the EPA to regulate the application of pesticides near schools, was frequently exposed to toxic pesticides in the course of her work. She and her fellow plaintiffs have sought to ensure that California schoolchildren are not exposed as well, effectively setting the issue in a broader framework with racial implications; they say that the more Latino kids in a school district, the more harmful fumigants like methyl bromide tend to be applied near schools. A federal judge dismissed the case in January 2014, but Garcia continues to push for stronger regulations.
Immigration and Prison Labor Policies
Nationwide, crop production is falling by nearly 10 percent a year by some accounts, owing to labor shortages resulting from stricter border policies. The shortage has meant higher wages for workers, but also tough times for farmers, and a significant waste of resources going into crops that are left in the fields. The shortage is also hampering the growth of New York’s growing dairy industry.
This summer, we all learned that a good deal of fancy food is being produced in US prisons. Whole Foods took the biggest media hit, but food service giant Aramark’s reliance on prison labor came to light, too.