Reflections on the Rebellion of Food Chain Workers: or Why the Food System Matters

Bellingham, WA – Recently, following a line of examination that was first advanced by professor Devon Peña’s Environmental and Food Justice blog through a five part series called “When Food Workers Rebel,” that wove together the struggle of berry picker’s in Burlington, Washington, service workers organizing against Whole Foods Markets, and strawberry plant farm workers in Tule Lake, California. Community to Community Development Formación Civica Director, Edgar Franks organized a series of community dialogues titled, “When Low Wage Workers Rebel”.

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There is a certain resonance looking towards a new era of migrant farm worker and working class solidarity and creative organization, as The Militant recently held similar community forums under the banner of “Unify the Working Class: What has been gained from recent struggles by farm workers, Machinists, and Teamsters”

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And the Teamsters union in Washington, in an unprecedented move, recently joined forces with the United Farm Workers struggle to organize dairy farm workers at Darigold farms in eastern Washington state and UFCW represented grocery store workers through the formation of the Farm to Family Coalition.

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The Food Chain Workers Alliance of Los Angeles of course has been doing this type of organizing since 2008, with entities such as Data Center and Labor Notes doing this type of work for much longer. The US Food Sovereignty Alliance has also led the way in terms of envisioning what food sovereignty would look like within the borders of the United States.

All of these examples of food chain solidarity lead us to consider a new era of justice work, of a particular type of food justice work based upon food sovereignty.

At the C2C panel, Carlos Hernandez was unable to make it, as his commitment to being physically present with the Boeing Machinists demonstration at Westlake center that day made him unable to find a ride that would get him to Bellingham on time. Needless to say, Franks filled the panel spot with Tara Villalba, the program coordinator for Community to Community Development who spoke as a seasoned Migrant worker activist.

Villalba in her response to Franks, who moderated the dialogue, who asked a question about what was the significance to systemic change made by these rebellions, argued that in Hong Kong and the Philippines, as it was here in the United States, that food sovereignty, which she defined as the ability to grow your own food and live off of your own means of production is the same problem that you see on both sides of migration. For those who stay, the struggle is to find a way to get basic shelter, to eat, and get rid of waste in a sustainable manner; it is the same struggle for resettled or migrant workers across the food chain in new geographies, food sovereignty.

The other panelists, Ramon Torres and Rhonda Ivie, gave evidence to this that was specific to their own struggles as farm workers and grocery store workers, respectively. Ivie presented on why it was so important for Wal-Mart workers to have the ability to be represented collectively. Torres presented the gains they had made through the creation of their organization Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and their struggle for a $15/hour wage, health benefits, and better working conditions via a boycott campaign for a contract. Ivie, discussed the importance of being able to come into a place of employment as a grocery clerk and have the ability to be represented by a union.

All of the panelists discussed how they were united by a common denominator of struggling for justice against injustice.

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On November 16, 2013 Ramon Torres spoke on a panel with union rank and file members involved in the Davis Wire struggle with the Teamsters, the IAM local 79 struggle at Belshaw Adamatic Bakery Group, as well as longshoremen and rank & file machinists currently involved in the Boeing struggle.

The discussion was moderated by the editorial staff of The Militant, who also provided an international scope of the struggle by linking it to working class struggles in Egypt, Cuba, and the Philippines. They contextualized the solidarity emerging between the rank and file of the working class and farm workers along the food chain as a historical precedent that had twice before led to revolutions, one in Mexico and a second in Russia.

In fact, Juan Vicente Palerm, recently pointed out in a reform lobby policy brief that,

Over the ages, the oppression of agricultural workers by the landed has often been met by resistance and erupted into outright rebellion. Sometimes successfully, as is the case of the Mexican revolution of 1910 that destroyed the hacienda system and transformed modern Mexico (Womack, 1969), and other times unsuccessfully as were the peasant uprisings in Andalusian, Spain, under the banner of anarco-syndicalism that ended with ruthless repression (Diaz del Moral, 1967). Indeed, the first half of the 20th century, when capitalism consolidated its grip over agriculture, witnessed myriad peasant-worker resistance, uprisings and revolutions (Hobsbawm, 1959; Wolf, 1969; and Scott, 1985).
(Palerm, Unpublished Policy Brief, pp. 3-4, 2013)

Capitalists are so worried about this type of collaboration occurring between the food chain’s rank and file that they have even resorted to extreme and what we consider desperate measures, as reported by Democracy Now, U.S. Corporations Enlist Ex-Intelligence Agents to Spy on Nonprofit Groups. This type of overkill on behalf of multi-national corporations lead us to consider that the crisis for capital is perhaps coming to a peak.

The risk, of course is allowing the interests of capital to to determine our line of struggle, as blogger Mauro Sifuentes suggests,

Our relationship to easily accessible material lends itself to reactivity, as we are not choosing our own subjects of inquiry outside of market demands; we know that popular culture (including most online news sources) cater to profitability. If the dominant forces are providing us with the majority of our material to critique, they are essentially formulating our resistance for us. (Pop-Culture Criticism/Reactive Anti-Racism)

When we allow ourselves to be sucked up into time and resource wasting reactionary politics, by turning upon ourselves, we take some of the creativity and strength away from the movement.

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Considering that Wal-mart is one of the above mentioned corporations, the Farm to Family Coalition must be on its radar by now. In a press conference at the Teamsters Union Hall in Tukwila on November 16, 2013, Margarito Martinez, pictured above, a former farm worker at Ruby Ridge Dairy which as being organized by the United Farm Workers Union to no avail, shared pretty much the same experiences of wage theft, poor working conditions, mistreatment, harassment and retaliation that workers across the food chain have experienced. He was followed by Lisa Hearing, a Darigold lab technician who described how their workplaces ran 24 hours a day in order to make sure that the milk being processed was safe for public consumption, Steve Williamson and Denise Jagieglo of the UFCW both described how dock workers and grocery store clerks also participated in transporting the product without breaking the cold storage and providing service to the customers to help make healthy decisions.

That the majority of the people on all of these panels were people of color, and that many of the workers represented are women speaks to a unique truth. The truth of the matter is, as The Atlantic recently published,

The labor market is stratified, if not calcified, by race, with whites seeing higher wages and lower unemployment, while blacks and Hispanics cluster in lower-paying jobs.(Derek Thompson, The Workforce is Even More Divided by Race Than You Think, November 6, 2013)

Solidarity is not just an ideology under these conditions, but a way to survive. When solidarity is politicized towards the project of Food Sovereignty for people of color and women, the possibilities for working families are moved from mere survival towards the possibility to thrive becomes a reality.

Why does the food system matter? Because governments and corporations no longer see us as people, or even as populations to manage, but much more in the way that they treat crops to tend to and warehouse and harvest.

We come from those that are overrepresented in prison populations, mental health institutions, foster care systems, and beyond. These are places where we are warehoused, like the labor camps described by Ramon Torres.

In the same way we are warehoused, we are displaced, by state sanctioned terrorism, by natural disasters made more intense by monocultural plantation farming and deforestation. Where we die in the tens of thousands at a time, so that a military base can be built where we used to live, or maybe a new plantation.

Once we are in motion, we exercise our autonomy for but a moment. But more likely than not, we are then herded like livestock, into refugee camps, into ghettos, into labor camps.

When we settle, we become crops with organs, plasma and sex to be harvested that as commodities in a global market can be sold to the highest bidder. We are no longer just alienated of our labor, but of our own humanity. Dignity lacking, for even the parts of our bodies have a price, under extreme conditions of alienation, our lives have become commodities, have become something that you spend as opposed to live.

This is what has broken the fabric of our communities, and this is why we have to stick together through the darkness towards a brighter tomorrow.

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