Farmworker and Food Labor Movements

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Farmworker and food labor movements have demanded society recognize the inherent human dignity of all workers.

Food Justice Now (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) by Joshua Sbicca focuses on three California based movements including the carceral, labor, and the immigration crisis. Sbicca argues that the food people consume and have access to defines their economic status.  Find out more about the consumers and the effects of the food system in chapter 1, “Inequality and Resistance: The Legacy of Food and Justice Movements.”

There is a long labor history in California of immigrant food-chain workers. Popular opinion often claims these workers are willing to work for less, work harder, and are more docile than the native-born population. Yet the historical record reveals ongoing labor struggles. Not only do more people of color and immigrants work in the food system than whites do, they receive lower pay and fewer benefits, experience less upward mobility, face greater discrimination, and are exposed to more dangerous working conditions. In response, farmworker and food labor movements have demanded society recognize the inherent human dignity of all workers. They have also fought to overcome subordination along the lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and class that are embedded in capitalist wage-labor relations. Given that a socially just food system is impossible without ending inequities, the history of farm and food worker resistance is essential to understanding the development of food justice–inspired food politics.

As the former labor organizer and sociologist Marshall Ganz has shown, there were three waves of farmworker organizing in California before the United Farm Workers (UFW) arose in the 1960s to carry out the most successful challenge to growers’ power to date. The first wave of organizing came about in the early 1900s by Japanese labor associations and the International Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union committed to organizing immigrants and other marginalized laborers. After the Chinese were prevented from immigrating in the late 1800s, there was a labor shortage, so the Japanese were encouraged into farm labor and by 1905 accounted for half of California’s seasonal farm labor. Because they could not own land, many Japanese farmworkers staged strikes to improve labor conditions, and when needed, they formed interethnic alliances with Mexicans and Filipinos to improve wages. In the eyes of growers, farmworkers were a contingent and mobile labor force, so they would sometimes concede to workers’ demands, but never with more than short-term contracts.

One of the major IWW campaigns took off after building farmworker discontent in fields throughout California, so they targeted the single largest agricultural employer in the state, the Durst Brothers Hops Ranch in Wheatland, California. The housing conditions and pay were deplorable, with many workers laboring through dysentery and typhoid fever. After Ralph Durst refused to improve pay, working, and living conditions, workers voted to strike. The following day, a riot ensued during an IWW organizer’s speech after a deputy fired a gun, which protesters then wrestled away and used to kill him and the district attorney. In spite of the murder conviction of two Wobblies (common name for IWW members), the IWW inspired farmworkers to continue organizing throughout the state. The IWW went on to win many workplace wage increases through wildcat strikes and established local union halls as free- speech spaces for migrant workers to build solidarity and organize around their interests.

The next wave of organizing came during the 1930s and early 1940s. Due to sharp wage cuts and fewer farmworkers per acre of land, radical organizers, mainly from the Communist Party, Mexican and Filipino labor associations, and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), stepped back into the fields. Of particular importance was the Communist-aligned and Filipino-led Cannery, Agricultural, and Industrial Workers Union (CAIWU). Unlike most organizing efforts up to that point, there was little federal support for farmworkers. Although they successfully leveraged the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 to get the federal government to intervene in wage negotiations with growers, the intervention failed to generate the outcomes hoped for by farmworkers. Therefore, CAIWU staged some of the largest and most successful strikes to date.

This era also saw the founding of unions in California’s processing, packing, and distribution centers. Despite major territory and sector disputes between the AFL and CIO, the formation of the Longshoremen, Teamsters, and the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America created a new generation of unions representing food workers. Big labor union successes were modest, and oftentimes excluded Mexican and Filipino interests, who therefore formed their own labor associations to rep- resent farmworkers as the newly formed industrial unions focused on organizing the growing urban labor force.

Organizing continued throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s due to the development of the first farmworker-only labor union, the AFL’s National Farm Labor Union (NFLU). Unfortunately, the NFLU was largely unsuccessful in its boycott and strike efforts, and was not account- able to its Mexican and Filipino constituencies. Compared with the efforts of the IWW and CAIWU, which explicitly confronted racism and solidified their position as a greater ally, the NFLU failed to build the power necessary to take on growers. Moreover, because the AFL housed and funded this union, it was insulated from the demands and needs of farmworkers, which resulted in decisions that limited developing the cul tural capital needed to organize Mexicans and Filipinos. The NFLU also did not quell the influence of a new bracero program. Growers outmaneuvered the NFLU by getting the Truman administration to increase the number of documented workers from Mexico, which applied downward pressure on wages and working conditions throughout the industry and prevented unionization of what was now an even larger workforce.

The NFLU set the stage for the formation and future success of the UFW. Beginning in the 1960s, for the first time in the fields of California, labor organizers successfully linked demands for racial justice and economic justice to win major victories. The famous grape boycotts secured better wages, better working conditions, pesticide protections and bans, and most important, the power of labor contracts through collective bar- gaining. Activists, the public, and scholars have overly focused on the exceptional nature of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta as organizers and the once powerful UFW. Most important, however, is the fact that fifty years of organizing California’s farmworkers paved the way for the successes of UFW. One of the culminating moments was the passage in 1975 of the landmark California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The state passed this legislation to intervene in the historic struggle between growers, local political elites, and racist reactionary groups on one side and radical and liberal activists and labor unions and interethnic labor associations on the other side.

At around the same time that farmworkers were making gains, there was a wave of unionization in cities due to the efforts of the Retail Clerks International Union (RCIU). This resulted in major grocery retail chains such as A&P, Lucky Stores, and Safeway improving workers’ pay and offering the union an opportunity to bargain for better working conditions. Much like many farmworker campaigns, the union adopted boycott and strike tactics. Because the grocery retail industry was not yet dominated by a handful of companies with the logistical capacity to absorb these actions and it could not be outsourced, grocery retail workers were advantageously positioned to make major gains. The major chains were 88 percent unionized by 1955, and membership in the RCIU grew from sixty thousand to five hundred thousand between 1944 and 1968. These victories set the stage for workers and unions to fight to maintain their advantage over companies. As technological changes in the food system led to job losses, unions chose to consolidate. Most important for grocery retail, this meant a reduction in the number of butchers as more processed meats filled the shelves. These factors led to the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America to merge with RCIU in 1979 to form the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, becoming the largest union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

While workers in grocery retail made major gains, many fast-food establishments, restaurants, and big-box grocery retailers are still resolutely anti-union. Even in the fields, the gains of the UFW were short lived; organizing has dramatically declined, growers continue to exploit farmworkers, and an overwhelming majority of farmworkers remain nonunion with few other protections or advocates. Because farm and food workers remain marginalized, the struggle for food justice is ongoing. Labor organizers have undertaken a wide range of strategies and tac tics, many of which they borrowed or modified to fit the context. Yet they often face powerful social actors, such as politicians, business owners, or racist and nativist publics, as well as institutional conditions that shape the field of contention.

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Reprinted with Permission from Food Justice Now and Published by University of Minnesota Press.

Copyright 2018 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. 

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