Food chain workers alliance

"Food workers are the hands that feed us, yet they are this group of invisible people.”  

What does a truly sustainable food system look like?  Amid growing awareness of the connection between farming, health, and the environment, many people feel sustainability is about how our food is grown and distributed.  For the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) and the 20 million people in America who plant, harvest, process, transport, prepare, serve, and sell the food on our plates1, that question must also include who.

Food Worker Identity

The FCWA is a national coalition of 23 worker-based organizations, including unions, worker centers, and food justice groups, that collectively represents close to 300,000 workers across the food chain.  Prior to 2008, many labor organizations were concerned that worker justice issues were being left out of the conversation around sustainable food systems. These groups were struggling with ways to integrate their work into the growing national food movement. As Diana Robinson, Campaign and Education Coordinator for FCWA put it, "Food workers are the hands that feed us, yet they are this group of invisible people.”  

In 2008, several worker justice organizations began to meet and discuss ways they could collaborate, share information, and support each other’s work. The groups, realizing that a formal alliance would be a strategic way to build power along the food chain formed the Food Chain Workers Alliance in 2009 with ten founding members.2

According to Robinson, the FCWA’s founding members felt it was critical to create a food worker identity, which encompasses those who work across the food chain, from agricultural production, to processing, packing and transport, to retail and restaurants. Bringing all workers in these sectors under a common identity helps them connect with each other and recognize they are part of a shared struggle.  It also bridges the gap between the food movement and the labor movement, and helps advocates in both see their common vision.

Building Power

FCWA engages their member organizations in all aspects of their work. Ensuring that workers themselves participate in the coalition is key, so FCWA requires that 75% of their member organizations are engaged in direct worker organizing. FCWA’s board of directors is made up of their member organizations, including both staff and worker-members, and decisions for the Alliance are made by the board and the membership.

FCWA’s four program areas, grounded in broader movement building, also directly engage their membership. Each program area is governed by a committee made up of the membership, and each member organization is required to participate in one program area. Program areas are Education and Communications, which focuses on creating tools and strategies to education the public and the media about issues facing food systems workers; Workers Leadership Development and Solidarity, focused on developing organizing and advocacy resources for workers; Policy and Standards, which works towards policies, certification programs, and standards that ensure worker protection; and Campaigns, which supports the organizing campaigns of member organizations.

In addition to engaging members and workers in their programs, FCWA also believes in the power of bringing workers together. Once a year, the organization hosts a retreat for their member organizations’ staff and worker members to share their stories, learn new skills, and build solidarity with each other.

FCWA believes that this bottom up approach is key to their strength as a coalition. Says Robinson, “It’s really important to come together, decide on your mission and goals, how you want your network to function, and then move on to hiring staff.” This strategy allowed for the membership to feel ownership of FCWA and its work.

Shared Struggle

We still have a long way to go before there is full justice, fair working conditions, and a living wage for all workers in the food chain. But the FCWA and the organizations that make up their coalition have made great strides in raising the profile of worker justice issues in the food movement through their reports, their new comic book, Food Chain Avengers, and their week of actions. They have also gotten traction with their Good Food Purchasing Policy, which includes fair labor standards in institutional and municipal food procurement policies. In the Northeast, they were able to win paid sick days for workers in New York City and raise New York's tipped minimum wage from $5 to $7.50 an hour. (In all but 8 states, and in all 12 states in the NESAWG region, the minimum wage for tipped workers is lower than the state minimum wage.)

But for Robinson, FCWA’s greatest achievement is the impact they have on their worker members. “The biggest victory in the work that we do is connecting workers from across the food chain and for them to see they have a shared struggle. It’s one of the most powerful things to witness.”

“The biggest victory in the work that we do is connecting workers from across the food chain and for them to see they have a shared struggle. It’s one of the most powerful things to witness.”

Harvir Kaur, the Community Manager at Brandworkers, an FCWA member organization, agrees. She attended the FCWA Retreat earlier this year with two Brandworkers members. “Worker members got to see they’re not alone in the struggle that’s happening across the country. It really builds solidarity. It was a really powerful space.”

The solidarity built between workers translates into peer to peer learning and partnerships on campaigns, projects, and actions. It’s through those collaborations that power is built, for the movement as a whole, and for the workers themselves.

“Food workers are self-reliant and resilient,” says Robinson. “They create their own solutions to the problems they face.”

image credit: Food Chain Workers Alliance

1 Food Chain Workers Alliance. (2012). The Hands that Feed Us. Los Angeles, CA: Author. Retrieved from http://foodchainworkers.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Hands-That-Feed-Us-Report.pdf

2Food Chain Workers Alliance. (n.d.) Mission and History. Retrieved from http://foodchainworkers.org/?page_id=38