Good Food Means Good Workplaces: Jose Oliva on Food Chain Worker Organizing in the age of Trump

To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of NESAWG’s It Takes a Region conference we’re talking with food systems organizers and practitioners who are at the forefront of change in our region. What have these leaders seen over the past 25 years, and where do they see us heading? What do we need to know about the opportunities and constraints imposed by our current political climate, and how can we move together, as a collection of diverse communities, into a united food movement?

Our first reflection is from Jose Oliva, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, who generously shared his story and the work of food chain workers around the country who are innovating tactics and building power to transform not just labor conditions in the food system, but how our communities and institutions navigate complex social and environmental issues.

NESAWG: Can you give us a bit more of a snapshot of your story, how you got involved in food systems work?

First of all let me start by saying that I'm by no means an expert on food system stuff, I'm not an expert at any of this. I’m someone who has worked in the food system, who has pretty deep roots in the food system. I was born and raised in Guatemala. My grandfather was part of the Arbenz Administration in the 1940's in Guatemala, which lead the Land Redistribution Program that, essentially, triggered the CIA sponsored coup in 1954. Up to that point, everything my grandfather had done up was around Agrarian Reform, it was all around farm workers, agricultural workers, folks who live on the land who are subsistence farmers and so forth. When the coup happened, we ended up in this little town called Xela, up in the highlands, which is where I was born. My mother was a schoolteacher who was pretty conscious and understood the disparity between the haves and the have nots had a lot to do with why her students were coming to school hungry. She decided she wanted to do something about it. That's actually what then triggered her persecution, this is in the context of a Civil War in Guatemala. Anyone who did anything that was even remotely rocking the boat was automatically labeled a Communist and automatically go for their heads. My Mom's reaction was basically to flee. She had two kids, she didn't wanna put us in peril so we ended up coming here in 1985.


Even though she was a school teacher back in Guatemala and obviously college educated, her first job her was in a restaurant. She worked at this fancy Italian joint up in Evanston, which is a Northern suburb of Chicago. I remember going to pick her up and looking inside the restaurant and just sort of falling in love with the industry, loving the energy, all of what makes up the restaurant industry. It wasn't until years later when I started working in the restaurant industry that my Mom started telling me stories about what she had gone through. She was sexually harassed, she was shorted on her paychecks, all this stuff that persists. The same conditions and situations--and initially she decided to tell me the stories because she heard me telling my cousin a story about how I was shorted on a paycheck and that triggered her to tell me this whole story. I was like, "Why did you wait until now? Why wouldn't you tell me this before I got into the industry?"

I spent many years in the industry and in 2001 a group of co-workers and me decided that we'd had enough. We were working in also a fancy Italian restaurant called Francesca's, of Chicago, and decided we needed to do something. We didn't know what that something was, but I knew because I was connected to this community group called Casa Guatemala, that you organize, right? You can come together and do something and that sort of put me on a trajectory to create the first worker center in Chicago, which was called at the time, The Chicago Interfaith Workers Center. (It is now called the Arise Chicago Worker Center. Still the same organization, same framework.)

Our original vision wasn't exclusively for restaurant workers, there was a broader vision; anyone who would need help and support can come in here. This group of restaurant workers from a place called Bicci in downtown Chicago came in and the stories that they told were just horrendous and it was such extreme sexual harassment, like almost sexual assault happening, which again, is one of those things that persists. This was in 2001 to this day that still happens.  Not necessarily in that particular restaurant but in the industry. They told stories of how one of the managers would make them drop their pants and then walk towards them with their pants around their ankles in order to collect their checks. He wouldn't give them their check unless they did that--so the sense of humiliation combined with sexual assault, that was just really insidious. Not to mention management didn't maintain the restaurant so people who would come in from front of the house into the kitchen would just slip if they didn't know. There was one worker that broke his ankle and another one who broke his wrist falling into the kitchen. And then the usual other stuff around wages; people would get shorted, tips would never add up, there was a tip pool and management would totally dip into it and take huge amounts of money out of that tip pool.

They came in with all of these issues and our reaction was, "Well, we should do what we did at Francesca's, we should organize a delegation of people of faith." Alright so you have a couple collars in the group, and then you have news media, usually a Spanish language, the English media didn't care but the Spanish language media would send a camera, and so we decided we were gonna mark in on the boss and deliver this list of demands that the workers had.

As soon as we walked in, the boss just kicked us out. He was furious, he started yelling at us and cursing at the religious people and kicked us all out of the restaurant. That had not happened before, so at that point, sort of improvising, we decided we’re gonna stay there, we were going to march in front of the restaurant, sort of picket line style and tell anyone who's coming into the restaurant what was going on. And we turned away several customers. There were people who were about to walk in and one of the priests would go up to them and tell them what was happening and they would turn around and walk away.

Within minutes we had the same manager who had just kicked us out, calling us to come inside and begging us to stop. At that point, like, "Look, this is what we want, we don't want anything that's extraordinary, we want an end essentially to all these illegal practices." Including firing this one supervisor who was the one who was doing all that nasty stuff. So, he agreed to it, right and sort of on-the-spot trying the agreement and we walked out of there feeling like we had just invented a whole new model of organizing.

And then a few months later, I ran into Saru Jayaraman at a conference. She talked about Restaurant Opportunities Center and I was like, "Wait a minute! That's full of similarities to what we just did! They have a whole methodology, they've got it figured out."  I came up to her after her panel and told her, "Look, we're doing the same thing in Chicago. We should really think about doing something together. Doing a national restaurant worker convening." I wasn't thinking organization yet, that was Saru's idea, I was just like, "Let's bring all these restaurant workers from all over the US together.”

It took a little while but then in 2006 we finally brought all restaurant workers organizations and worker centers and so forth, into one singular conversation about what we could do together.  Then that led to, obviously, the creation of ROC United in 2008. (Editor's note: that's ROC in action, at a recent fair wage rally, in the image to the left.)

There were folks talking about what food does to animals, animal welfare, and so forth. What we didn't notice, what we didn't hear at the time was anyone talking about what food does to workers or the people who are actually making the food, whether it's the farm workers or the restaurant workers or anybody in between.


Moreso at ROC United, it was pretty evident that there was this huge growing food movement. There were folks who were talking about food, from the perspective of what food does to the environment both from the production end and on the consumption end, there were folks talking about what food does to communities in terms of urban or rural agriculture, access to good food, access to any food in some cases. There were folks talking about what food does to animals, animal welfare, and so forth. What we didn't hear at the time was anyone talking about what food does to workers or the people who are actually making the food, whether it's the farm workers or the restaurant workers or anybody in between. We decided to pull together all of these organizations that we kept running into. 

At the 2008 Labor Notes Conference in Chicago we brought together groups like Brandworkers, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, ROC United, CATA Farmworkers Support Committee, and the International Labor Rights Forum. We talked a little bit more about this Food Worker Alliance that we wanted to create. At that Labor Notes Conference it was pretty clear that there was not just a will to do it but there was excitement and there was a need. There was this growing food movement with no worker voice in it and so someone had to make sure that workers were in that state or that they were part of that conversation. That's the genesis of the Food Chain Workers Alliance in 2008.

The two things that we decided that we needed to do, sort of a mandate, if you will, of the Food Chain Workers Alliance at that time was: 1. Insert our voice into growing food movement,  2. identify ways, campaigns, projects, programs, etc. to actually band together the various sectors of the food movement into a singular campaign.


In our minds it was like, “imagine how powerful we could be.” We're over here talking about worker issues and those folks over there are talking about environment and those folks are talking about animal welfare or access, or whatever. It sort of became clear that if we could unite all of those various sectors, we could actually win some really awesome stuff-and so the thing that emerged, this is a little bit later, and it took us a couple years to develop it and to actually launch the campaign to win it, but eventually, after a couple years of campaigning in 2012, we passed the first Good Food Purchasing Policy in Los Angeles.

Each of these five value categories - human health, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, local economies, and valued workforce - function as a sort of as a floor, so you don't actually get to choose and pick which ones of the five you're going to be good on, you have to meet the baseline for all five at the same time. It's a procurement policy so the idea is going directly to major institutional purchasers like the LA Unified School District that purchases over $300 million dollars worth of food every year. We were going after that instead of going after individual consumers or even after companies. In 2012 we passed it in LA, then we waited a full year after passing it to get some results and to understand how it was actually having an impact if it was having an impact at all.


What we noted was that there was definitely an impact on at least four of the five value categories. It's hard to measure the health category because there's so many other factors that are contributing to it. What you can measure is the healthlness of the food that's being served. We can't really measure how people or how the human body is reacting to that, per se but there are a lot of other factors there. (Editor’s note: read the evaluation report for more details.)

In late 2014, early 2015, we launched a national campaign to pass the Good Food Purchasing Policies in a number of other cities. The first places that adopted it were San Francisco and Oakland and then last year, we won in Chicago. Now there's four cities, LA, San Francisco, Oakland and Chicago, all of which are implementing the Food Purchasing Policy.

We also have campaigns in the Northeast going on in Washington D.C., New York City, Boston and Buffalo. Then there's campaigns in Cincinnati, Ohio;  Twin Cities, Minnesota; and Madison, Wisconsin, then down in the south there are campaigns in Northwest Arkansas. A few other sort of spots all over the country, like, Denver and Austin, Texas; San Diego, California. 

NESAWG: You've successfully rolled it out in a few cities. You just named many other cities that you're working on. What's next? Let's say that you win all of them. What do you think is the next step in realizing food chain worker power?

There's so many different possibilities, there's two different ways I'm looking at it. I think the Good Food Purchasing Policy is sort of scaffolding. I've had this conversation with several folks who are, "Well but it doesn't do this thing and it doesn't do this other thing." But yeah, it's not intended to do everything. It's intended to basically be a foot in the door in these large institutions. So scaling up GFPP, whether State and then federal level. There's these huge amounts of money going to food procurement in federal institutions like the Pentagon.

There's also this possibility of scaling it out and what I mean by that is exactly the pieces that GFPP does not address. Can we do other policies that could be complementary or supplementary to GFPP? Not to compete with the GFPP or criticize GFPP, but saying ‘this is another policy in your institution that you could implement that could go hand in hand with GFPP to address some other issues like racial inequity, for instance.’ GFPP does a fantastic job of those five value categories and awards extra points to institutions who purchase from minority and women owned businesses, but there are actually really deep problems with the way a city even identifies who is minority or a woman owned business. There are loopholes, there are exceptions, there's all kinds of ways that companies can get around a requirement. So part of what we've been thinking and conceptualizing is what we've been calling Good Food Communities, the idea that we can actually launch this supplementary campaign.

Once GFPP has passed in a city, then we can then go back to the same institutions and say, "Look, how 'bout this policy as a way of complimenting what you have with GFPP to ensure that women owned, minority owned businesses are the ones that are actually getting these contracts instead of going to the usual suspects; instead of the same five companies that get the contract every time. So yeah, so that's the other thing that we've been thinking about is sort of scaling it out instead of scaling it up.

It's not an either or for us, it's and/both. I think we need to continue to stay focused on GFPP, I think we need to continue to stay focused on passing it in as many cities and as many institutions as possible all over the US. We need to grow the Center for Good Food Purchasing which is the verification entity for GFPP. We need to make sure there's robust enforcement of GFPP, so, we need to make sure that these policies get passed and it's not just the will of that local institution at that moment that's actually implementing GFPP's; that it's something that really becomes institutionalized; an ordinance or a city council resolution or whatnot.

Simultaneously, we've been thinking a lot about how our work is actually trying to affect broader system change.  We do a lot of training work at the micro level, if you will, we train individual leaders from our member organizations, we give them a lot of organizing tools, a lot of analytical tools.

That I think is all part of our work. Simultaneously, we've been thinking a lot about how our work is actually trying to affect broader system change.  We do a lot of training work at the micro level, we train individual leaders from our member organizations, we give them a lot of organizing tools, a lot  of analytical tools.

Simultaneous to that we have meso-level campaigns which includes GFPP but also our other members campaigns. That's intended to then build towards the macro-level which is movement building work. It's a part of the movement building work includes the HEAL Food Alliance-we are one of the founding organizations, three other organizations Union of Concerned Scientists, Real Food Challenge, and the National Black Food Justice Alliance. The four of us together created HEAL. (Editor's note: check out that HEAL family photo below!) That's a way of actually doing what GFPP does at the campaign sort of meso-level but we wanted to do this at the macro-level to ensure that all of the folks are doing work around Food System Transformation, can see themselves reflected in the Coalition that was not about just one sector or about one issue but that was really about the entire food system and about how we can actually transform the food system as a whole. 

The other piece of our macro work is Mayday United. It's a labor coalition so it's mostly unions, worker centers, other worker organizations that essentially are attempting to create something that will be a labor front of the resistance to the attacks on all of the targets of this Administration and of many of the Administration's allies in Congress. Immigrants, women, Muslims, LGBT Community, I mean it's pretty much everybody whose under attack-and that's the idea that we could create a labor entity that could actually present that united front to resistance against those policies of hate.

NESAWG: What challenges are unique in the work you're trying to do? In particular, a lot of folks are trying to organize at the local level or the state level in lieu of trying to do anything federally right now. Is that a problem for you or are there other challenges where folks are getting pulled into more reactionary crisis work right now?

Yeah, absolutely. I also think that the politics of this country have been polarized, not just left right for sure but also local federal, local state.I think most cities have at least Democratic and in some cases, progressive city councils and Mayors and so it's harder for the right-wing to have this sort of influence over those folks because they just can't, they don't have the in road to affect them. As long as we play at that level, I don't know that we're ever gonna find real resistance. The resistance we have seen is in the form of the Farm Bureau or the Restaurant Association. They have influence, they're business lobbies and so their influence essentially limited to saying this part of this proposal, we don't support this part of the proposal, or whatever.  It’s been fair, it’s been tranquil, the seas are calm right now and I'd love to keep it that way.

There's some serious challenges in terms of getting people to look forward. It is really hard to lift up your head when you're bleeding, you know? And that's how people feel.

The other part of the question, though, which I think is actually real for us right now. There's some serious challenges in terms of getting people to look forward. It is really hard to lift up your head when you're bleeding, you know? And that's how people feel.

I don't know if you saw the news but last week almost 100 workers were deported from this beef processing plant in Tennessee called Southeast Provision. People feel like they're under attack. There isn't a single member in our alliance that's not lost members to deportation. Everyone has and that is a real, it's a threat, it's an exponential threat to food workers because that's who we are. I dunno who Trump thinks is going to be picking the vegetables and doing the beef and pork and poultry processing. I think part of why we organized this Mayday United Coalition is because we know that this is a moment of huge peril for our members and we wanna make sure that we have something; a tool that allows us to tip it from defense to something that's more on the offense. We do think that's what this Mayday United Coalition is it allows us to organize major national days of action on Mayday and also use that as a pivot point to win campaigns instead of just defending what we've won.

NESAWG: Do you want people to take a particular action? Do you need money? What would you like? What do you wanna ask of the folks that read this?

Yeah, I would love money. It baffles some folks when I tell them that we represent collectively 350,000 workers. However, we have a staff of six. So, yeah, absolutely, resources are always, always welcome and always necessary. (Editor’s note: here’s the link to make a gift to support the Food Chain Workers Alliance’s award-winning work. The photo on the right is Jose and his co-director Joann Lo receiving the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award.)

There's a real way that NESAWG followers can be engaged in supporting their local food system workers. I think one of the core things is making sure that you know which worker-led campaigns are happening in your region or in your state or in your city. Obviously, some folks are in Washington D.C. or New York City or Buffalo of Boston. They should look up their GFPP Coalition, they should join that GFPP Coalition. It's necessary to get the diverse voices; sectorally diverse voices that are necessary to make the argument for why we need policies like GFPP.

There's also campaigns that our members are running.  Wendy's is a campaign that people should be engaged in because it really does affect all of us. The One Fair Wage Campaign that ROC is leading that's about the elimination of a tipped minimum wage. As you know, I'm sure, the tipped minimum wage has been frozen federally at $2.13 an hour, which is just obscene, almost 30 years now, since 1991. So we really do need allies to help unlodge that. Really the ideal ask is for your members is to connect with the local ROC chapter and find out where the One Fair Wage Campaign is so that they can be active participants in that kind of thing.

Many thanks to Jose for generously sharing his story and the the details of Food Chain Workers Alliance’s work. If you learned something, or appreciated Jose’s labor, take a minute to make a donation of any size to support his work.


No Piece of the Pie: US Food Workers in 2016 report

Campaigns for Good Food Purchasing Policy

Connect to a local Restaurant Opportunities Center chapter in Boston, DC, Pennsylvania, or NY

Wendy’s Boycott