Taking Back the Economy
Fair Labor Relations and Food Worker Advocacy
California is home to a vast food system that undervalues work and exploits workers. Since the late 1800s a revolving door of immigrant farmworkers have been subjected to institutionalized forms of discrimination. Their pay and benefits are abysmal. They suffer from pesticide exposure and the hazards of farm equipment and large animals. Additionally, unhealthy housing conditions and barriers to health care are daily burdens. Workers in meatpacking and food-processing facilities face similar difficulties. With a workforce of documented and undocumented immigrants, employers manipulate social differences to discipline workers and thwart resistance to the dangers of working with heavy machinery and possibly fatal tools. For those working in warehouses and distribution facilities, a largely nonunion sector, workers are once again exposed to the dangers of working with heavy machinery, under extreme heat and cold, and with managers and owners resistant to improving wages and benefits. The grocery retail sector is the one food sector where there are slightly better wages and benefits as well as working conditions due to the historical successes of unions. Nevertheless, there is an industry-wide race to the bottom in the United States due to the infiltration of anti-union corporations such as Walmart on the budget end and Whole Foods on the ritzy end. Even within alternative food networks, many small and midsized organic and sustainable growers and community-supported agriculture (CSA) operators engage in self-exploitation and rely on apprentice labor, while urban agriculture initiatives depend on a mass of volunteers with little prospect of reliable living-wage work. For those working in everything from corporate chain restaurants and fast-food joints to farm-to-table restaurants, poor pay and benefits and workplace discrimination and harassment are rampant.
Resistance to this state of affairs has long been present. Whether in the guise of the Wobblies and Communists organizing farmworkers and cannery workers, the United Farm Workers using boycotts to pressure growers for better wages and working conditions, or the persistence of labor unions like United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) fighting for meatpacking and grocery workers, organizers have struggled for economic justice in California’s food system. Mirroring efforts throughout the United States, fast-food workers in California led a movement for a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union. Taking on companies such as McDonald’s, workers and their supporters protested the rise of low-wage work after the Great Recession and demonized these companies for preying on working-class communities. The Fight for $15 movement leveraged these grievances to demand that cities and states raise the minimum wage. Consequently, cities such as Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco passed laws to increase the minimum wage to $15 and pegged wage increases to inflation. As I cover later in this chapter, there have also been many fights against Walmart, the world’s largest grocery retailer. With few other places to expand except large metropolitan areas populated with liberal residents and labor unions, the company has faced stiff resistance, especially by UFCW and the worker-led OUR Walmart advocacy group.
There are also countless efforts to take back the economy with alternatives to the corporately concentrated food system that build on the communal organic farming and food cooperative movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This represents a prefigurative food politics aimed at circumventing powerful food system actors with alternatives to transition into new economic relationships that replace exploitative labor relations. In the last two decades, there has been rapid growth in urban, biodynamic, permaculture, and organic farms and direct-to-consumer marketing. A large cross section of Californians are also starting worker-run food cooperatives, such as grocery stores, bakeries, and farms, as well as food-buying clubs. When considered in addition to the labor struggles mentioned above, there is a widespread determination to improve the livelihoods of all those who work in agriculture and with food.
As an idea and a praxis, food justice includes a commitment to revaluing work and exchange with a variety of alternatives. Yet, for food justice to deepen, food justice activists need to join with food-chain workers in the conventional food system in fights for economic justice. In Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi’s breakthrough book Food Justice, the authors argue that the food justice movement must include confronting the abuse of workers in the food system. This emphasis acknowledges labor is intimately related to physical health and social reproduction. It is thus necessary to have a food system controlled by workers that protects human rights and advances social justice. Equally important is that food-chain workers fuel a food system essential for human survival, which means social stability and development require improving labor conditions and revaluing food work in all its forms.
While support for food-chain workers can expand the scope of food politics, alone it obscures poor labor practices within many alternative food initiatives, which experience capitalist market and labor pressures. However unintentional or peripheral, Gottlieb and Joshi’s seminal notion of food justice assumes labor problems exist only in conventional food supply chains, and alternatives are somehow better on labor because their production practices are more environmentally sustainable or local. But labor problems emerge from common conjunctures that permeate conventional and alternative food systems. On the one hand, the United States has institutionalized weak labor protections and the power of capital. There are legal exceptions for farmworkers and restaurant workers, a minimum wage system that has trailed cost-of-living increases, attacks on and membership declines in labor unions, and no comprehensive national food policy. On the other hand, the rollback of social welfare produces gaps that civil society works to fill. Because so many food justice initiatives run on inadequate budgets, activists tend to accept the time it takes to develop fair labor practices or simply overlook poor labor practices. These conditions obstruct the food movement from tackling economic problems outside of developing alternative food initiatives. Overall, this suggests a weak class-consciousness and shallow commitment to workers’ rights.
One of the implications is that while in theory, food justice includes fair labor practices and the human rights of all workers, in practice, activists, especially those embedded in nonprofits, often prioritize their immediate needs and revaluing work in their own projects. Moreover, there are social boundaries between food justice activists with different degrees of power and privilege and greater access to resources and food-chain workers who are often first-generation immigrants facing xenophobia and institutionalized discrimination. As a result of the underlying neoliberal ideologies and libertarian proclivities that run through these food politics, developing alliances is inconvenient. This dilemma is understandable when survival, chasing grant money, and trying to keep up with the whims of consumers who love kale one day and kelp the next day feels like a Sisyphean endeavor of well-meaning work versus “the system.” From another perspective, the variability in labor contexts means there are many organizing entry points to advance the interests of workers. Whether or not food justice activists develop class-consciousness, eliminate economic exploitation in their workplaces, and engage in confrontational food politics in solidarity with other workers is central to the labor conjunctures presented in this chapter.
To emphasize these points, I first discuss the context within which, and how, San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project revalues food work. This case offers typical experiences and pressures faced by local food activists working in nonprofits. The social position of these local food activists, who are largely white and well educated, alters how they think about food work, which for many of them means taking back the food economy from corporate agribusiness. In contrast, the experiences of grocery, meatpacking, and food-processing workers in Los Angeles reveals the almost mundane forms of exploitation reserved for working-class communities and communities of color. Instead of seeing this as an intractable problem, labor unions such as United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 confront the political and economic drivers that harm workers. Also significant is the fact that food justice activists have worked alongside UFCW 770 and other labor advocacy groups to promote healthy food and quality jobs in the face of entrenched poverty. Revaluing food work is necessary, but it often benefits already-privileged groups and leaves many workers out. Conversely, confronting political and economic elites to support food-chain workers and the working-class communities of color where they often reside reduces inequities and expands food justice for subordinated groups. Resolving labor conjunctures depends on both strategies.
Postcapitalist Prefiguration? Local Organic Farming and Voluntary Labor
It is incontrovertible that place shapes social life and that social life shapes place. The relationship morphs over time and depends on trajectories set in motion by the built environment and the people who interpret, interact with, and modify it. Most commonly, however, the local is the discernible conjunctural terrain. It is also the terrain of prefiguration. The history of social movements that use food to advance racial and economic justice resonate in the ideas, organizing, programming, and initiatives of the food movement. This dialectical motion refracts through local economic, political, and social relations. For example, the industrialization of agriculture coupled with reduced barriers to global trade, such as international trade agreements, has depressed the livelihoods of food-chain workers everywhere. However abstracted at a macro level, activists confront these pressures differently in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego. Creativity is an important adaptive political strategy. Instead of accepting food workers’ alienation from the food they produce and consumers’ alienation from the labor that makes eating food possible, there is a food politics afoot throughout California that is fighting to revalue work.
Beginning in 2001, a group of organic farming and local food activists — who would go on to form San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project (San Diego Roots) — joined to save 160 acres of organic farmland in a fertile riparian zone from the onslaught of suburban development, a common occurrence for San Diego’s farmland. At the time, they were volunteering with Good Faith Farm, a small, three-acre plot leased from the farmer who owned the 160 acres. Land tenure was insecure. Most of the people joining the effort to save the farm were college-educated, white, middle-class members of Ocean Beach People’s Food Co-op and looking for a place to volunteer on a farm. Because the co-op bought from Good Faith Farm, a working relationship set the foundation for sending out volunteers. This history of volunteerism and cooperation drives a shared culture around their importance. For example, Nancy, a white homeschooling mother, volunteered at Good Faith Farm. As she recollected,
I called up the farmer and said, “Hey, can I come out and visit your farm with my kids.” He said, “Sure, but I need your help.” . . . He told me all the problems he was having like trying to farm because he wasn’t a trained farmer. . . . He was trying to learn farming with no background in it. He was talking about all the different regulations for organic agriculture and workers, and all the red tape he had to go through just to get people to work on his farm and economically how hard it was to farm in Southern California. . . . I just started going out there on a regular basis volunteering . . . and then I’d work a day at the farmers market every week and sell the produce. I got to understand the challenges of farming and also got paid in vegetables, which made me happy.
While the motivations to volunteer varied, from wanting to reconnect to nature, to teaching one’s children where food comes from, to learning how to farm, eventually a core group formed A Local Organic Farmland Trust (ALOFT) to buy the land themselves. Lacking resources to incorporate their group, they became a project of the Back Country Land Trust. The hope at the time was to acquire the land to begin a family of farms that grew food for the local community and provided an educational space for organic farming.
Although ALOFT members were unable to raise the six to eight million dollars needed to save this farmland from development, they learned many people were unaware of the number of organic farms in San Diego County, the loss of farmland, and the value of supporting local farmers. Most people they spoke with would ask why they should save farmland, which led these burgeoning activists to start a conversation about organic farms and local food systems in San Diego. In 2003, three members of ALOFT then founded San Diego Roots. They consider themselves “a growing network of citizens, farmers, chefs, gardeners, teachers, and students working to encourage the growth and consumption of regional food. From farm to fork, we focus awareness and work toward a more ecologically sound, economically viable and socially just food system in San Diego.” From the outset, the organization committed to educating locals about the plight of family farms and the financial hardships of small-scale organic farming. In the United States, small family farms account for almost 90 percent of all farms, yet operate only 50 percent of the land, accounting for 25 percent of the value of production. These farms also heavily rely on the labor of the operators and their spouses, and most tend to have a negative operating profit margin. San Diego Roots also wanted to develop organic and permaculture demonstration sites to model collectively growing ecologically sustainable food. Although California has the most certified organic farms in the United States, conventional capital-intensive and large-scale commodity production dominates the landscape. Like many local alternative farming initiatives, embedded in San Diego Roots’ prefigurative commitments is a central contradiction that illuminates the promises and pitfalls of its food politics. Its approach to work questions the wage labor system and obscures the economic difficulties of organic farming.
San Diego Roots’ revaluing of farming reflects a broader shift in the food movement to expand home and community gardening so that people can connect their labor to the food they eat. Viewing organic farming as the most immediate way to scale up this vital socioecological connection, San Diego Roots turned to finding farmland, and in 2010 started Wild Willow Farm and Education Center. Through fundraising, San Diego Roots raised $80,000 for their first year on the farm and with the help of many volunteers put in the work to transform the land into a productive space. When I was conducting fieldwork in 2012, Wild Willow Farm was transitioning from a permaculture experimentation site to more traditional row cropping, with a productivist orientation and a desire to make the farm profitable. The farm hired a food-marketing person and a lead and assistant farmer. Along with volunteers and an internship program, this expanded programming to teach people how to farm at a small scale with organic methods and to create a year-round CSA with a reliable set of crops and special seasonal varieties. These were two essential sources of revenue for an organization that otherwise did not receive much grant money. With the freedom to create labor relations as San Diego Roots saw fit, the farm exemplifies resistance to the capitalist logic of California’s industrialized agricultural economy.
In its promotional materials, Wild Willow Farm brands itself as a place where people “Learn and Grow and Connect.” This pithy tagline fuses a commitment to teaching people the cultural significance of small-scale organic farming with the value of working the land to build community. The farm school, which farms the six leased acres, is a litmus test of the values informing San Diego Roots’ farming and labor practices. James, a white San Diego native and longtime organic gardener, farmer, mycologist, and native plant encyclopedia, was the teacher and mentor for these courses at the time of my fieldwork. In one of the first lectures, titled “The Spirit of Organic Farming,” James told the story of the Luiseño. In one season, this indigenous tribe would walk from the coast to the peak of what the Spanish colonizers named Palomar Mountain, which is on the northern edge of San Diego County. They followed the cyclical nature of the food supply, an ancient form of human organization strategizing survival in the form of food acquisition. These nomadic people created seasonal camps. Each season edible wild plants would be gathered and taken into camps. Eventually seeds would sprout out of old compost piles left after the Luiseño moved to another camp. The Luiseño eventually determined that they could be sedentary by cultivating these plants. This started the process of plant selection and breeding and animal domestication. Grains and tree seeds were the first plants grown because they were easier to use in different ways and their seeds were sturdy and durable. Due to flooding in the area, many nutrients flowed down from the mountains. People would farm when the flooding season ended. But with the onset of colonization and the gradual advancement of water management technologies, the agricultural landscape changed as the integrated agroecological land management strategy gave way to capital- and resource-intensive agriculture. As James viewed this history, people and nature became things to dominate. He ended his lecture by assessing that farming is now more about “bushels per acre . . . to improve our economy.”
There is a voluntary simplicity at the heart of how San Diego Roots hopes to take back the economy through organic farming, with an ethic of stewardship that reflects some of the lessons of the Luiseño. The question, however, is whether San Diego Roots and their ilk in the food movement are reproducing neoliberal subjectivities or revaluing labor through more fair and sustainable livelihoods. The first farmer to run Wild Willow Farm, Sam, framed the motivation behind the farm school and internships thusly: “I felt like if we were going to educate the next generation of farmers and gardeners in San Diego we needed to do more than offer one off Saturday volunteer days.” Their educational model relied on unpaid labor, which accounted for most work hours to run the farm. Although the farm school eventually replaced the internship program, these educational spaces were pivotal for inspiring new organic farmers. For example, Janelle, a Latina former lead farmer, fondly reminisced, “I found Seeds [a one-acre working farm at San Diego City College] and decided to do an apprenticeship there. Wild Willow had just been started and was taking interns. I did this as well. I had about a year where I was not going to work and just full on got into farming.” Usually a short-term disinterest in money or materialism allowed people like Janelle to take on internships and apprenticeships. While volunteer labor may aid actualizing the collective vision, it may also create economic pain for the individual. “You can’t expect someone to run a farm or school garden on very minimal pay or volunteering,” Janelle, who no longer works at Wild Willow Farm, suggested. “Right now because there are so many people interested in this, they are willing to give a lot of their time and it makes it seem like it is all right.” Behind this labor conjuncture in organic farming is the tension between the privilege to farm without pay and barriers to gaining the needed experience to start or work on a small organic farm.
Although imperfect, the projects of San Diego Roots are a prefigurative alternative to capitalist wage labor systems. As J. K. Gibson-Graham contends, we need a diverse economy, one predicated on “different kinds of transaction and ways of negotiating (in)commensurability; different types of labor and ways of compensating for it; and different forms of economic enterprise and ways of producing, appropriating, and distributing surplus.” In the spirit of reimagining a farm as a place for community, San Diego Roots hosts regular potlucks. “You know we have a lot of people that come out to the potlucks, but don’t come out to volunteer previous to that,” Laura, a white former board member, observed. “It’s just one of the realities; people like to socialize but not necessarily get dirty and work hard.” Yet, for every person who wanted to share food, there were those who gave their labor freely to promote the development of the farm school. Nonmonetary values and voluntary association fostered opportunities to learn about farming and created new markets for food produced locally, organically, and on a small scale.
While the postcapitalist spirit thrived, it could not escape state regulations. This was a common point of contention for San Diego organic farming activists who felt law enforcement inflexibility obstructs building a more diverse economy. Jenna, a white former staff member, recounted how labor laws regulating farm apprenticeships have led to the closure of farms fined for not providing legal compensation, which made the development of a fee-for-service educational model at Wild Willow Farm even more pressing: “It’s one of those catch-22s: ‘Well I want to learn about this, but I have no experience and you’re not going to hire me to do that.’ . . . So Roots is really responding to that in terms of providing a legal way that people can get this knowledge and have some experience so that they can come to some of our really successful organic farms and get a job there.” The history of La Milpa Organica Farm provided organic farming activists with a parable to solidify their skepticism of the state. La Milpa was a for-profit farm that for seven years relied on apprentices, which ultimately put the farm in conflict with labor authorities. One day in 2010 an inspector from the Department of Industrial Relations visited the farm and found people lacked any benefits, such as worker’s compensation; were compensated with free room and board; and when paid with cash, it was not reported. According to supporters, these apprentices were happy. The farm owner, Barry Logan, served a night in jail, paid a $4,000 fine, and ultimately shut down the farm. Eddie, a former board member at San Diego Roots, reasoned, “Maybe this is an example of the intent of the law is very well and good, and it needs to be there for the people who abuse that sort of law. . . . It’s applying the right law to the right people and having exemptions when they make sense.” In a final public speech at La Milpa, Barry Logan expressed similar sentiments:
I want to apologize to you for abandoning these fields. I am not clever enough to simultaneously inhabit the natural world of a living organic system and its antithesis, the modern state with the bizarre and unnatural conditions it dictates. Unfortunately, growing food, and living as free people is not compatible with the ill-considered and unjust mandates, rules, laws and regulations that are imposed upon us. . . . Our society needs experiments. We need places where we can freely explore these questions and build new models for a rapidly changing world. Freedom is a word that has been accorded great reverence in the lexicon of this thing we call America. I believe that we need more of it.
This speech discloses a radical longing to provide a space for freely associating people to decide how and where they want to spend their time. La Milpa was already on the social margins, so when the state enforced labor laws, it catalyzed further distrust by the local food movement, and yet paradoxically, the perpetuation of legally acceptable organizational forms, such as nonprofits.
Even though there are limitations to volunteer and apprentice farming models, San Diego Roots heeded the warning of La Milpa and created a 501(c)3 nonprofit. This allowed them to address the extensive loss of farmers and farming skills associated with the industrialization of agriculture with intensive educational classes. But their skepticism of the state endured, evidenced by the rejection of capitalist wage labor relations; their response to the incongruities in labor law was an appeal to the value of self-sufficiency. Contradictorily, this often reinforced neoliberal subjectivities. Ned, a white longtime board member, contemplated, “If the shit really hits the fan, it’s [farming] a really good skill to have.” Mirroring an organizational ethic, he then implied that to acquire organic farming skills, one must give freely of oneself, usually free time. Yet there was also the common belief that growing one’s own food is a nonmonetary form of payment. “You can get paid in a sense for what you do,” Titus, a black former farmer at Wild Willow Farm, celebrated. “You do this and you get this, you get some food, you get eggs, you get milk, you get cheese, you get beer, all that local stuff.” Many of my interviewees likewise expressed that learning to grow food has social impacts. The shared value of organic farming can foster a communal purpose. As Sherry, an Asian former intern, told me, “We all have to share the environment, so if we learn tools in order to mitigate our destruction of it, I feel like we have a better thing to share amongst ourselves.”
Despite the many benefits of the prefigurative food politics of San Diego Roots, like the weekly box of vegetables provided to interns, local food activists sometimes questioned whether these labor models advance food justice. Speaking of the lead farmer at the time, Laura divulged, “He’s not getting paid what he should be getting paid because we can’t afford it. That’s not right either; that’s not food justice.” Food justice, then, includes not only noncapitalist kinds of exchange but also fair remuneration. Wild Willow Farm has generated increasing levels of revenue from farm-school tuition and produce sales since 2012, but there was concern at the time that the labor model was unsustainable. A white former staff and board member named Cindy expressed, “What we see in a concrete way at the farm is that if we can’t pay people like we want to pay people to do this work, then we understand why nobody can. How do we create that job, the money for it? I don’t know.” In response to some of these economic constraints, and struggles during the Great Recession, many San Diego Roots members questioned the hegemony of wage labor systems. Melissa, who is white and one of the founders, asked, “How do we sustain ourselves without having to depend on an illusive money economy?” She was interested in the prospect of developing models predicated on alternative modes of exchange. “I see [fewer and fewer] people that have the nine-to-five job because the jobs aren’t there,” Melissa suggested. “That means that people are going to be sharing resources more. They’re going to be bartering time. They are going to trade; I’ll grow this and trade this for you.”
Seeing the need to respond collectively to the realities of a precarious labor environment inspired reimagining work and exchange, but the labor power required to run the farm ultimately led to new strategies. Turn interns into students who pay tuition to work Wild Willow Farm, which helps to pay the other staff needed to run the organization. This model has maintained a critical financial base for the organization to expand its reach throughout San Diego.
What is important in this case is there are both neoliberal and radical implications of working in the interstitial spaces of capitalism to learn about and engage in small-scale organic farming. There are many alternative food organizations similar to those in this study that begin with social priorities such as self-determination, community, health, and environmental connectivity, which provide a platform to reimagine and rebuild local food systems. When considering whether these organizations and their social movement networks possess the capacity to advance food justice, we need to consider the context within which “actually existing radical food projects” take place. This does not mean ignoring how ethnoracial and class privilege intersect with neoliberal practices that elevate the market and ignore the need for political confrontation. Rather, instead of setting up a Gibson-Graham-like deconstruction, scholars need to read dialectically for difference and domination. Central to such a pursuit is evaluating the liberatory capacity of the practices considered food justice work. There are many anti-capitalist and anti-statist sentiments that inform the food politics that guide the exchange and labor practices of alternative food initiatives. Yet it is apparent from research on the political economy of food and agriculture in California that prefigurative practices are insufficient to restructure the conditions under which San Diego local food activists and organic farmers might produce a radical food justice politics. While a commitment to prefiguration across the food movement is a necessary condition for a postcapitalist food politics, the movement cannot fully transform labor relations in the food system without confrontational tactics. The following sections reveal why.
Organized Labor against Racial Capitalism: Standing with Food-Chain Workers
Almost a three-hour drive up the coast from Wild Willow Farm, in downtown Los Angeles, sit the offices for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770. The rise of this local began in 1937 with a produce clerk named Joseph DeSilva and six other food market employees who affiliated with the Retail Clerks International Union (RCIU) and formed Local 770. Facing terrible working conditions, seventy-two-hour workweeks, $18-a-week pay ($0.25 per hour is $4 per hour in 2014 dollars), and no benefits, they managed to lead the charge that improved the lives of retail clerks. At first, the large chains were recalcitrant, only willing to accept a fifty-four-hour workweek. Once World War II began, RCIU 770 pushed the War Labor Board to increase wages in Southern California. After being rebuffed, RCIU 770 won a rehearing and the first guaranteed forty-hour workweek in 1945. While wages remained frozen throughout World War II, RCIU 770 continued fighting for better pay; equal pay across race, national origin, and gender; and overtime and benefits. In the spirit of racial inclusion, RCIU 770 also worked to find jobs for its Japanese American retail clerks returning from internment camps throughout 1945, much to the consternation of the public and mainstream media. Then in 1947, after a fourteen-day work stoppage, RCIU 770 won on all fronts, most important, winning nondiscrimination clauses, decades before the inscription of nondiscrimination into federal law. In its second major work stoppage in 1959, the union asked for better health-care benefits and a cost-of-living clause in the pension, which they won after twenty-eight days.
Negotiations in later years expanded to include the interests of other food-chain workers after RCIU 770 merged in 1986 with Meat Cutters Local 421 and Butchers Local 274 to become the current UFCW 770. As of 2014, UFCW 770 represented thirty thousand workers throughout Los Angeles County, primarily in grocery retail but also in meatpacking and food processing, and drug stores and pharmacies, including cannabis dispensaries. UFCW 770 is one of the largest locals in the country and is part of the largest private-sector labor union in the United States. Its assets, which in 2014 sat at over $41.1 million, give the union the resources to help shape the landscape for all workers in Los Angeles, particularly grocery workers. This is despite the dire realities of organized labor. Los Angeles labor unions experienced a 1 percent overall membership decline between 1988 and 2004 because of major membership gains in 1990 and 2002. Although this is hard to see as anything more than a modest victory, comparatively, there were 2 and 5 percent membership declines in the same period for California and the United States overall. In total in Los Angeles, unions represent 9 percent of private-sector workers and 58 percent of public-sector workers, bringing the total unionized workforce to 1.1 million people. One of the motivating structural factors for the strong labor movement is entrenched economic insecurity, particularly in immigrant communities and communities of color.
The two months I interned in UFCW 770’s Organizing Department and my archival research provide a clear sense of the dialectic between racial capitalism and frontline labor struggles. As a historical and ideological force, capitalism perpetuates and builds on racial hierarchies endemic in society. The imperative of capital accumulation is to advance white supremacy by racializing workers and underdeveloping black, Latinx, Asian, and other racialized communities. Representing the dialectical response to these conditions, UFCW 770’s strength comes from a commitment to build working-class power by fighting racism. One central strategy has been to develop leadership from working-class communities of color that are most exploited by a racialized food system. The politics of representation is important because it allows for what the political philosopher Iris Marion Young refers to as a “differentiated relationship” that allows for a different “social perspective” among those engaged in a political process. She contends pointedly, “In a society of white privilege, for example, the social perspective of white people usually wrongly dominates the making of many public discussions, and it should be relativized and tempered by the social perspectives of those positioned differently in the racialized social structures.” Toward these ends, leaders such as Art Takei spent forty years with UFCW 770 diversifying the leadership and supporting the creation of labor advocacy groups for people of color. Now the staff primarily consists of people of color and women, many of whom are multilingual. While the union relied on white male leadership in the top positions for most of its history, the executive office is now run by one Latino, one black woman, one Asian man, two white men, and one white woman. Field representatives, whom shop stewards and workers consult if there is a problem in the workplace, include seven white women, four Latinas, three black women, one Asian woman, eight Latinos, and four white men. For those in the Organizing Department during my fieldwork, the staff consisted primarily of Latinx and Asian organizers.
Labor organizers, union representatives, shop stewards, and union management regularly related stories about their family or personal experiences working in the food system. The recurring themes were the abuse associated with the work and the need for labor unions. A Latina union organizer named Marta has parents who were farmworkers. At one point, her father was experiencing wage theft, so he started a campaign to recapture these wages. The farm owner fired one leader, effectively stopping the campaign. Her mom, however, was part of a campaign that increased the number of breaks strawberry pickers receive. Marta boasted, “That was my mom’s mini labor campaign and I thought that was really cool that they won something.” For many UFCW 770 organizers, they saw their work tied directly to the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. A field representative named Ray, who works with meatpacking and food-processing workers, recalled a transformative experience at one of his first labor organizing trainings in Delano, California: “[I saw] this mid-seventies older man on his knees . . . bleeding picking grapes; it was a sight that brought tears to my eyes. . . . All I remember him saying was, ‘Thank you for the work you are doing. It is helping us.’ At that moment I realized this is what I want to do.” These encounters with the exploitation of racial capitalism compelled some organizers to work with unions to halt racialized labor abuses and improve workers’ livelihoods. Speaking to an example closer to the realities of Los Angeles workers, Jill, a Latina labor advocate with Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), has a grandfather who worked at a union grocery store. “He lives somewhat comfortably at his older age,” she beamed. “It’s made a huge difference because he never went to college.”
The belief that UFCW 770 represents the diversity of Los Angeles’s working-class community leads other labor organizers to conclude that labor politics should be vital to food politics. An Asian organizer with UFCW 770 named Ann contended, “We should be people who as leaders of a private-sector food-processing [and grocery retail] union . . . be at the forefront talking about food justice [and] . . . we should be talking about green jobs. . . . We should be at the forefront talking about every single one of those issues. . . . When they [workers] go to work, they see these problems and they are able to tell you. If you represent hundreds of thousands of workers, you have to speak that much louder because you have that many voices [whom] you are speaking for and representing.” Relatedly, labor organizers recognize the labor struggles of food-chain workers pertain to their social position within their community or neighborhood. Mark, a white former packinghouse worker and now leader in UFCW 770’s Executive Office, asserted, “We should have a say . . . organizationally because that is the most effective way to talk. . . . When you look at the production of food, you have to look at those who produce it. . . . The human element involved in the production of food is critical. Whether it’s slavery, some rank industrialism where people are exploited tremendously or whether people are paid a living wage and seen as pillars of the community, those are all reflective of the kinds of communities that they are a part of.” The corollary is that the form food justice takes reflects community values. For many union representatives, organizing with a Los Angeles labor union means prioritizing economic and racial justice to earn the respect of workers. Felipe, a Latino packinghouse shop steward with UFCW 770, told me a story about a Latina he met who now works at Farmer John Food Services, a plant with a union contract. She worked for Hoffy, another food processing plant, for fifteen years, making only $9 an hour the entire time. Felipe said, “When she asked for a raise, the HR [Human Resources] people told her, ‘Pick any door you’d like because we aren’t going to give you a raise.’ So she . . . went to Farmer John. Less than a year working here, she is already making $11 an hour. . . . I’ve been using her story: ‘This is your pay without a union, this is your pay with a union. It’s always going to be a dollar or more at a union plant.’” The larger lesson is that unions not only advance the interests of food-chain workers but also expand food justice.
Poverty, Demand-Side Solutions, and Reimagining Food Justice
The focus on food access by many food justice activists runs up against the desire of labor organizers to advance economic equity in the food system. As a result, there are few examples of where food politics bridge food access and labor issues. Moreover, advocates of alternative food initiatives typically ignore conventional food-chain workers because their labor supports an environmentally and socially undesirable food system. They also purport to want to know their local farmer, but often fail to understand the role of farmworkers in local food production. These perspectives dovetail with an agrarian ideal that drives the creation of alternative economic models but obstructs allying with working-class people. Complicating matters further, the whiteness and class biases of the food movement often exclude food-chain workers, who tend to reflect different socioeconomic groups. On the labor union side, there are intense economic and political pressures to maintain, let alone grow, union density. Unions have sustained heavy losses in many labor strongholds and are scrambling to develop campaigns to unionize corporate-dominated food sectors such as big-box grocery retail and fast food. These conditions can produce myopic labor campaigns focused on economic reforms at the cost of the environment or public health. The labor movement is also much more entrenched in the political system, which many food activists view with skepticism, preferring instead to purchase their way to a solution. Relatedly, the labor movement focuses more on winning political campaigns, which requires large amounts of money, time, and union member organizing.
Speaking to these tensions, in the mid-1990s, the Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC) started the arduous process of gathering information about each sector of the local food system to figure out how best to prioritize its efforts. One of the major issues was the abandonment of full-service supermarkets from working-class communities of color. Organizers in these communities wanted better access to healthy and affordable food. However, representatives of UFCW 770 at an information-gathering session at this time essentially said this was not their issue. They had yet to experience the full-frontal assault of Walmart on urban markets like Los Angeles or the attacks by unionized supermarket chains on hard-fought labor victories. Therefore, UFCW 770 instead preferred small unionized markets even if they charged more for food, lacked fresh produce, and prioritized selling nonhealthy items like liquor and cigarettes.
What was required to shift perspectives and find common ground between labor and food justice activists in Los Angeles? Because the predominant food justice narrative stipulates that places without food need a grocery store, UFCW 770 and their allies in organizations such as LAANE and the LAFPC focused on poverty. As the critical food scholar Julie Guthman has argued, not only are capitalism and institutional racism overlooked when food justice simply equates with filling grocery gaps, but so are the most effective strategies for intervention. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign is a prime example of this oversight. As part of this campaign, major grocery retailers promised in 2011 they would open up fifteen hundred stores in places designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “food deserts.” According to Michelle Obama’s 2014 progress report, only 602 stores opened, providing 1.4 million people with new grocery stores out of the eighteen million lacking easy access to one. Missing completely from the First Lady’s campaign, as well as many food justice initiatives, is the need to end poverty so people can afford to eat the most nutritious food. In other words, we need a food politics that creates demand-side solutions.
When labor organizers center the structural economic position of workers, there is a higher likelihood solutions prioritize improving a person’s social mobility. Consider, for instance, the relationship between neoliberal capitalism in a post–Great Recession context and the discontent of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a robust Fight for $15 movement, and the Democratic presidential race of Bernie Sanders. But there are strategic challenges, given consumers’ desire to keep food costs low; cheap food usually tops food-chain workers despite their being interrelated. In response, labor organizers discursively overemphasize labor. A Latino union representative named Emiliano who works with meatpacking workers reminded me in an interview, “We can’t forget that when you eat chicken, beef, pork, or even tofu, it took a worker, it took somebody to pick it off, like a soybean, it took a worker to slaughter a cow or pig or chicken. Whether you believe that’s necessary, that’s everybody’s opinion, but as far as making a living for somebody, or giving somebody a job, that’s what we’re about.” There are practical and ideological reasons driving this analysis. Marta reasoned, “If they aren’t jobs you can raise a family on or make a decent living [on], that is obviously a problem for the economy as a whole. . . . The disparity in wealth can only be gained by workers . . . by organizing and taking back some of the money that these companies have been hoarding.” Marta’s redistributive perspective identifies the structural problem; most of the capital derived from food-chain workers is shuffled upward into the hands of owners and investors, which is inversely related to a thirty-year trend of stagnating wages and benefits.
By giving workers primacy, labor organizers challenge a prevailing form of food politics that focuses on eating local, organic food. In response to a question asking about differences in how labor and food justice activists address food insecurity, a Latino labor organizer with LAANE named Adrian revealed that he grew up in a neighborhood with poor food access. “If we aren’t going to directly subsidize organic grocers or organic industries and make them cheaper like we do for the corn industry, then we really need to be working on wages of people and making sure they can afford it,” he suggested. Focusing on wages and benefits is also a matter of human dignity. Offering the worker perspective, Felipe reasoned,
If your boss or the owner of the company you work for tells you, “The minimum wage is $8 and I’m paying you $10. What else do you want? I’m giving you a vacation . . .” If you feel, “That is true. Why should I fight for that when I am making more money [here] than other places?” That means you believe in them and you don’t care about yourself and your own family. In order to live in LA, how much money do you need to live? . . . I would say $25 an hour to live decently. Not necessarily to buy a house but to be able to rent a decent house for your wife and family, to send your kids to college, you have your own car to come to work and to have money to enjoy your life. You work during the week and you have weekends to spend time with your family. . . . That is why you work! To eat and to enjoy your life.
Felipe discloses that in addition to the importance of fair remuneration, there is also symbolic value. Pay reflects the degree to which people can enjoy more leisure time and perhaps enjoy local and organic food.
Labor organizers also shared some of the critiques made by food justice scholars that neoliberal market-centric alternative food strategies reproduce white privilege by overlooking racialized labor pools. For example, Jill questions organizing explicitly around food when it elevates health above the realities of work under capitalism: “You can create the program or the market, but what is ultimately going to allow people to become healthier and have less health disparities?” The answer resonates with many of the other labor organizers I interviewed: improve labor standards and end poverty. Starting with an abstract thing like food, which is a product of human labor and embedded in systems of social stratification, overlooks inequities in the process of social reproduction. Speaking to some of these class and racial fissures, Adrian remarked, “While I appreciate . . . personal health and the environmental-type concerns, I immediately started recognizing the whiteness . . . of the food movement. . . . Our priorities might get left out as [those of] a person of color. . . . It’s affecting us too. We should have a voice.”
Despite concerns that the food movement and many food justice initiatives focus on supply-side solutions, labor organizers have pushed the issue of poverty and built strong alliances to avoid a trade-off between healthy food and quality jobs. New political opportunities emerged in 2010 when a representative of the United Farm Workers joined the LAFPC. Then in 2014, although UFCW 770 was at first reticent to address food insecurity and the need for access to healthy food, the LAFPC invited John Grant, the secretary-treasurer, to sit on the Leadership Board. While this formal relationship expanded the perspective of labor organizers to consider food access, their primary analysis of the conjuncture is through a class-conscious lens that confronts blind consumerism. As Mark reflected, “You can drive through town on your way to work, and sometimes you have to really concentrate to identify all those people who you are passing that are working. They become part of the landscape. They don’t really step out of that role.” This perspective highlights how workers are largely a means to an end in a consumer society. The common adage “The customer is always right” makes it hard to see workers. Such neoliberal ideologies influence social practices that reproduce poor labor conditions, even in the food movement. For example, bucolic promotions of the small family farm can overlook how consumers face intense marketing pressures that inscribe change at the individual level through the market. Neoliberalization is a socialization process that elides worker exploitation. The moral for allies in the food movement is not to forget the importance of economic justice. Amy, a Latina labor organizer supporting Walmart workers, claimed activists of many kinds “forget about the workers and their mistreatment. In terms of animal rights or environmental justice, a lot of people get centered on the types of justice that are important to them but when it comes to economic or worker justice, they neglect it.”
Navigating Corporate Power, Food Insecurity, and Bad Jobs
Directly related to claims for a food justice that integrates economic justice is the fact that where supermarket chains once stood as bastions of community stability, they are increasingly sites of corporate power and malfeasance. Anti-union companies such as Walmart perfected the chain model of its predecessors, but without providing the same quality of food or employment. Armed with its neoliberal tagline “Save money. Live better,” Walmart has fought to enter communities throughout Los Angeles to colonize the urban food landscape. The bland branding of a “Walmart medium blue” logo followed by the tacky “Walmart yellow” spark are a visual reminder that where there were grocery stores that provided a communal space for money to flow back into the local economy, there now stands an extractive big box. Framing such interpretations are documentaries such as Robert Greenwald’s Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price, which portrays Walmart as a greedy corporation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the gross disparities between the wealth of the Walton family and Walmart workers. The Walmart 1%, which was a project of the UFCW campaign Making Change at Walmart, calculated, “If Sam Walton’s dependents actually worked for their Walmart dividend checks this year, they would be handed $1.5 million every hour. Meanwhile, Walmart workers get an average of $8.81 per hour and are routinely denied full-time work.” Conversely, corporate and development boosters tout big-box retailers as job creators and cheap commodity providers for working-class communities. After the Great Recession, low-wage jobs replaced middle- and high-wage jobs, so many people see big-box retailers as saviors providing at least some form of employment and food at a price that matches a growing low-wage economy. This constitutes the chief contradiction driving the emergence of a local food politics that refuses to compromise one basic need for another.
Finding common cause across interest groups to overcome the uneven development of cities is no easy task. The labor movement is historically complicit in environmental degradation and poisoning the public on the basis that the workers powering industry receive their share of the profit. Driven on by the capitalist growth imperative, workers, with the support of organized labor, have often overlooked the ways in which urban industrial facilities produce negative consequences. Left in the wake of these development patterns are working-class communities and communities of color who suffer the health consequences. Contradictorily, if these communities eliminate a toxic facility, they may also remove a source of employment to economically stabilize the neighborhood.
In similar ways, UFCW has not always been the best steward of the environment or of public health. They represent grocery workers who sell not only fresh produce but also highly processed foods derived from corporately controlled supply chains lambasted by the food movement. So while Walmart may be a particularly formidable company, major unionized supermarkets like Kroger and Safeway are still embedded in a capitalist industrialized food system. Indicative of this trend is the “Buy blue” ethos of labor organizers. Around Thanksgiving, UFCW was advertising union-made products available at union supermarkets. Under the banner “Have a Union Thanksgiving,” replete with a plump turkey in the background, were brand logos for companies such as Kraft, Ocean Spray, Foster Farms, Betty Crocker, and Butterball. This suggests labor unions, at least to some degree, are parasitic on a corporately concentrated food system.
Even when it comes to solving food insecurity, there have been tensions. Before Marta was organizing workers in Los Angeles, she was in Oakland. UFCW Local 5 was invited to a community town hall discussion about whether to open Walmart in a food-insecure neighborhood. She was concerned that it felt like “UFCW versus the poor black residents of Oakland.” Many residents wanted the store, but UFCW Local 5 was ultimately successful in helping to prevent its opening, as it had been in obstructing the entrance of other nonunion supermarkets. Speaking similarly to the complicated relationship that UFCW 770 had with food-access activists in Los Angeles, a public health report titled Food Desert to Food Oasis recommended that the city not force grocery stores that serve “food deserts” to pay living wages or allow unionization. The report reflects the perceived need to check the influential political power of UFCW 770 in grocery zoning decisions. While these instances make UFCW appear deaf to the dietary health needs of the public, Marta recognized the false dichotomy dividing the labor movement from the food movement: “The only ‘real’ solution is if all retail stores are union and provided good jobs and were a source of food.”
Union density in grocery retail has declined over the past few decades, which has further pressured labor unions into economic concessions. The historical narrative offered by UFCW 770 goes something like this. Union decline came with the penetration of new large supermarkets and the merger of medium-sized supermarkets. Incidentally, larger supermarkets negotiated with unions to secure preferred contracts, which displaced smaller union grocery stores. Coupled with the ability of major supermarkets to drive down food prices by controlling their supply chain, smaller grocery stores disappeared. As supermarkets grew into (multi)national corporations, they developed the capacity to operate across time and space in ways local labor unions’ organizational structure hinders. Moreover, corporate consolidation drives unevenness in labor standards, grocery retail development, and therefore consumer shopping patterns. The resulting race to the bottom harms grocery workers.
Add in inevitable capitalist crises like the Great Recession, and there is the problem of how economic precariousness translates into food insecurity. In 2011, there were 50.1 million food-insecure people and 44.7 million people receiving food stamps. California has 4.1 million food-insecure adults, with Los Angeles County accounting for 1.2 million of these people. When you drill down to look at food-chain workers, they disproportionately experience these realities. Thirteen percent of all food-chain workers, almost 2.8 million workers, relied on food stamps in 2016. This is 2.2 times the rate of food-stamp usage of all other industries. In 2011, 23 percent of food-chain workers in California were using CalFresh food assistance versus 11 percent of the general population, while 54 percent of California nonsupervisory food-chain workers lacked health insurance. These experiences are also prevalent in Los Angeles County, where 18 percent of food-chain workers are food insecure.
Many of my interviewees recognized the cruel irony of food-insecure food-chain workers. In Huntington Park, which is the neighborhood where most of UFCW 770’s unionized meatpacking and food-processing members live, a number of union grocery stores closed. Nonunion Latinx grocers such as El Super and Northgate González Markets were the replacement. Having lived and worked in the area for decades, a former Latina meatpacking organizer named Isabel reflected, “People go to them and do their shopping because their money goes further. You can’t blame them.” UFCW 770 would like to improve this situation but faces logistical obstacles. Dave, a white researcher and organizer with the union, told me that many of these Latinx chains are small, which makes them tough targets. They offer working-class Latinx communities nutritious food options, but remuneration for workers is poor. “In no situations could we go after a company that has standalone store after standalone store,” he acknowledged. “It has to be some sort of agreement with a corporation for neutrality with their chain to be able to do it [unionize] for it to make sense.” A neutrality agreement “contain[s] a pledge by the employer that it will remain ‘neutral’ in the union’s organizing campaigns conducted in the employer’s nonunion facilities.” Unless coordinated labor unrest disrupts an entire chain’s stores, it is unusual for a company to allow a unionization drive that might diminish the gap between economic and food insecurity.
Partially in response to food-chain workers’ dual marginalization, UFCW 770 is working with the food movement to reduce the dietary deficits of working-class Angelenos. Alliances have emerged for three main reasons. First, the high visibility and success of labor campaigns led by Los Angeles labor unions and advocacy groups over the last fifteen years lend legitimacy to the labor movement. Second, the integration of activists with direct knowledge or experience of food work and food insecurity into the food movement bridges previously distinct movement domains. This enriches and diversifies the field of food politics. The food movement has grown in Los Angeles to include the interests of food-chain workers because many activists from communities that lack living-wage jobs and healthy food recognize the entanglement of these problems. Last, labor organizers accept the need to increase access to healthy food and have found they can work alongside the food movement through the lens of poverty. UFCW 770 hears about its members’ food insecurity and sees how building or joining coalitions can address demand-side root causes.
The social conditions for food and labor movement alliances are auspicious. Angelenos have supported the confrontational labor campaigns of grocery workers since the large Southern California grocery retail strikes of 2003–4. Then after slowing Walmart and other big-box retailers’ entrance into Los Angeles through the 2004 big-box ordinance, labor organizers attempted to block Walmart’s new tactic. As Luciana, an organizer with LAANE, explained, “In order for them to grow into other urban areas, Walmart has changed their strategy in how they expand.” The company has seized on “use by right” clauses in city zoning laws, particularly in places banning big-box retail stores. They allow Walmart to avoid serious local government review before opening their “Neighborhood Market” in a smaller retail space already zoned for such uses. This allows the company to avoid building new superstores and the costly battles that come with public oversight and permitting requirements. One of the perceived problems is that Walmart undermines their claim that they benefit communities by abusing laws that permit them to avoid any verification. As Jae, an Asian political operative with UFCW 770, asked, “What do you have to hide?” In the most contentious of these conflicts, Walmart endeavored for years to open a Neighborhood Market in Chinatown deploying “food desert” rhetoric to succor an “underserved” community, even though the community had ample local access to food. Although Walmart eventually outmaneuvered the opposition for a short time, the defeat precipitated further challenges to Walmart.
Since 2012, UFCW 770 has supported OUR Walmart. This worker-led advocacy group has staged unfair labor practice strikes to call attention to terrible wages and benefits, insufficient hours, and a lack of workplace respect. Although there were never more than a couple hundred workers who went on strike on Black Friday in 2012, 2013, or 2014, they embodied public grievances that helped inspire the resurgence of labor unrest throughout the United States. These direct-action tactics did not lead to unionization, but they did shame Walmart into improving workplace conditions. Although the number of workers actually participating in these actions was low, they galvanized social media, the blogosphere, and the mainstream media to create the impression of widespread discontent. In Los Angeles, these forces sustained criticism of Walmart. Public opposition, like the largest-ever-recorded anti-Walmart march in 2012, did not prevent Walmart from entering the heart of Los Angeles in Chinatown, but it did help contribute ultimately to the company’s retreat. These confrontations positively reinforce the benefits of opposing corporate power and reveal the complicated political terrain that activists navigate.
In the middle of ongoing labor struggles in the grocery retail sector, UFCW 770 was also involved in policy initiatives and civic engagements to address food insecurity, which have produced wins for both the labor movement and the food movement. In 2008, a Blue Ribbon Commission convened environmental, faith, food, health, and labor representatives. The commission found “food deserts” were expanding throughout Los Angeles due to “supermarket redlining,” grocery stores pay worse in working-class communities, and these same stores mandate fewer programs to reduce environmental impacts. To incentivize grocery stores to locate in underserved communities, the city of Los Angeles made community redevelopment money available. This money often follows where city planners, developers, and politicians see inflows of capital. Downtown Los Angeles did not have a grocery store for many years, even as hipsters and techies flooded into the area. However, as downtown gentrified, the calculus switched. UFCW 770 capitalized on this new demand by working with city leaders and community groups to shuffle redevelopment money to Ralphs for a unionized grocery store.
In contrast, communities such as South Los Angeles face pressure to accept nonunion retailers. Unionized grocery chains divested from this community, labor organizers refuse to accept a Walmart, and yet the demand for healthy food remains. Therefore, food justice activists have had to devise other strategies. Tapping into the California FreshWorks Fund, a public-private partnership focused on helping fill grocery gaps, Northgate González Markets opened in South Los Angeles in 2014. Food justice activists were happy with this outcome, and so was UFCW 770 because the company signed a community benefits agreement (CBA). In short, CBAs are contracts usually signed between a broad-based community coalition and a developer or operator. Such agreements outline a set of standards, amenities, or mitigations that are the developer’s responsibility and require the coalition to publicly support the project. The Northgate González Markets CBA mandated living wages, benefits, and local hiring practices. Unlike a strictly neoliberal response that sidesteps local government, CBAs build in legally enforceable elements that create greater inclusivity and accountability in land use decisions.
The victories of labor unions such as UFCW 770 and their willingness to build new alliances have made it easier for food activists to embrace labor issues and commit to breaking down barriers in the name of improving the local food system. Despite the historical wariness of allying with the food movement, the labor movement’s entrance into spaces like the LAFPC has provided a set of political tools that integrates an explicit concern with economic justice. Ultimately, these social interactions strengthen campaigns to take care of food-chain workers. The objectives laid out in the LAFPC’s Good Food for All Agenda illustrate this shift. They aspire to three things: “a thriving and good food economy for all; strengthened agricultural and environmental stewardship throughout the region[; and] better health and well-being of residents.” Although there is no comprehensive food policy in the city that mandates meeting these objectives, they compel the leadership board and working groups to work across food movement boundaries. The social learning emerging from this process has symbolic value because it represents a more participatory and deliberative democratic model.
One of the major LAFPC victories has been the creation of the institutional procurement pledge called the Good Food Purchasing Policy (GFPP). Not only is this important locally, but it has become a model program that the Center for Good Food Purchasing is spreading throughout the United States. The Center for Good Food Purchasing estimates that demand from major institutions in active GFPP cities is 2.2 million meals, the economic impact of which is worth $500 million. The pledge encourages buying from small and midsized food and farming operations and ensures the food meets high environmental sustainability standards and is nutritious and cruelty free, all of which works to scale up alternative food networks. It also recommends that food-chain workers receive fair compensation and work in safe conditions. This incentivizes purchasing from companies with unionized workforces or that rely on third-party certification systems like fair trade. The GFPP is not a policy mandating a monolithic set of practices, but rather a voluntary set of standards institutions adopt to meet a range of goals. If an institution meets commitments, the GFPP awards star ratings like how LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification works. After conducting a baseline assessment, the GFPP will provide technical assistance to help an institution meet its goals and regularly verify it meets these goals. If successful, the certifiers recognize the institution based on their level of commitment in each of five categories: a strong local food economy, environmental sustainability, a valued food industry workforce, the humane treatment of animals, and high nutritional quality. To maintain its rating, the institution must improve continually the “goodness” of their purchases. To date, the City of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Guckenheimer (a company that provides meals for Google LA and Roll Global) have signed onto the GFPP. Combined, they serve over seven hundred fifty thousand meals daily. Collaboration between the labor movement and the food movement has helped improve local food supply chains in terms of food access, nutritional quality, and labor standards.
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The activism of UFCW 770 and its food justice allies enriches food politics in Los Angeles. Taking back the economy in this context means workers capturing more of the value produced by their labor. One key strategy is leveraging the power of the state to enforce and create better labor laws. Where corporations are concerned, it means organizing workers, shaming poor labor practices, and using the legal system to extract concessions. Unlike at San Diego Roots, where taking back the economy manifests in mutual association and is less reliant on wage labor, the case of UFCW 770 reveals that challenging corporations that mistreat workers is a prerequisite for increasing the availability of healthy food.
These two orientations to taking back the economy reflect the dialectical openness of food justice. On one end of the spectrum sit activists whose food justice economics, if you will, reimagine and re-create exchange to reflect the values of trust and cooperation. They eschew some of the typical monetary exchanges that predominate in conventional and alternative food systems. Strategically, this economic secession represents an affinity with anarchist and anticapitalist Food Not Bombs activists and “freegans” committed to living on the food waste of capitalism while simultaneously working toward its dismantlement. On the other end of the spectrum sit activists pushing employers and the government to improve the livelihood of workers. This reformism relies on confrontational tactics to compel businesses to increase wages, benefits, and workplace conditions and democracy. Relatedly, the labor movement, which includes labor unions, worker centers, and advocacy groups of all kinds, can ally with immigrant rights activists to reform labor and immigration laws.
Food justice economics vary depending on strategic targets and intents. Yet different perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Taking back the economy will require confronting exploitation in the food system to ease the suffering that food workers experience. It will also require developing economic models that revalue food work, eradicate hierarchy, and create participatory models that prioritize environmental sustainability and equity to match workers’ needs to their abilities.