Food matters for personal, public, and planetary well-being
Large farms in the United States have consistently depended on poorly paid labor, often to the point of exploitation. Much of the country’s agricultural system was built on the backs of indentured and enslaved agricultural workers, and in the twenty-first century farm workers remain among the lowest paid laborers in the economy. In recent centuries, immigrants from Europe have been able to leave America’s fields within a single generation; immigrants from Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands have fewer options, however, and disproportionately toil under inhuman conditions, for less than living wages, for generations.
Snapshot of US Farm Labor History: Before the Thirteenth Amendment made slavery unconstitutional, the wide use of enslaved laborers kept the price of all farm labor low. When poor white farm workers tried to unionize, enslaved African workers were often used to break the strikes. In rare cases where free Africans had access to land and their own labor, they often became successful farmers in the Americas; many of the Africans kidnapped and forced into the US labor market were skilled farmers who brought innovations and African technology to U.S. farms.
Slavery’s end in 1865 did not usher in a period of African American agricultural prosperity. Robbed of the forty acres and a mule the government had promised, African American farmers were swept into sharecropping, along with Native Americans and poor whites. Meanwhile, recruiters went abroad to find foreign workers whose wages could be kept suppressed. Immigrant workers from Asia, beginning with Chinese in 1848, were joined by workers from Latin America (particularly Mexico), the Philippines, Japan, Puerto Rico, and many other countries.
Landowners pitted immigrant groups against one another in competition for wages, and used them as strike-breakers to suppress the wages of all farm workers. Sharecroppers and farm workers attempted to organize into grass roots collectives and trade unions beginning in the 1920s. These attempts were met with open violence by the state, and a racist vigilantism by mobilized whites. The sharecropping system was replaced in the decades after World War II when Southern agriculture was mechanized and impoverished migrant workers became the preferred labor force. Migrant labor, drawn originally from Mexico and Central America, was preferred to domestic agricultural labor because state and local institutions could avoid responsibility for the social services to a large impoverished population, although even domestic-born agricultural workers were initially exempted from the social security laws.
Eventually, using their rights as citizens, white farm workers were able to organize into unions; many eventually found work in better paying industries. Immigrant People of Color, however, were barred from citizenship (many until 1952), and so the legal protections of citizenship were not available to these workers until recently.
Snapshot of US Farm Labor Today: In 1962, the United Farm Workers of America organized. Through a combination of grass roots organizing, and reaching out for support from world wide public opinion, they secured contracts in strawberry, table grape, winery, rose, mushroom, and vegetable farms. They have worked with Mexican American urban communities to forge coalitions that empowered farm labor, and championed laws that have made significant difference in the lives of agricultural workers across the country. Unfortunately, these laws are not always enforced in fields and plants employing large numbers of undocumented workers.
In addition to its low wages, agricultural labor today features some of the economy’s most dangerous jobs. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists agriculture as the second most dangerous occupation in the United States. “Agricultural work” in this instance includes ranching, slaughtering, and commercial fishing, but working in fields can also be very hazardous. Field workers often stoop for long periods of time to harvest crops and must lift and move heavy containers. Farm workers are often expected to operate equipment that may be unfamiliar to them and in uncertain repair. Those who work with animals are often exposed to bacteria that are dangerous to humans. Almost all workers on conventional farms are exposed to massive doses of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
While many farm workers receive proper protection and information about occupational hazards, workers who do not speak or read English are often at greater risk for injury. In addition, employers can be indifferent to workers’ health and safety, and overlook their legal responsibilities. In summer 2008, many California growers did not provide adequate shade, water and restroom facilities for workers harvesting Central Valley crops in daytime temperatures that regularly exceeded one hundred degrees. Other food related industries that attract large numbers of immigrant and undocumented workers, like food processing, preparation, and service, also tend to poorly enforce labor, health and safety codes.
Questions for Individual and Group Reflection
1. What are the food related industries and activities (processing, transportation, marketing, preparation, and serving ) in our community? Who works in these jobs? What are the health and safety issues peculiar to these jobs? How well are laws to protect workers in these industries enforced?
2. Do the farmers who raise my food and the workers who pick, butcher, cook or deliver my food receive a living wage and healthy working conditions? If not, do I care?
3. What forms of oppression are perpetuated through food-related jobs in our community (for example racism and sexism)?
4. What’s it like to be a supermarket clerk, a cafeteria worker, or a waitress in our community? How many jobs do food workers in our community typically hold in order to make ends meet?
5. What are the immigration issues for food workers in our community?
Alliance for Fair Food
A network of human rights, religious, student, labor, sustainable food and agriculture, environmental and grassroots organizations who work in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an internationally recognized human rights organization working to eliminate modern-day slavery and sweatshop labor conditions from Florida agriculture. The AFF promote principles and practices of socially responsible purchasing in the corporate food industry that advance and ensure the human rights of farm workers at the bottom of corporate supply chains. AFF has, most recently, been working with faith and labor organizations to receive a fairer wage and working conditions for tomato pickers.
Interfaith Worker Justice
A non-denominational non-profit organization that educates, organizes and mobilizes religious people of all faiths in the United States on economic issues and campaigns that will improve wages, benefits, and conditions for workers, and give them a voice. There are chapters in many states as well as a national organization. “Labor in the Pulpit” is a program each Labor Day Sunday where a congregation invites someone from the labor movement to speak.
Eisnitz, Gail A. Slaughterhouse. Prometheus, November 2006. 328 pages. In the tradition of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel, The Jungle, except Slaughterhouse is true: a documentary (in book form) of the experiences of contemporary slaughterhouse workers. Explores how race and ethnicity, industry consolidation, and deregulation impact workers in what the U.S. Dept. of Labor calls some of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. today. Describes how conditions have both worsened and improved over the last twenty-five years, and makes clear the work remaining to be done, especially in terms of worker safety and the need for government inspection. Eisnitz is the chief investigator for the Humane Farming Association; her book resulted in exposés by ABC’s Good Morning America, PrimeTime Live, and Dateline NBC, and her interviews have been heard on more than 1,000 radio stations.
Farm Worker Labor Organizing Committee
www.floc.com An AFL-CIO union active in the Middle West and in the South. Many excellent speakers available through this organization. A large number of faith communities in particular supported the Mount Olive pickle boycott during the 1990s.
Moyers, Bill. “Migrant Labor in the United States:” NOW: Politics and Economy: On the Border. www.pbs.org/now/politics/migrants.html. Explores the lives of the approximately 1.3 million U.S. citizens who earn their living migrating among states in the agricultural industry. A basic introduction, with many links to further resources.
National Farm Worker Ministry
An interfaith organization with a long history of supporting farm worker unions. The NFWM works in several regions in the United States. Particularly valuable for drawing the connections between faith and worker justice. A number of Unitarian Universalist congregations and districts and other faith communities have worked with the NFWM.
Sustainable Table. The Issues
Short article providing information on issues faced by immigrant workers and workers in animal industries.