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Tenuous Position of Food Workers

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thanksgiving 2017As we approach Thanksgiving 2017, let’s give a thought to workers who work along the food chain, often in the lowest paying and most tenuous positions. According to a report from the Food Chain Workers Alliance, “More than 86 percent of workers reported earning subminimum, poverty, and low wages, resulting in a sad irony: food workers face higher levels of food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat, than the rest of the U.S. workforce.” And workers along the food chain are not a small portion of the US workforce, five core segments of the food chain[1] employ 21.5 million workers the largest employment sector in the US.

Our economy has been transitioning from one in which workers have been able to exercise their rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions to one where workers are, in effect, disposable. What are the trends that contribute to this situation?


[1] Production, processing, distribution, retail and service are the 5 core segments.

“Right to Work”

Twenty-eight states in the US have passed “right to work” laws. These laws prohibit union security agreements [1]between companies and worker unions. They state that workers do not have to pay for union representation in collective bargaining even in work places where workers have elected union representation. The union bargains for all workers, members or not.

But in 1947, the federal legislature passed the Taft-Hartley Act. This act amended the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to end “closed shops” in US unions. Closed shops required workers to be union members in order to work in a union workplace. Employees who resisted joining unions or who failed to pay dues, were required to be dismissed from jobs in closed shops. The Act also required that agreements resulting from collective bargaining would benefit both union and non-union employees, even when these employees elected not to join the union. Additionally, it requires that unions provide non-member employees in a work place with all the benefits of union membership.  Right to work legislation is allowed under Taft-Hartley which gave states the right to enact these laws.

Rather than guaranteeing employment, as the name suggests, right to work laws regulate the type of contractual agreements made between employers and unions, preventing them from requiring non-union workers to pay a fee to the unions that have negotiated labor contracts benefitting all workers covered by union agreements.

Part-time Work and the Gig Economy

Upward trend in part time work

"There are millions of Americans who currently work part-time who would prefer full time jobs. In 2016, part-time workers in search of full-time jobs were at the highest level since the 1980s. “Experts call these jobs ‘hidden unemployment’ because these people are capable of working more hours than they can get.” Patrick Gillespie, CNN Money, April 25, 2016

Workers in the food system have experienced this shift from full time to part time jobs.  There has been a growth in sub-contracting in farmwork, food preparation, warehousing and many other sectors cutting costs to employers by eliminating the requirement to provide benefits and cutting wages. Data on full-time and part-time employment has been collected by the Department of Labor since 1968. At that time, 13.5% of US workers were part-time. In 2010, this proportion peaked at 20% and in October 2017, was down to 17.7%.  According to the Food Chain Workers Alliance report, part-time workers in food industries earned 40% less than full-time workers.

Coupled with the trend to hire part-time workers is the trend to hire temporary and/or contract workers.

Enter: The Gig Economy

The gig economy is booming. Temporary workers are becoming common and contracts with independent workers for short-term jobs are on the ascent.  In the food chain, the trend is to hire contract labor from the farm to the table. Farm labor contractors are used by many, if not most, farms for specialized tasks or short-term needs. But all across the food chain, employers are finding that this model works for them.

A Harvard/Princeton study showed in 2016 that “94 percent of the total net employment growth in the US economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work, including temporary workers, on-call workers and independent contractors. A study by Intuit predicts that by 2020 more than forty percent of workers in the US will be considered “contingent” workers. Temporary work is on the rise. Temporary workers are not just working in offices, they are employed across the food chain in farm fields, packing houses, warehouses, food preparation and more.

The Impacts of These Trends on Workers

The “right to work” drives down wages and increases risk

Research by the Economic Policy Institute shows that workers in states with right to work laws are paid lower wages, are less likely to have health insurance and are working in more dangerous workplaces. Workers earn about $1,500 less per year in right to work states and this wage loss is higher for women and people of color in these states. Employer provided health care in right to work states in 2.6% lower and workplace deaths are higher in right to work states. In these states, workers are less able to bargain with their employers because unions are less able to bargain with employers. As a result, both union and non-union workers in right to work states suffer lower wages and fewer benefits.

Other research from the Economic Policy Institute  reveals that workers covered by a union contract earn an average of 13.2% more in wages than nonunion workers but when unions are strong, both union and non-union wages are higher.

Part time workers live in poverty

According to a study by Rebecca Glauber at the University of New Hampshire, “over 20 percent of involuntary part-time workers, compared to about 4 percent of all full-time workers, lived below the federal poverty line. Thus today, involuntary part-time workers are more than five times as likely to live in poverty than are full-time workers.” The same study found that part-time workers earned 19% less per hour than their full-time counterparts. In addition, part-time workers are often excluded from benefits and are targets of racial discrimination, wage theft and sexual harassment. Like workers in right to work states, part-time workers may face a greater risk of injury at work.

Workers across the US are experiencing a shift to temporary and part-time jobs but food workers represent one of the largest segments of the economy facing this shift. Forty-six percent of grocery store workers work part-time.

The gig economy is a bad gig

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, gig work leads to uncertainty in pay, working hours and benefits. Inconsistent work leads to an unstable income and do not provide for a full-time career. Gig workers often do not have control over scheduling of work and do not get employer provided benefits like health care, retirement, vacation, sick leave – no work means no pay.

There is a long history in the US of depriving workers of protections and benefits by treating them as independent contractors.

"Agricultural businesses, textile mills, construction firms and other enterprises have often classified workers as contractors to lower their costs by, for example, not paying workers the statutory minimum wage and overtime, not making Social Security contributions and not offering workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries." New York Times, July 18, 2015

Food chain employers are turning more and more to the gig economy to fill critical workforce needs. Temporary positions are becoming standard in many jobs along the food chain. Farmworkers have always experienced both seasonal and temporary employment resulting in poverty wages. Food packaging plants also hire temporary workers to avoid union contracts.

"These practices are increasingly common for food processing facilities, which are following the model of the use of farm labor contractors in agriculture. An example of this can be found at two Taylor Farms plants in Tracy, California. About 900 workers, mostly Latino, work in the two facilities, with about half of the workers employed through two temporary staffing agencies: Slingshot and Abel Mendoza. As Doug Bloch, political director of the Teamsters Joint Council No. 7 puts it, some of these “temporary” employees have been working at Taylor Farms for up to 14 years, most are paid the minimum wage, and on average the workers in Tracy earn $3 per hour less than workers in the same job classifications at a unionized plant in Salinas, California owned by the same company."Food Chain Workers Alliance, 2016

As you sit down to your feast this Thanksgiving, examine the roots of the measures being deployed to stifle economic opportunity for workers. There are farmworkers who harvested your sweet potatoes, pumpkins and cranberries but cannot afford a similar meal, who will never have a retirement fund and who face grave risks to provide the food for your table. If you are eating your Thanksgiving meal in a restaurant, think about the servers who live on tipped wages and have to work on this national holiday. They may not be able to participate in a Thanksgiving dinner like the one they serve you.

Many workers across the food chain live in poverty and rely on SNAP benefits to feed themselves and their families. While working multiple part-time jobs, they may need to avail themselves of food charity for a Thanksgiving turkey. These workers are primarily workers of color who have faced racial discrimination since the founding of our country. The “right to work” and the “gig economy” are weapons that prevent workers from working together for collective change. What can you do?

  • Buy local from farmers you know and trust. BUT be sure to ask them about their labor practices.
  • Look for products with fair labor certifications. These are not all equal.
  • Support pro-worker legislation.
  • Discuss food chain worker issues with your Thanksgiving guests to educate and inform.

[1] union security agreement is a contractual agreement, in which an employer and a trade or labor union agree on the extent to which the union may compel employees to join the union, and whether the employer will collect union dues on behalf of the union.

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