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July 2012, Volume 18, Number 3

Supply Chain Pressure, Food System, Meat

Unions have traditionally negotiated with employers to improve conditions for workers. However, in garments, electronics and agriculture, producers receive a relatively small share of the retail price and often operate with narrow margins in competitive markets.

Instead of trying to squeeze higher wages from such employers, some unions have begun to bypass the employers of workers they represent and deal with the buyers of these commodities, using pressure further up the supply chain to affect conditions for farm workers. The UFW pioneered this strategy in 1965-66, putting pressure on liquor producer Schenley Industries to persuade its table-grape subsidiary to raise wages for grape workers. The UFW then switched to consumer boycotts, appeals to consumers not to buy grapes and not to shop at stores that sold them to pressure grape growers to raise wages. In the early 1970s, most California table grapes were picked under UFW contracts, but today almost none are.

FLOC in Ohio and North Carolina has made contracts with buyers of pickling cucumbers that set wages for workers employed by the farmers who produce cucumbers for these buyers. In order to sell their cucumbers to Vlasic, Mount Olive, and other pickle producers, farmers must honor the terms of contracts that they did not help to negotiate. FLOC has had some of these contracts for a quarter century.

The CIW in Florida tried to persuade tomato growers to raise piece-rate wages for a decade before turning to a boycott of fast-food chains that bought mature-green tomatoes, those that are picked green and ripened with ethylene to turn them red. Beginning with Taco Bell, most major fast-food chains have signed agreements with the CIW requiring their Florida tomato growers to pay an additional penny a pound to pickers, roughly doubling the usual $0.35 for picking a 35-pound bucket of tomatoes. The CIW agreements also include mandatory worker training on their rights under the contracts and a grievance procedure, with tomato growers risking losing the right to sell to fast-food chains if they violate the agreements.

There are thus three models to help farm workers: raise wages, train workers to help farm workers to find nonfarm jobs that pay higher wages, and raise wages while providing training that improves working conditions and productivity within agriculture.

Food System. The Food Chain Workers Alliance released a report in June 2012 concluding that only an eighth of the 20 million workers employed in the US food system earn a livable wage. The report was based on surveys with over 600 workers and almost 50 employers. Almost a quarter of the workers interviewed reported receiving less than the minimum wage, and over three-fourths did not have paid sick days. Half of the workers interviewed reported going to work despite being sick. Almost 60 percent of the workers interviewed did not have health insurance, and many relied on Food Stamps (SNAP) to supplement their earnings.

The FCWA called on governments to raise and index the minimum wage to the cost of living, to guarantee at least a week of paid sick leave a year, and to guarantee access to health care for workers and their families. It also called for new laws and penalties on employers who violate labor and safety laws.

Meat. USDA's proposed Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection regulation would allow poultry processors to speed up their lines from the current maximum 140 birds a minute to 175 birds a minute. USDA now has four inspectors per line, so that each inspector checks 35 chickens a minute for defects that could indicate pathogens. The new rules allow the lines to process 175 birds per minute, and empower plant employees to spot defective carcasses and pull them from the line.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents nearly a third of the 200,000 poultry workers, asked DOL's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate the effects of faster line speeds on poultry processing workers. The UFCW, which says that over half of poultry line workers have carpal tunnel syndrome, raised concerns that faster line speeds would lead to more poultry worker injuries. The National Chicken Council, which says that US poultry is a $45 billion a year business, supports speeding up "dis-assembly lines." It asserts that worker injury rates did not increase in the 25 plants that tested higher-speed lines.

Some 1,200 poultry workers at a Pilgrim's Pride plant in Russellville, Alabama voted in June 2013 for representation by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, an affiliate of the UFCW. The union said that plant managers tried to encourage a no vote by threatening layoffs, distributing "vote no" T-shirts, and reserving available meeting rooms in local hotels to deny the union meeting space. Pilgrim's Pride is a division of Brazilian-owned JBS Packerland Inc.

Hostess Brands, which filed for bankruptcy in January 2012, asked a judge to terminate collective bargaining agreements with 141 locals of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and 35 locals of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union. Hostess, which says that it must reduce its pension and medical contributions to emerge from bankruptcy, mailed Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act notices to all 18,500 Hostess employees in May 2012.

Helping Our Iowa Neighbors ( is a group near Sioux Falls, Iowa that wants immigration reforms to protect immigrant families and children, help small-town economies to grow with guest workers and focus enforcement on criminals.

Marshall Islands. There are over 4,000 Marshall Islanders in Springdale, Arkansas, drawn by starting wages of $8.70 an hour at Tyson Foods poultry processing and other plants. Many do not speak English and do not understand US business and culture.

The US government used the Marshall Islands to test nuclear bombs and introduced processed foods, which have led to obesity and diabetes. Since 1986, Marshall Islanders have the right to move to the US mainland, and about 20,000 have done so.

Food Chain Workers Alliance. 2012. The Hands that Feed Us.

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