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People Make Up Our City: Why Seattle’s $15 Minimum Wage Is a Sign of Things to Come

By: Amy B. Dean Sunday June 29, 2014 5:19 pm

First published at Truthout.

Light Brigade activists holding FIGHT FOR 15 signs in front of a Walgreens.

Is a $15/hour minimum wage coming to the rest of the country?

For 100,000 working people in Seattle, a newly passed citywide minimum wage of $15 per hour will mean an increased standard of living – and recognition of their contributions to the local economy. “It’s going to help me and a lot of other people,” said Crystal Thompson, 33, a Dominos Pizza customer service representative who currently earns the city minimum wage of $9.32 per hour. “They [the corporations] have been making money off us. I’ve had the same job for five years and [am] still making minimum wage. I open and close the store. I pretty much run the store and do manager shifts and still get paid minimum wage.”

While Seattle is often associated with technology-driven firms such as Microsoft and Amazon, service workers like Thompson provide a critical backbone for the area economy – a trend that also holds nationally. Over the past 20 years, community and labor organizations have united in a living wage movement to raise the floor for these employees and to make sure that prosperity is widely shared throughout the economy. Even as efforts to increase the minimum wage nationally have encountered resistance in Congress, this movement has made great strides at the local and regional levels.

The Seattle victory – part of the national Fight for 15 drive – represents the latest landmark achievement for living wage advocates. The efforts to secure the win over past months, as well as ongoing efforts to protect it from state-level attacks, hold important lessons for the rest of the country.

Raising the United States’ Wages

Since 1994, when a coalition of labor and community groups came together in Baltimore to win the first such policy, the living wage movement has spread across the United States. The basic argument behind these campaigns is that a person working full-time shouldn’t have to live in poverty, a precept that has been popularly accepted. The National Employment Law Project estimates that over 120 cities have passed similar laws, including a notable win in 1998 in San Jose, California, which established the highest living wage in the nation for those who received public funds. Another victory came in San Francisco in 2004, when the city raised its minimum wage far above that of the rest of California (where it has remained ever since). The clarion call of Fight for 15 is the latest manifestation of the living wage movement.

Seattle’s minimum wage drive was inspired by a nationwide movement to increase stagnant wages by instating a floor of $15 per hour. This drive began on November 29, 2012 when fast food workers, supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), staged a one-day fast food strike in New York City to highlight their terrible wages and demand a raise. In 2013, a wave of similar strikes rippled across the nation, beginning in New York City again, then spreading outward in all directions and reaching Seattle by the end of May. On August 29, 2013, work stoppages occurred in almost 60 cities, from the liberal metropolises to second tier cities like Wilmington, Delaware and Raleigh, North Carolina. The latest wave occurred just last month in over 150 municipalities.

As these shop floor actions have heightened pressure at the workplace and in the headlines, national leaders in the Democratic Party have tried to adopt the language of the living wage movement, if not its exact demands. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama vowed to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, and – after a year of strikes – he declared his support for a $10.10 wage. Neither proposal got through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, so in his 2014 State of the Union, Obama opted to use an executive order to raise the minimum wage of federal contractors to $10.10. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez even adopted movement language in a phone call with reporters about the president’s executive order, saying, “No person who works a full-time job should have to live in poverty.”

With federal action limited, coalitions of community and labor groups continued to push for higher minimum wages at the level of cities and counties.

Taking on Poverty, Grassroots-Style

In 2013, Seattle’s labor and community alliance zeroed in on the $15 minimum wage in SeaTac, a small neighboring city where the metro area’s airport lies. In late July, they gathered the necessary signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. The SeaTac campaign gained the attention of organized business interests, which poured money into the campaign against it, sparking a battle that gained national media attention. It also established an essential template for collective bargaining through public policy, pushing politically for the kind of rights that would be difficult to win through unionization.

 

Why Does the Obama Administration Keep Getting It Wrong on Education Policy?

By: Amy B. Dean Wednesday June 4, 2014 1:52 pm
Originally published at Truthout.

Albert Shanker Institute executive director Leo Casey talks about community schools, public education, teacher evaluation, standardized testing, Common Core, the political dimension of corporate education “reform” and what policies are needed to revitalize public education.

Portrait of Arne Duncan

A look at how Arne Duncan and Obama’s education policies get it wrong.

Maintaining and directing the federal bureaucracy is one of the most important (and underappreciated) presidential tasks. When Barack Obama was elected, progressives had high hopes that, after eight years of Republican rule, federal agencies would take significant turns for the better. In some instances, this has been the case. But the priorities of the Obama administration’s Department of Education seem little changed from the failures of the Bush administration.

The administration’s signature policy, Race to the Top, is designed to help only those states (19 so far) that encourage the proliferation of charter schools and increase reliance on high-stakes testing. This is not entirely surprising, given that Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary, came to Washington with a suspect record. As Chicago’s public schools chief, he closed 44 public schools and opened over 100 charters, advancing a pro-corporate “reform” agenda while doing little to meet the city’s actual needs.

Why has the administration’s education agenda gone so badly awry? What should progressives be demanding at the present moment? And if Democrats and Republicans have very similar priorities for education, are there any improvements we can hope for under a future administration?

To answer these questions, I recently spoke with Leo Casey, a former vice president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Currently, Casey is executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank named for the iconic leader of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) who is credited with developing the high professional standards associated with today’s teaching profession.

Amy Dean for Truthout: I want to talk about what’s happening at the national level. Why is there so little distinction between the two major parties with regard to education policy?

Leo Casey: I don’t think it is anything separate from the general way in which many Democrats have taken a position that is very supportive of Wall Street and [adopted] an economic agenda which is not focused on working people. Over the last 30 years, there has been a process, not only of growing economic inequality, but also of growing political power for a corporate agenda.

For a while people in public education and people in public sector unions thought that somehow we were protected – that we weren’t going to face the same sort of onslaught which was being directed toward private-sector industrial unions. But insofar as teacher unions are the one part of the American labor movement that really has organized its sector for the most part, it was inevitable that guns would be trained on us sooner or later.

So how have the two parties converged on education policy?

There is a great deal of overlap. Teachers are the welfare queens of the 21st century in terms of representing a public image that politicians think they can run against. But there are important distinctions to be made. Even the most neoliberal of the Democrats are not supportive of vouchers, the most purist of market reforms. That is not an unimportant distinction.

But on issues like teacher evaluation, there’s really not much that distinguishes them. The Common Core is a really complicated piece because the underlying problem is not the standards themselves, but the way in which they’ve been implemented and how they’ve been connected to testing. We’ve skipped over all the intermediate steps – such as professional development for teachers, curriculum for teachers to teach [and] time for teachers to work with each other to develop new lesson plans and new classroom approaches. We skipped over all of those absolutely essential steps and went right to testing.

Given this context, how have the policies of President Obama’s education department compared with those of the Bush administration?

The policies have been basically the same. At the beginning, when Obama came in, we were still very much in the depths of the recession, and the government pumped a lot of money into school districts to prevent teacher layoffs. But after that, the policies have been basically the same as the Bush policies.

Will the Next Labor Movement Come from the South?

By: Amy B. Dean Sunday May 18, 2014 10:27 am

Published originally at Truthout.

Saket Soni is Executive Director of the National Guestworkers Alliance and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

Corporate America — especially in the American South — doesn’t seem to know the proper way to treat a guest. Guest workers have long been one of the most easily exploited segments of the American workforce. Employers frequently take advantage of their legal vulnerabilities to ignore labor laws, pay subminimum wage and threaten them with physical abuse, all of which American citizens are better equipped to resist. Whole sectors of the American economy — especially agriculture — have long depended on this underground labor market and the ease with which employers can dominate it.

But in recent years, guest workers have been bringing attention to their plight and winning some small victories. One of the leaders of that movement is Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. From his base in the Deep South, perhaps the United States’ most worker-unfriendly region, he has helped organize workers across the Gulf Coast.

In 2012, Soni worked with a group of guest workers at a crawfish processing plant named CJ’s Seafood, where employees were locked in, forced to work nearly around the clock and threatened with violence when they protested. The Guestworkers Alliance and the CJ’s employees were able to put pressure on CJ’s Seafood’s chief customers: Walmart and the Walmart-owned Sam’s Club. The employees went on strike, fasted and protested outside the homes of Walmart board members. They raised enough attention that The New York Times endorsed their cause and many other workers from across the Walmart supply chain joined their efforts. This case is a model for the kind of organizing Soni is dedicated to: confronting the complexities of the American labor market with the power of collective action.

Amy B. Dean spoke with Soni about his ongoing campaigns with guestworkers and about the challenges of organizing the South.

Amy Dean for Truthout: I want to begin by asking you about the recent United Auto Workers union (UAW) loss at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Does it tell us anything that we didn’t already know about labor organizing in the South?

Saket Soni: Well, I think it’s a reminder of how far the opposition is willing to go to mobilize all of their resources to intervene in what should really have been a matter decided among workers: whether they wanted a union. Instead, those workers had to factor in the economic stress of jobs being taken away from them. They had to factor in all sorts of rhetoric including, ironically, how the union would turn Chattanooga into Detroit. Which is laughable because Detroit’s best years were because of unionization.

I think it also teaches us how far we need to go. It will take patience to really win in places like Chattanooga. The opposition had a community strategy, and we’re going to have to do that, too.

Describe this community strategy. What did Volkswagen management do on the ground?

Protecting Classrooms From Corporate Takeover

By: Amy B. Dean Wednesday April 23, 2014 6:37 am

What Families Can Learn from Teachers’ Unions

Teachers have always held a cherished role in our society—recognized as professionals who know how to inculcate a love of learning in our children. But the “education reform” movement represented by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top blames teachers for the problems in our public schools.

An abandoned classroom with dusty desks & tables, and half-packed desk contents.

Why do American schools think they can “fire their way to excellence?”

“The people who seek to privatize the public sector are looking for any excuse to criticize teachers,” says Bob Peterson, veteran fifth-grade teacher and president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). “We must take responsibility for our profession. If we don’t step up to the plate, public education is going to be destroyed.”

At heart, this is a debate between competing visions of teachers’ roles in public education in America. Teachers, through their unions, are defending the idea that they are best-equipped to teach children to become lifelong learners. Education “reformers,” though, cite studies—such as one from the Goldwater Institute from 2004—that show that students at privately run charter schools outperform kids in public schools and say that public education would improve if public schools simply looked more like privately run schools. In privately run schools, teachers lack a collective voice, their working conditions are subject to the whims of school administrators, and they can be fired at will. This contrast with the empowered rank and file of unionized public school teachers could help explain the claims of “reformers” that traditional public school teachers are too sheltered, that they can’t be dismissed easily enough, and that their unions need to be eliminated. Firing and replacing teachers based on students’ scores on standardized tests, then, is part of the reformers’ vision for the schools.

Everyone agrees that great teachers are key to a good education. But reform advocates such as former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee say that schools can fire their way to excellence. In September 2013, according to a report on the public policy website Next City, Rhee spoke at Temple University. Exemplifying the rhetoric of the reformers, Rhee said, “Not everyone can do this job. If you have a pulse and pass the criminal check, a lot of school districts will just stick you in the classroom.” But Rhee’s approach is to evaluate teachers by giving their students standardized tests. This approach offers, at best, an imprecise evaluation, failing to measure the intangibles that make great teachers. The result is that some of the best teachers get taken out, along with a few bad ones.

Peterson and other educators say that, unsurprisingly, the reformers’ approach undermines those who have devoted their professional lives to educating kids. In 2010, Rhee fired 241 D.C. public-school teachers in a single day, but failed to achieve the promised turnaround in standardized test scores. The achievement gap between black and white elementary students is now wider than ever, as education writer Dana Goldstein and others have noted since Rhee’s departure from D.C.

Across the country, teachers’ unions are fighting back against the work of people like Rhee by working to educate children holistically. This means taking into account all the factors that influence students’ chances for success: families, homes, communities, and often the effects of poverty. In Milwaukee, Peterson is working with his union to emphasize teacher professionalism and social justice in the community. In New York City, as part of a union-based program, 16 schools have reinvented themselves as hubs for community services. In St. Paul, teachers visit parents in their homes to build engagement with families.

Rethinking Milwaukee Schools

Peterson’s organizing efforts in Milwaukee focus on highlighting how the interests of teachers—for instance, having paid time for class preparation—align closely with those of students. Peterson is a longtime fifth-grade teacher and former editor of the progressive education magazine Rethinking Schools. He was elected president of the MTEA representing a caucus of teachers who advocate funding and fixing public schools. His organizing efforts focus on using the union’s clout not merely to protect teachers’ jobs but to champion the common interests of teachers, students, parents, and the community.

As a first change, the union actively encourages teachers to work for social justice in their communities. “In the way past, our union didn’t really do much outreach to the community except when we needed support for our issues,” Peterson says. “That’s changed.” Recently, Peterson says, MTEA teachers turned out to support immigrants’ rights groups in the city alongside a grassroots organization called Voces de la Frontera and provided adult advising and mentoring for its youth arm, Youth Empowered in the Struggle. Union members also joined picket lines in spring 2012 in support of striking Palermo’s pizza factory workers. These are not actions that seem directly related to education. For MTEA teachers, addressing such stressors as legal status, support in the community, and economic insecurity is critical to student success. “We are really trying to change the narrative in the community,” he says, “from ‘teacher unions just defend bad teachers’ to a narrative where we are seen as the go-to people when it comes to public education.”

In the schools, the union’s focus is on making clear how, in Peterson’s words, “our teaching conditions are our students’ learning conditions.” The union’s negotiating team recently won a 50 percent increase in paid class preparation time for MTEA teachers, allowing the teachers to accommodate the more complex curriculum material that will boost their students’ achievement.

A final leg of the union’s efforts, Peterson argues, is to “reclaim our profession in our classrooms.” Teachers “should be child-driven and data-informed,” Peterson says, using a broad set of data to measure the success of the whole child, rather than measuring learning strictly with standardized tests. In one example, the union lent its voice to the effort to overhaul Milwaukee’s ailing early childhood education system and convened a joint task force with school officials to lay the groundwork for improvements in the city’s pre-K through third-grade programs. Recognizing the strong evidence that improved early childhood teaching makes for improved long-term outcomes for all kids, the union has assigned early childhood education experts to the task force.

Weaving Schools into the Fabric of the Community

Beyond the Minimum Wage: Interview With Jobs With Justice’s Sarita Gupta

By: Amy B. Dean Monday March 31, 2014 5:23 am

Published originally at Truthout.

Raising the minimum wage is an idea whose time has come. Long an important grass-roots demand, campaigns to raise the wage are taking place throughout the country. Even the national Democratic Party has recognized it as it winning issue that its candidates should embrace. Yet, although a minimum wage boost is long overdue, an increase from $7.25 an hour to $10 an hour will not bring the working poor out of poverty. Nor will it restore the type of labor rights and collective organization that built the American middle class in the mid-20th century.

This dilemma raises a critical question: How do we use the enthusiasm around this issue to promote a more robust and thoroughgoing vision of economic justice?

Sarita Gupta is one progressive leader who is searching for an answer to this question. Gupta is executive director of Jobs With Justice, a national organization whose mission is to “win real change for workers by combining innovative communications strategies and solid research and policy advocacy with grassroots action and mobilization,” according to its web site. A dynamic contributor to the effort to build coalitions between labor and community, Gupta has led Jobs With Justice since 2007 in campaigns alongside employees at Walmart for better treatment, to help extend labor law protections to domestic workers and to defend immigrant workers from deportation.

In a recent interview, I talked with Gupta about connecting today’s minimum-wage demands to a more far-reaching strategy to counter inequality. In our discussion, Gupta emphasized a new generation of organizing tactics, such as the Retail Action Project’s Just Hours campaign for workers to be guaranteed enough hours on the job to have a living wage. This is the sort of tactic that could contribute to a comprehensive strategic agenda for economic justice. The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Amy Dean for Truthout: Why are we encountering a national movement to raise the minimum wage at this moment?

Sarita Gupta: I think we’re seeing a rise of low-wage workers who are demanding a conversation about economic inequality. One way to address this would be raising the minimum wage.

People just can’t make it in today’s economy. There’s a growing population of people who have to make ridiculous choices between paying for food or paying for rent or paying for health care – basic necessities. With the help of a lot of good organizing that has happened over the years around issues of wages, I really think we’ve reached a point [of being able to see how] this has impacted so many people.

The Democratic Party has recognized the minimum wage as an issue that should be a priority for its candidates. Is this a good development? Is it just sheer opportunism? Or is it something else?

I think it’s a good thing that more elected officials or candidates are talking about the need for raising the minimum wage. What I worry about is that the conversation begins and ends with raising the minimum wage. It’s really, really important for politicians today to understand that more and more Americans are fed up and really cannot survive in this economy the way it is. The need for them to look at policy changes beyond the minimum wage is going to be really critical.

Two Workforces On the Move

What has Jobs with Justice’s role been in fanning the flame around the minimum-wage issue?

A few years ago at Jobs With Justice, we made a decision that there were two sectors of the workforce that we wanted to dive into more deeply, because we felt we could push for new jobs to be created and make sure these were good-quality jobs. Those were the retail sector and the care sector.

Can We Make Progressive Mayors Work for the People?

By: Amy B. Dean Monday March 17, 2014 5:51 am

This article originally appeared at Truthout.

Bill de Blasio speaks at a microphone, wearing a suit.

Can grassroots pressure keep mayors like Bill de Blasio working for progressive causes?

It has become a cliché for progressives to vow that they’ll hold politicians accountable after they help get them elected. But if everyone knows the fight doesn’t end on Election Day, fewer people grasp what it actually means for social movements to push politicians to live up to their promises.

In 2014, this has become a critical issue at the municipal level. In November 2013, two major American cities – New York and Boston – elected mayors who campaigned as progressives. But if we don’t expect change to come from above without pressure, progressives must confront a number of strategic questions. Topping that list: What can we legitimately expect city hall to accomplish? And what must movements do for that to happen?

New York City: Increasing the Urgency of Organizing

“New Yorkers are feeling optimistic,” says veteran activist Matt Ryan, executive director of ALIGN New York (formerly New York Jobs with Justice). Of the grass-roots response to newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio – who won office with support of a broad-based coalition of community-based groups – Ryan explains, “We’ve seen an upsurge in enthusiasm and organizing so far. Some of the issues that people have, there’s a good chance they’re going to be acted on. People urgently want to bring those issues to the attention of City Hall.”

What are those issues? Universal pre-kindergarten, raising the minimum wage, affordable housing and preparing the city’s communities for climate change are among those Ryan hopes to see the de Blasio administration address. But this is not merely a process of change that comes from the inside; rather it requires the interplay of inside policy-making and outside heat. One example of this is already in evidence: The new mayor has announced his support for a measure that would provide mandatory paid sick days to workers throughout the five boroughs, giving an additional 335,000 workers a chance to stay home when they or a family member are sick. This is a policy change long championed by labor and community groups, and it’s one that they made into an issue in the last election. For Ryan, de Blasio’s support for it is an indication that, if progressive groups are able to put issues on the political map, City Hall will be more responsive than in the past to pressure – and that this can translate into measurable change.

Even with a friendlier City Hall, though, there are limitations in the system on what grass-roots groups may be able to accomplish. “We’ve got our work cut out for us no matter what,” Ryan said. “We have no illusion that we’re [not] still up against the giant Wall Street firms.”

The state government could be an additional impediment. De Blasio may be able to create some affordable housing, for instance, but when the city tries to make policy that impacts systems throughout the state, big business could thwart such efforts at the state level. For instance, when de Blasio approached Gov. Andrew Cuomo for permission to set a higher citywide minimum wage instead of waiting for the state to raise its wage, Cuomo balked. Cuomo isn’t the only obstacle to raising the wage; New York’s Republican state legislators have expressed unwillingness to raise it beyond the current plan, which will set the statewide minimum at $9 by 2015.

Ryan explained that it’s becoming increasingly clear to city-based organizing leaders “how critical Albany is going to be in addressing some of these issues around chronic inequality.” For example, “When it comes to universal pre-K and raising the minimum wage in New York, it requires New York City to get approvals from state government in order to move forward.”

Nevertheless, sometimes seemingly routine matters of urban policy that City Hall can control – such as how budgeted resources are allocated – can have a profound affect on communities. And that makes these decisions a site of struggle. As a workers-rights advocacy group, ALIGN is working to deepen its alliances with groups in the city and state that are pushing for an equitable process for job creation and community impact in the rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. “Hurricane Sandy was a real wake-up call, that the impact of climate change is real in New York City, and it’s going to impact low-income communities and communities of color,” Ryan said.

We Want to Have a Common Language: Carolina Jews for Justice Stand Out in the Moral Mondays Crowd

By: Amy B. Dean Monday February 24, 2014 6:14 am

It can be isolating to be a progressive Jew in North Carolina. In a state where just 1% of the population identifies as Jewish, it can be tough just to find a religious community, let alone a politically active one. Although older Jews who may have been activists in the civil rights movement of the 20th century still live there, it appears their coordinated work for justice ended along with that era. There is no sustaining, Jewish-identified organizational infrastructure that today’s generation of younger North Carolina Jews could revive and harness for today’s fights.

Huge crowd at a Moral Monday event with banner "Justice Is Contagious"

Progressive Jews, a North Carolina minority, are finding a home in the Moral Monday movement.

But recently one Raleigh-based Jewish group has tapped into a wellspring of political passion among Jews, and is mobilizing them across the state to challenge the Republican takeover of the legislature. Through building coalitions with other faith and community-based groups, turning Jews out to the Moral Mondays rallies at the state capitol, and organizing laypeople and rabbis to take action, the members of Carolina Jews for Justice (CJJ) are speaking up for the political changes they want to see in North Carolina.

CJJ president Debbie Goldstein describes the loose but committed network of grassroots volunteers that maintains this activity. “There are eight or ten of us that keep the day-to day work going, 20 of us that come all the time, and 100 that come out to a rally,” she says. Goldstein adds that while CJJ’s regular meetings are held in Raleigh and Durham, it claims members from all over the state, including the metro regions of Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Asheville, and Greensboro.

Faith in Action

Max Socol, CJJ’s 27-year-old co-founder, grew up in Greensboro and now lives and works in Raleigh as principal of a temple-based school. His organizing pedigree, though, dates back to his living and working in Israel in 2008-2009 with Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI). From there, he moved to Washington, DC, where there were plenty of opportunities to work for social justice but no consensus among those who were doing the work. “There were two moments,” he says, “that crystallized for me the idea that it would be useful to advocate for justice from a Jewish perspective.”

The first such moment, he says, was at the Occupy DC encampment, where Socol attended meetings and tried to make his voice heard. “My overall experience with that movement was, ‘Gee, I’ve never met so many people who have similar political opinions, but have such a hard time communicating with each other,” Socol says. “All of us wanted to address economic inequality in a public, hands-on way; but despite that, we couldn’t get through a single organizing meeting! We didn’t have a single touchstone with which to communicate.” Socol says that this prompted him to re-examine how a shared commitment to Jewish ritual and practice might become such a touchstone.

Socol became active in the DC Jewish community, attending Shabbat dinners where people discussed how to support the Occupy movement. “I’m actually getting more done,” he remembers thinking to himself. “Organizing within the Jewish community allows me to leapfrog these communication barriers because we understand each other.”

Socol’s second moment of clarity came when he approached a mentor about using Torah as the foundation for taking action and organizing others to work for social justice. He was apprehensive, he told his mentor, about being so bold as to “politicize the texts” – in other words, to interpret and apply Torah to modern struggles for economic and social justice. “She laughed in my face,” he says. “She said, ‘Have you ever even read the book of Jeremiah?’” Socol saw what she meant and decided to embrace a social-justice interpretation of Torah. “I’m not going to pretend,” he adds, “that Jeremiah is only speaking metaphorically when he says a society that fails to care for the poor is doomed.”

Socol’s faith-driven activism found some willing partners in the Jewish community when he moved back to Raleigh in 2012. As liaison for his congregation’s social action committee, Socol says he couldn’t sit by as the committee organized simple acts of charity while hard-right Republicans swept to power at the statehouse. The new state majority, backed by wealthy North Carolina businessman Art Pope, began passing tax cuts for the wealthy and moved right along to gutting voters’ rights. Socol asked the committee to consider taking a political stance. “I said, ‘It’s great that we send ten volunteers down to serve at the food pantry every month, but there’s a reason that there’s greater need at the food pantry. Are we in any way going to express unhappiness with the new tax plan?’”

CJJ president Debbie Goldstein had had a similar moment a few years ago when it became clear that Jews in her state needed to speak out. “The debate over immigration reform was to me very disturbing in North Carolina,” she says. “It just seemed like candidates were fighting over who could be more anti-immigrant. It shocked me.” Goldstein says she began attending regular events with Jewish social activists in Raleigh, and met some others who wanted to become politically engaged. “There was a proposal two years ago to have a constitutional amendment that would limit the right of gay people to marry. That also bothered me,” she says. “It pushed many Jews to take a political position where they had never taken a position before.”

In 2012, along with a few people from his own congregation who were interested in doing political work, Socol began reaching out to social action committees at area congregations, and a group formed that became the executive board of CJJ.

A Growing Movement

“Our Food Is Dishonestly Priced”: Michael Pollan on Justice for Food Workers

By: Amy B. Dean Monday January 27, 2014 6:40 am

Take a stroll through most grocery stores, and many of the products claim to be organically grown or locally sourced. The foodie movement has swept America in the last decade, thanks in no small part to the work of journalists and intellectuals who have championed the cause online, in print and on the airwaves.

Michael Pollan lectures in front of a projected slide of chickens grazing an open field.

Author Michael Pollan considers fair wages and the food industry.

Michael Pollan is inarguably one of the most influential of these figures. Pollan is most famous for his books, especially In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006). He also contributes regularly to publications such as the New York Times Magazine, where his work has received numerous awards, and is a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

As organic, locally grown food has emerged as a cultural and economic counterforce to industrialized agriculture, critics have claimed it is elitist and accessible only to those with the resources to pay more for their nourishment. Pollan and his allies have responded, in part, by drawing the public’s attention to the low-wage workers who work in the field, behind the counter, and in the kitchen. In recent years Pollan has supported the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization dedicated to improving working conditions and wages for tomato pickers’ in Florida; in December 2013 he sided with fast food strikers and their demand for a $15 dollar per hour wage. In an email missive for MoveOn.org (received by 8 million subscribers), Pollan wrote: “If we are ever to . . . produce food sustainably and justly and sell it at an honest price, we will first have to pay people a living wage so that they can afford to buy it.” In his words, fair wages must be part of the push to democratize food.

I recently connected with Pollan to discuss equitable food pricing, farm worker rights, and industrial agriculture’s role in casting the food movement as elitist.  (What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.) I began by asking Pollan about his evolving personal interest in the plight of food workers.

“I’ve been really paying more attention to it over time than I did at the beginning,” he said. “When I wrote my first book about the food system, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I didn’t talk in detail about labor. It was much more from the point of view of the eater than the person behind the counter.

“But the food movement is all about connecting the dots,” Pollan continued. “Both the farm workers and the fast food workers are very important in the food system. I think Eric Schlosser did this better than anyone in Fast Food Nation (2001), where the focus was very much on food workers, slaughterhouse workers and farm workers. I think he’s helped to sensitize a lot of people in the food movement who perhaps weren’t paying as much attention to this part of the puzzle as they should have been. You definitely find the interest spreading and accelerating as social inequality has gotten so much worse in the last few years.”

Why, I wondered, is there this impression of the food movement as an elite venue? And why is it that the only people who can afford local, organic options are generally those who don’t have to worry about their pay?

“Although there’s a kernel of truth in that image [of a foodie elite],” he responded, “it’s also a part of the rhetorical strategy used by the [agricultural] industry to fight the food movement: that it’s elitist; that this kind of food can’t feed the world; that only industrial agriculture can get the job done and put lots of cheap meat in front of us. It’s a bludgeon used in a very serious ideological battle.

“Often stereotypes have some kernel of truth behind them, and this one did, but it’s been way overplayed by the media, in particular. They love this idea that the food movement is merely elitist. But if you dig in, there’s an inner-city dimension of the food movement. Urban agriculture is all about access, underserved communities and the whole discourse around “food deserts.”

“When you buy cheap food, the real costs have been externalized,” Pollan continued. “Those externalized costs have always included labor. It is only the decline over time of the minimum wage in real dollars that’s made the fast food industry possible, along with feedlot agriculture, pharmaceuticals on the farm, pesticides and regulatory forbearance. All these things are part of the answer to the question: Why is that crap so cheap? Our food is dishonestly priced. One of the ways in which it’s dishonestly priced is the fact that people are not paid a living wage to process it, to serve it, to grow it, to slaughter it.”

I said that Pollan made a great point about the devil’s bargain of cheap products for cheap wages, but noted that state farm bureaus and other agricultural industry representatives across the country would no doubt disagree. Opponents of fair wages claim that increased farm worker pay will result in higher food prices. I asked Pollan if this kind of scare messaging resonates with his base of supporters in the food movement.