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‘From Bean to Cup,’ Starbucks Labor Action Heats Up

4:16 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

As part of workers’ Week of Action, a protester distributes leaflets outside of a Starbucks in Cambridge, Mass. (Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers)

Originally posted at In These Times

The Starbucks cup, with its iconic green mermaid logo and smart cardboard sleeve, seems to embody the essence of the urbane yuppie lifestyle. But the carefully constructed cool of the coffee mega-brand belies some serious anger percolating beneath the surface of Starbucks’ supply chain.

That cup means something different to Ray Allen, a machine operator at a paper goods plant run by Pactiv, a major Starbucks supplier. Allen got his first full-time job at the Stockton, Calif. factory; now, more than a decade later, the steady employment has allowed him to own a home and raise a family. But it hasn’t come without cost.

“I have given [Pactiv] my blood, sweat, and tears throughout the years,” said Allen in a recent testimonial. “I have missed many events in my children’s lives for this job with no regrets. All I ask for in return is a fair contract to preserve our well-deserved and hard-earned middle-class way of life.”

Since the Stockton factory’s parent company, Dopaco, was taken over by Lake Forest, Ill.-based Pactiv in 2011, Allen’s union, Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Local 83, has been fighting for such a fair contract. The union says that management is pushing for unreasonable cutbacks on benefits and trying to allow temporary agency workers, hired outside the union, into the plant—a major departure from the old contract terms. They also claim the company wants to take away paid mealtimes, which they fear would significantly cut wages for a standard workweek.

The Stockton employees represent one of the last bastions of unionization in Pactiv’s workforce—just nine of its 55 facilities worldwide are union, PlasticsNews reported last year. Union representative Greg Jones says Pactiv’s proposal of hiring more temp workers, in particular, “really weakens our bargaining potential” and “only gives Pactiv the incentive to try to use more and more temp workers, at lower wages with no benefits … it eventually could be the demise of the union.” And Pactiv has a reputation for labor antagonism. In Kearny, N.J. last year, Pactiv shuttered a plant producing Reynolds-brand packaging products following months of labor clashes. The workers-—mostly Latina and Chinese women—launched a campaign accusing the company of imposing harsh working conditions, unfair layoffs and trying to bust their unionization efforts.

In Stockton, labor conditions have also declined in the last year, say workers. Ever since Pactiv’s takeover, they claim, the workload has gotten more stressful and management has gotten harsher.

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Farmworkers Face Silent Spring in the Fields

5:30 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(jetsandzepplins/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Some lawmakers in Washington may be losing sleep in the coming weeks as they mull over proposed immigration reform legislation. But many migrant children are haunted at night for a different reason—the quiet nightmare of noxious winds that fill their bedrooms with toxic fumes, a hidden chemical disaster looming over the fields where their parents work.

The promise of legalization through legislation won’t bring relief for those families, who toil on industrial farms and, with or without work authorization, labor every day in poisonous environments. Regulators and lawmakers have largely ignored these chemical hazards; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not updated its Worker Protection Standard for pesticide exposures in 20 years. So advocates for farmworkers have taken their struggle to court.

Pesticide Action Network of North AmericaUnited Farm Workers and other public health and worker organizations filed a petition on July 24 in the 9th Circuit federal appeals court in San Francisco to compel the EPA to enact new pesticide protections for children. The groups, represented by Farmworker Justice and Earthjustice, are specifically demanding regulations on pesticide “drift”: the toxins that waft from the crops to the kitchen tables and playgrounds of surrounding neighborhoods.

The petition, urging action on an earlier challenge filed in 2009, specifically demands that EPA evaluate pesticide drift risks and implement safeguards such as buffer zones “near homes, schools, parks and daycare centers, or wherever children congregate.” Studies have linked pesticide exposures to reproductive health and childhood development problems as well as cancer and respiratory ailments.

recent report by Farmworker Justice highlighted the experience of Graciela, a fern crop worker whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at 15—a condition Graciela attributes to the health risks the family faced when they went to the fields together:

In order to cut the ferns and get those nice long stems that we need, we have to put our faces practically down into them. I realize now how dangerous this is. We are breathing in those pesticides all day long, and how could they not cause us harm.

The current litigation focuses on the EPA’s failure to act on a 2006 congressional mandate to issue protections for children against pesticide drift. But the agency has a long track record of heel-dragging on many pesticide issues.

Due to a division in the regulatory structure, pesticide safety for farmworkers is governed by the EPA, rather than the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which regulates chemicals in other industrial workplaces. Under the current weak EPA standards, workers are generally offered only minimal safety information on pesticides. Moreover, with lax labeling requirements, workers often cannot read the English labels on pesticide products that state hazard precautions and instructions for safe handling decontamination. Earth Justice points out that the EPA’s standard “is far more lenient than OSHA rules,” revealing a structural inequity in the labor regulatory regime. Farmworker activists went to Washington in July to urge officials to enact measures such as requiring protective equipment and monitoring exposed workers’ health. Read the rest of this entry →

Why Safer Food Workers Mean Safer Food

5:10 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

New Department of Agriculture ‘reforms’ speed up the lines of poultry processing while shifting the onus of inspection onto workers. (Courtesy of the United Food and Commercial Workers)

Originally posted at In These Times

Americans these days are nervous about what they eat, and they should be, what with outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, meat pumped with veterinary drugs and genetically modified organisms creeping into our groceries. And in May, when the iconic brand of Smithfield Foods was bought by a Chinese multinational, there seemed to be still more cause for alarm. China seems even more rife with food hazards: rivers brimming with pig carcasses, poisonous baby formula, lakes of toxic waste.

But in both hemispheres, reports about health and safety scares tend to gloss over an underlying malaise afflicting the food system: the many hazards that are concentrated further up in the production chain, in the slaughterhouses and processing plants where corporations regularly subordinate workers’ health and safety, along with public health concerns, to their insatiable hunger for profits.

A 2011 petition filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights and Nebraska Appleseed described the unsavory conditions that U.S. meat-processing workers face every day:

Processors require their line employees to work at an extremely fast pace to keep up with these demands. The work is performed in very dangerous conditions: floors are slippery with grease, blood, and fat; temperatures are extremely cold or hot, and the work is arduous and repetitive—employees make upwards of 20,000 cuts a day.

In a 2012 report on labor conditions in the livestock industry by the Midwest Coalition, an Iowa plant worker testified, “Many workers are harmed, there is [not] enough time to do our tasks, the speed is so fast and we have to stretch ourselves to do the pieces. We are always working beyond the capacity of our bodies.”

Health hazards are intensified by a shopfloor culture that exploits and disempowers workers.Union membership has been plummeting since the 1980s. With low wages and massive stress, the sector relies heavily on immigrant workers, who may often be intimidated and silenced by the threat of being unfairly punished or fired for speaking out on health and safety problems.

Under such conditions, should consumers be shocked that food quality is endangered, too? These same factories and slaughterhouses have brought us arsenic-laced chicken and livestock laden with antibiotic-resistant pathogens. A recent USDA Inspector General report on pork plants found that regulators frequently failed to adequately enforce safety standards, while many facilities were cited for issues like mishandling hogs during slaughter, fecal contamination and pest-infested “kill floors.”

Remedying these problems–from toxic pork to musculoskeletal injuries–requires recognizing the connection between the regulatory failures across the industry as a workplace and a food supply.

Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, says the safety implications for the food produced in these plants should concern everyone. “It stands to reason that in a workplace where there’s a high level of pressure on workers to work as fast and to not report hazards, the same thing can happen in terms of quality control or food quality.”

The poultry industry illustrates the potential nexus between workplace conditions and the quality of the food it churns out. A recent catastrophic chemical fire at a Chinese poultry plant that killed 120 workers made international headlines. But silent dangers stalk U.S. facilities as well. On top of abuse and harassment from bosses, repetitive-stress injuries are prevalent in poultry plants, often leading to debilitating chronic pain that makes workers’ lives miserable.

And the job may soon get even more painful. The USDA has sought to “modernize” safety monitoring by essentially removing many inspectors from the lines and instead having plant workers perform visual quality checks, while using antimicrobial chemicals to help sanitize birds. At the same time, the proposed scheme would pump production by allowing faster processing speeds. So while workers cut up carcasses, whipping past them at a rate of up to 175 a minute, they are supposed to watch for unhealthy-looking chickens simultaneously. Studies on pilots of this program have revealed alarming rates of error in catching unsanitary birds. But consumers should also be alarmed about the greater danger experienced by workers as production reaches even more insane speeds, supposedly for greater efficiency. The USDA’s proposed reforms essentially do not contemplate their implications for worker safety.

This disconnect between food quality and workers’ health reflects a profound regulatory gap, not only because unhealthy workplaces may lead to unhealthy meat, but because safe workplaces protect public health.

Celeste Monforton, a lecturer at George Washington University School of Public Health, notes that workers could play an important role in safety, but are constrained by brutal working conditions:

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A Budget That Tightens Belts by Emptying Stomachs

10:24 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times.

A time-honored tactic of conservative lawmakers is to “starve the beast”by defunding government programs. In the case of food stamps—the quintessential whipping boy for budget hawks—they’re going a step further by trying to starve actual people.

The House of Representatives and Senate have proposed the United States “tighten our belts” by slashing billions of dollars from poor people’s food budgets. The main mechanism for shrinking the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding is the removal of “categorical eligibility.” Basically, most states have used this policy to streamline enrollment: Families are made eligible for food stamps based on their receipt of other benefits, such as housing or childcare subsidies. That often means broadening eligibility for working-poor families or those with overall household income or savings that exceeds regular, stricter thresholds for qualifying for food stamps.

Now the House and Senate farm bill proposals, particularly the House plan, seek to “save” billions more by cutting categorical eligibility. Under the House farm bill budget, which cuts $20.5 billion in SNAP over 10 years, benefits would be eliminated for “nearly 2 million low-income people, mostly working families with children and senior citizens,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). (The Senate bill also cuts SNAP but only by about $4 billion over 10 years). In addition, the cuts would devastate poor students, because SNAP eligibility has enabled 210,000 low-income children to qualify for free school meals. That means more hunger pangs for kids in the cafeteria, and an emptier refrigerator waiting for them at home. Meanwhile, their working-poor parents may find themselves buying cheaper, less nutritious food to stretch budgets, or turning to the local food pantry, or facing cruel trade-offs like delaying rent payments to pay for groceries or leaving a health problem untreated. Read the rest of this entry →

Farmworkers Fight Wendy’s, the ‘Last Holdout’ on Fair Food

5:29 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

An oversized puppet of the Wendy's mascot, provided by the People's Puppets of Occupy Wall Street, took part in silent street theater to convince the fast food giant to sign onto the Fast Food campaign. (Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

Originally posted at In These Times.

While rain pattered gently on the concrete steps of Manhattan’s Union Square last Saturday, a group of workers were giving the assembled crowd a tour of the sun-scorched fields of Florida’s tomato farms. The performers had turned the urban square into a stage for a street theater performance, depicting backbreaking labor and tussles with industry goons emblazoned with corporate food brand logos.

By dramatizing a farm scene amid the bustle of Greenwich Village, Chelsea and the surrounding neighborhoods, the activists of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers highlighted the connection between farmworkers’ daily struggles and the villain of the drama: Wendy’s restaurants, which are the primary target of the group’s Fair Food campaign for decent labor standards in an industry built on modern-day serfdom.

The Union Square rally-–featuring a brass band adorned with Wendy’s trademark red pigtails and tomato-shaped placards proclaiming “Justice” and “Derechos” for farmworkers–-was part of a nationwide series of Fair Food demonstrations that are helping bridge the conceptual gap between food consumerism and farm labor, a sector replete with poverty wages and brutally exploitative conditions in the fields. The Coalition has been campaigning for months to push Wendy’s and theFlorida supermarket giant Publix to sign a Fair Food agreement like the agreements brands like Chipotle and Trader Joe’s have already signed.

The Fair Food Program mandates about an additional penny in wages for each pound of tomatoes picked by Florida workers. That seemingly trivial amount, when multiplied by the massive scale of tomato agriculture, adds up to a meaningful difference in the lives of thousands of farmworkers who typically lack a living wage and basic labor protections: Since January 2011, the penny-per-pound premium has put some $10 million in their pockets, which could mean a raise of more than 60 percent for some low-wage laborers.

CIW activist Oscar Otzoy told Working In These Times in Spanish that, by spreading the word through rallies across the country, “We take action directly against the corporations that are responsible for the conditions that we’re facing. Because in the market context that exists, it’s these big companies that profit the most from the work that we as farmworkers are doing. And as they continue profiting, we continue facing the conditions that have existed for so long.”

Otzoy, who has been working in the United States for seven years, noted that although immigrant workers are at the center of their campaign, the exploitative conditions have affected all farmworkers–those with and without papers and even U.S. citizens, because the production structure is inherently exploitative. “Our goal with this program is to get to a day when everyone, regardless of their status, is treated with dignity and respect on the job,” he said.

To prevent abuses like wage theft and forced labor, the Fair Food Program sets a broad code of conduct that ensures compliance with labor laws, “including zero tolerance for forced labor and systemic child labor,” a binding commitment to an auditing process for growers, and a system for workers to file complaints against employers. The program also deploys health and safety monitors to help protect workers from the many hazards lurking in hot, pesticide-laden fields.

The agreement is anchored by the 2010 commitment by Florida’s major growers’ association, Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing about 90 percent of the state’s producers. Since then, the Coalition’s program has attracted massive support from consumers, community groups and upscale foodies, and pressured numerous industry purchasers to sign on. The Coalition’s unique, worker-led organizing model fuses consumer education and outreach with grassroots labor mobilization, and in the process reveals interlinked systems of consumption and production. In effect, their movement envisions “food justice” as structural change within a massively consolidated industry.

Wendy’s is seen as the “last holdout” among major fast food chains. However, advocates notethat, ironically, CEO Emil Brolick was something of a fast-food pioneer in 2005, when the company he led then, Taco Bell, became the first corporate buyer to sign the Fair Food Agreement.

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How the Poultry Industry Is Grinding Up Workers’ Health and Rights

3:04 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Juan (not his real name) was instructed to get back to work after falling while lifting an 80-pound box of chicken. X-rays later showed two fractured vertebrae. He was fired, and the employer has not paid any of his medical bills.

Walk through any supermarket poultry section and you can marvel at the wonders of the modern food processing industry: antiseptic aisles packed with gleaming, plump shrink-wrapped chickens, sold at bargain prices under the labels of trusted agribusiness brands like Tyson and Pilgrim’s. But all that quality meat doesn’t come cheap: it’s paid for dearly by factory workers who brave injury, abuse and coercion every day on assembly lines running at increasingly deadly speeds.

According to newly published research on Alabama poultry workers by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the business model of the sector has sacrificed health and safety on the factory floor for the Tayloristic efficiency demanded by American appetites.

The supersized industry, which churns out about 50 pounds of chicken per American stomach annually, dominates many struggling towns in Alabama, a mostly non-union state, supporting about 10 percent of the local economy and some 75,000 jobsBut according to the SPLC’s researchers, the production line is butchering workers’ health:

Nearly three-quarters of the poultry workers interviewed for this report described suffering some type of significant work-related injury or illness. In spite of many factors that lead to undercounting of injuries in poultry plants, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. workers.

Alabama workers interviewed by the SPLC reported being routinely subjected to unsafe working conditions that led to severe health threats, from repetitive stress injuries to respiratory issues to chemical burns. Adding insult to injury, employers often ignored workers’ debilitating problems or punished them for asserting their rights. Evoking images reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s century-old expose on the meat-packing industry The Jungle, workers reported that problems like crippling hand pain would be diverted to the company nurse, rather than more intensive care by an outside doctor. Others were fired before they could become more of a liability.

One worker, a black woman in her 30s, recounted in an interview being pressured to shield her company from responsibility for her injury:

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New York Wants to Boost Food Manufacturing, but Will Communities get a Raw Deal?

10:11 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(afagen via flickr / creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Under the reign of New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) has issued millions of dollars in business development subsidies to beleaguered urban neighborhoods, meant to create new jobs and promote entrepreneurial spirit. Now the NYCEDC is teaming up with Wall Street to give loans to local food manufacturers, but activists who have examined the city’s development track record smell something fishy.

The NYCEDC’s new loan fund grew out of a partnership with Goldman Sachs, which is running a glossy nationwide campaign to pump seed money into small businesses in several cities. The initiative seems geared toward incubating foodie-friendly startups, conjuring up images of rooftop-grown honey and specialty cupcakes. No loans have been awarded yet, but the program’s eligibility criteria appears to target small- to medium-scale food manufacturers that have four to 100 workers and annual revenues between $150,000 and $7,000,000, and can demonstrate “difficulty obtaining credit from traditional sources.” The agency’s website spotlights honors for charismatic local entrepreneurs, like boutique kimchee and artisan bagel makers.

Community groups say they welcome efforts to foster small food businesses, but are wary that the program will offer more hype than real development for a city that’s hungry for good, steady jobs. Labor advocates who have been organizing in the local food sector know that many local producers, even if they’re smaller than industry behemoths like General Mills, are not necessarily much kinder to their employees. Read the rest of this entry →

Foodies Get Wobbly

5:45 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Workers from Hot and Crusty win recognition for their union after 11 months of organizing. (Photo: Laundry Workers Center)

Originally published at In These Times

Once upon a time in the labor movement, a rebellious vanguard emerged at the margins of American industry, braiding together workers on society’s fringes—immigrants, African Americans, women, unskilled laborers—under a broad banner of class struggle.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, raised hell in the early 20th century with unapologetically militant protests and strikes.

Their vision of a locally rooted, globally oriented anti-capitalist movement was eclipsed by mainstream unions, which had more political muscle. But grassroots direct action is today undergoing a resurgence in the corners of the workforce that have remained isolated from union structures.

Such alternative campaigns have a special resonance in today’s food industries, which employ the roughly 20 million people (one-sixth of the total workforce) who harvest, process, distribute and sell the food we eat. This marginalized, low-wage group is hungry for organizing models that move as nimbly as the corporations that run the production chains. The IWW’s signature organizing model, syndicalism (which prioritizes direct action in the workplace), meshes with the growing trend in the labor movement toward less bureaucratic labor groups, such as worker centers and immigrant advocacy campaigns. Flexible mobilization that doesn’t require formal votes or union certification is well-suited to precarious laborers seeking to outmaneuver the multinationals.

Since 2007, the Wobbly-affiliated coalition Focus on the Food Chain (FOFC) has empowered workers in New York City’s food sectors to challenge abusive employers on the streets and in the courts. The group—an alliance between the local IWW and the advocacy group Brandworkers International—aims to “carry out member-led workplace justice campaigns to transform the industry” and focuses on the oft-neglected links between farm and fridge. According to Brandworkers Executive Director Daniel Gross, these processing and distribution industries are a “sweatshop corridor.” Read the rest of this entry →

Kraft Foods Bites Into Labor Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt

1:41 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted on In These Times

Kraft Foods has spread its syrupy slogan, “Make Today Delicious,” around the globe. But today in North Africa, bitter labor struggles at Kraft-affiliated plants in two hotbeds of the Arab Spring reveal that political revolt has failed to overturn the rotten dominion of multinationals.

Workers for Kraft-affiliated plants in both Tunisia and Egypt have charged that workers have faced crackdowns for trying to organize independently. According to the Geneva-basedInternational Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), which represents millions of workers and hundreds of unions worldwide, the nascent Egyptian and Tunisian labor movements face the old challenges of economic and political oppression, as well as the new challenges of post-revolutionary social tumult. Read the rest of this entry →

Filipino Banana Workers Frustrated in Battle Over Dole’s Pesticides

12:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Aidan Wojtas / Flickr / Creative Commons

Originally posted at In These Times

You might think that neoliberal globalization has replaced the banana republics of the last century. But inside the engines of industrial agriculture, the rot of the old fruit empires still festers. The long struggle of a group of Filipino banana workers to hold Dole accountable for toxic exposures reminds us that international capital still has a lot more clout than international law.

The lawsuit, involving about three thousand Filipino workers, claims that in the 1980s, Dole and other companies damaged the health of banana workers in Davao, a remote region of the Philippines, by using the highly toxic pesticide DBCP. The alleged exposures took place years after DBCP was “banned from general use” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1970s. The toxin–a product of Dow Chemical–has been linked to various potential health problems, such as asthma, cancer, sterility and miscarriages.

But the Los Angeles Superior Court dismissed the suit, citing technical issues related to California’s statute of limitations rules. Claire Espina, a lawyer for the workers, said the ruling was an unfair application of state law.

Espina tells In These Times that the goal was simply to force Dole to take responsibility for a mass assault on workers’ health. “To know that it was banned, and to push for it anyway and to knowingly use it [in the Philippines]–I think that conduct like that merits punitive damages,” she says. Read the rest of this entry →