The Food Chain Workers Alliance

Richard Mandelbaum is an herbalist, activist, and member of the Brooklyn Food Coalition who divides his time with his family between Brooklyn and Sullivan County, NY. Until December 2011 he served on the board of the FCWA.

Food Chain Workers Alliance
The following is excerpted from the FCWA website, where more information on its mission and work can be found:

Working conditions throughout the U.S. food chain – from farm to fork – were discussed in an earlier blog post:

The Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain. The Alliance was founded in July 2009. The Alliance works together to build a more sustainable food system that respects workers’ rights, based on the principles of social, environmental and racial justice, in which everyone has access to healthy and affordable food.

The following is the mission statement of the Alliance:
Food is a human right, and the human rights of those who produce our food, from field to table, should be respected as well. By coming together in the Food Chain Workers Alliance, our member organizations will have greater power to improve the wages and working conditions of food system workers and their families. In this way we can challenge institutionalized racism and balance out the immense corporate power over our food system in order to work towards ending poverty and therefore hunger, as well as to truly achieve sustainable agricultural practices, environmental justice, and respect for workers’ and community rights.

The Alliance’s work focuses on: leadership development and solidarity, policy and standards, campaigns, and education.

  • The current members of FCWA are:
  • Brandworkers International (NYC)
  • Center for New Community (Midwest)
  • Coalition of Immokalee Workers (FL)
  • Comite de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas / Farmworker Support Committee (NJ/PA/DE/MD)
  • International Labor Rights Forum
  • Just Harvest USA
  • Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center (AR)
  • Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (NY)
  • Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (Washington, D.C., Miami, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and New York City)
  • UNITE HERE Food Service Division (nationwide)
  • United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 (southern CA)
  • United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 (NYC)
  • Warehouse Workers for Justice (IL)

The Alliance is a sponsor of the Brooklyn Food Conference and its member organizations will have a strong showing in the workshops throughout the day. The Brooklyn Food Coalition’s new labor committee will ensure that these issues will be a central part of BFC’s work going forward.

In addition, the Alliance will be holding a conference of its own – Food Workers and Food Justice - on June 6, 2012, here in New York City. (For more information or to register go to: The day will begin with the release of the FCWA report THE HANDS THAT FEED US: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain - the first-ever comprehensive report on the state of food workers in the U.S. and workers will speak about how the report reflects their own experiences working in the food system. That will be followed by breakout sessions to focus on the policy recommendations in the report. Right after lunch, there will be a panel focused on the policy initiatives of three New York City-based FCWA member groups: the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York’s proposed policy to tie liquor licenses to employment standards and the sale of healthy, nutritious food; UFCW Local 1500 and ALIGN’s efforts to require community involvement and good jobs to funding support for new grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods; and Brandworkers International’s effort to include labor standards for any food manufacturing businesses that receive loans and other financial incentives in the City’s Economic Development Corporation.

Fair Food, Fair Jobs: The Restaurant Worker’s Role in the Food Movement

by Holly Howard | & Araby Smyth | Manager, Palo Santo in Park Slope

Consumers hold restaurants accountable for everything from where they source their ingredients, to the materials they use to build their establishments, right down to their sanitary practices. But no one holds them accountable for their labor practices.

The average wage is less than $9 an hour and over 90% of restaurant workers lack health insurance and sick days. The work environment is physically and psychologically taxing with very few opportunities for career advancement.

What if restaurants offered fairer jobs alongside just food? Improving the jobs of the 14 million Americans working in restaurants would have significant positive impact on our communities and the economy.

The Brooklyn Food Conference is the perfect place to talk about how the jobs of restaurant workers could be and are being changed for the better and how to step it up and get more people involved. We applaud the restaurants that are supporting the conference and invite more to do so.

Join us for a workshop about how we are setting a precedent for progressive labor practices in Brooklyn restaurants. Hear from folks who work at Egg/Parish Hall, Palo Santo/Fort Reno, Peaches Hot House and Pies ‘n’ Thighs. We want a future where everyone has a seat at the dinner table.

Justice for Food Workers

It is impossible to imagine a world without the people who who plant, pick, prepare and serve our food. Many of these people are immigrants who come here for a better life, but are often taken advantage of, paid low wages and are forced to work in unhealthy conditions. Lucas Benitez, Co-Director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will speak about Justice for Food Workers; one of the Three Pillars of the BFC.

Stephanie Berzon
Justice for Food and Farm Workers
Written by Richard Mandelbaum for the Brooklyn Food Coalition

Food and farm workers are among the lowest paid and most highly exploited workers all over the world. This includes the 20 million food workers in the United States and right here in our towns and neighborhoods.
From harvesting crops to waiting tables, , food workers are frequently denied basic rights and protections given to other occupations under federal law. For example, the U.S. has restricted child labor for decades, but over 400,000 children currently work in agriculture(2) in the U.S., and over 68 million worldwide. Both children and adult farmworkers regularly work under dangerous conditions, including being exposed to toxic chemicals.(6) and dangerous machinery. Closer to home, the cooks and dishwashers who work in your neighborhood restaurants typically make minimum wage, and the waiters and waitresses are exempt from the federal minimum wage. Their base salary is only $2.13 an hour, and they have to make up the rest with tips. So it may not be surprising that restaurant workers’ average salary is $15,000 a year– and 9 out of 10 lack employer-sponsored health insurance. (9b)

Conditions are not any better for those workers who work in food warehouses, processing plants, and distribution. Almost a quarter of grocery store workers are not even paid minimum wage. Meatpacking workers suffer from worksite injuries at twice the national rate. (2) In one recent year (2008), 100 poultry workers died on the job and over 300,000 were injured. It’s also common for workers to have their wages stolen or withheld by their bosses.(11)

The food system is dominated by immigrant workers.
Many U.S. government policies give massive breaks to giant corporate farms which drive out smaller farms here and abroad. Since immigrants can no longer work in their homeland, they need to migrate to the U.S. in order to feed their families.(5) At the same time, the U.S. government has cracked down on immigration by tightening the border and increasing deportations-making life for undocumented workers very risky. They often have no choice about working long hours with little pay, because their bosses can threaten to report them at any time. Even if workers get legal Guest worker visas, they do little to protect their fundamental rights. (4)

The struggle for just working conditions by food and farm workers is deeply linked to issues of race, class, and gender.
Three-fourths of all managers in the food system are white, while most low-wage workers are people of color. Women of color suffer the most from wage discrimination, earning half as much as their white male co-workers. (1) Overall seven of the ten worst paying jobs in the U.S. are food system jobs. (2)

Paying workers living wages and ensuring safe and fair working conditions does not have to be in competition with the struggle for food access.
In the U.S. people spend over $1 trillion per year on food, (12) yet only a tiny percentage of the consumer’s “food dollar” goes toward wages for workers. For example, out of every dollar spent on apples, only 5-6 cents goes to the workers who picked them. One study conducted by the University of California found that farmworkers’ wages could be increased by 40% if the average family would pay a mere $9 extra per year for fresh produce. (7) We should not build a cheap food supply on the backs of exploited workers. Ultimately the struggle for food access needs to include living wages for all people. In this way people will be able to afford healthy food without having to make sacrifices in other parts of their lives.

Supporting workers is not only the right thing to do. It will also help to protect ourselves as consumers as well. Employers who violate workers’ rights are often violating other laws, from pesticide regulations to food safety laws. (2) When any workers’ rights have been systematically denied, none of our rights are truly secure.

Ways we can support the struggle for food and farm workers’ justice include:

  • Support unionization and organizing efforts. This includes small, local unions and grassroots community organizations to larger union efforts.
  • Support coalitions such as the Food Chain Workers Alliance (2) that are pushing for systemic change.
  • Reward progressive farmers and employers who are doing the right thing. Support innovative initiatives such as ROC-United’s National Diners’ Guide (9a) and the Agricultural Justice Project’ Food Justice Certified label. (10)
  • Support strategic alliances that are bringing together employers and workers, such as the Domestic Fair Trade Association. (8)
  • Pressure our legislators for needed local, state, and federal policy change.


Reference and Resources

1. Applied Research Center, The Color of Food:

2. Food Chain Workers Alliance:

3. “Race Based Discrimination Against Farm Workers Under Federal Unemployment Insurance”, by Marc Linder and Laurence Norton, University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, Volume 29, Issues 1&2, Fall 1995 and Winter 1996

4. Southern Poverty Law Center, Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States:

5. “Mexico May Lose 350,000 Farm Jobs, Lopez Aguilar Says”, Bloomberg News, January 3, 2008:

6. International Labor Organization, The impact of pesticide exposure on child laborers in agriculture:

7. How We Eat, Rural Migration News, University of California- Davis:

8. Domestic Fair Trade Association:

9. ROC-United

a. National Diners Guide:

b. Raise the Tipped Minimum Wage:

10. Agricultural Justice Project:

11. Human Rights from Field to Fork: Improving Labor Conditions for Food-sector Workers by Organizing Across Boundaries, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Context, Joann Lo and Ariel Jacobson: (pdf download)

12. US food Industry Overview, Plunkett Research Ltd:

The Death of Fair Trade?

Is fair trade really dead? The following is from The Institute for Food and Development Policy - Food First. It paints a bleek picture for the future of the Fair Trade Movement and perhaps the birth of a new farmer-owned system in its place. Be sure to check out the downloadable PDF which reviews the background of Fair Trade.

Cartoon copyright by John Klossner 2011. Originally from Small Farmer big change.

For decades smallholder farmers and food justice advocates have used fair trade to build collective power by combining responsible consumerism and political awareness with a fairer and more environmentally sustainable market. Changes in fair trade certification enabled large corporations to enter this market, leading to a dramatic increase in sales—now topping $5 billion globally. Unfortunately, this growth has been accompanied by lower economic returns to farmers and disturbing social and political trends that threaten the future of the movement and suggest that fair trade is not as fair as it used to be.

Read the entire backgrounder attached.

Here is a blog perspective from someone who works with small farmers in Mexico.

Fair Trade is Dead

Posted by Matt Earley at about 3pm on Friday January 13, 2012

Sitting in San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico things are crystal clear. Underneath the din of organizations in the North clamoring to set the definition and terms of Fair Trade, small-scale coffee farmers- the original and supposed main beneficiaries of the system(s)- have a unified opinion that Fair Trade™ has not worked. This of course, on the surface, is not a new revelation. However, where in the past we often discussed Fair Trade as “not working”, we now are closing the book on it- we are speaking in the past tense. In the wake of FLO’s slow and steady sell out of the model to large corporations and TransFair USA’s sprint to complete the deal, Fair Trade™ has bitten the dust. Now is the appropriate time to spill an espresso shot in the dirt and say a few words.

Now dry that tear because I have some good news. Out of Fair Trade’s™ ashes there is already a movement to build something better and it is coming from the people who were virtually shut out of the old system- the producers themselves. After four days of meetings with coffee farmers from all over Latin America, as well as mission-based coffee roasters and other allies, it is clear that there is abundant energy for rebuilding a model of fair trade with true representation from all involved and that comes from farmers themselves. This new spirit can be seen in many initiatives, but most concretely in the Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe’s (CLAC) new label that highlights products grown and sold by small-scale producer cooperatives under terms defined as fair by the producers themselves and agreed upon with buyers in true partnership. This small farmer-owned certification system is up and running and will be a market force to be reckoned with by the end of 2012.
During our conversations a veteran of the small-farmer movement in Mexico summed up the situation nicely:

“In 1997 we were in meetings with other fair traders when FLO announced that they were forming and would be setting the standards for our movement. Many of us stood up and walked out.” He said that from that moment on farmers knew that, despite good intentions, they had already lost control of what would become branded as “Fair Trade”. Over the years the certifying bodies in the north controlled the conversation and set the norms with “feedback” from farmers, but without farmers truly having any ownership of the organization. Consumers could see farmers’ faces on marketing materials and bags of coffee, but could not hear producer voices. Now farmers want their voices heard.

Fair trade is not a brand owned by companies and non-profits in the global north. The “look for the label” movement bet that people were simply “consumers” who could not stop for longer than a few seconds to think and truly care about what they were supporting with their purchases. They were wrong. True fair trade can start with a simple communication on a product, but it goes deeper as people start to ask questions about every product that they purchase- including those bearing “the label”. Real fair trade is in small-farmers and their democratic cooperatives as well as in our hometown farmer’s markets, small businesses, and communities- these things are connected and worth supporting and fighting for. Authentic fair trade is a mutual agreement between people who produce things and the people who buy them. Its standards are the result of equals transparently negotiating in good faith with the intention of both parties satisfying their basic needs. All of this results- little by little- in a world where “producers” and “consumers” see each other as people and together work toward creating a sustainable global economy and global society.

Fair Trade™ is dead. It is played out, stale, corrupted, and largely meaningless. When the CEO of the US body that claims ownership of it makes a quarter million dollars a year, drops gems like “Small is not beautiful”, and brands small farmer advocates as “fanatical”, you can go ahead and close the coffin lid. When Starbucks becomes corporate leader of the system while it simultaneously boasts of paying under world market prices for its coffee in its own CSR report, rigor mortis has set in. When plantations- with their traditionally indentured labor forces- are welcomed in with open arms while small farmers’ voices fall on deaf ears, the bucket has officially been kicked.
Fair Trade™ is surely dead.

Long live fair trade.