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Fighting for Workers’ Rights in NYC’s Local Food Economy

Maggie Dickinson Jul 16

Amy’s Bread, a purveyor of high-end baked goods to gourmet chefs and upscale stores like Whole Foods and restaurants like Le Cirque, profits from a brand that professes to care about every detail of its products. Pages have been written about the texture and taste of Amy’s artisanal breads, describing the crunch of the crust, the tangy interiors and the depth of the flavors. But few, apart from Brandworkers, a local grassroots worker center that has been supporting organizing efforts at Amy’s Bread since November, ask how the 190 employees who work around the clock to produce such perfect bread are treated or if they have a say in their working conditions. The workers at Amy’s 33,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Long Island City, Queens, contend that details like basic safety equipment, the availability of affordable health care and regular overtime pay are routinely overlooked. 

Workers all along the food chain are subject to low pay and often hazardous working conditions. At Amy’s Bread, workers report having to work two or three jobs in order to make ends meet and not being able to afford the health care plan offered by the company. Many are stretched thin, washing baking trays by hand when management refuses to make basic equipment repairs. According to a Salon report, workers regularly work for several hours after the end of their shifts, but are not given overtime pay; managers have reportedly told them that they are “not allowed to pay overtime.” Perhaps most troubling is that when workers do speak up, they are threatened with lost workdays. Their organizing efforts have been met with threats that if they organize a union the business will close and put all the workers there out of a job.

The struggles of low-wage and food service workers have been receiving considerable attention lately. Recent campaigns like Fast Food Forward, which is organizing fast food workers nationwide to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage, have brought national attention to the working conditions and paltry wages of this group. These mass mobilizations across the country have put pressure on local, state and federal authorities to raise the minimum wage, and these efforts are starting to pay off. Kshama Sawant, a socialist city council member in Seattle, recently headed a successful campaign to pass a $15-an-hour minimum wage in that city and President Obama has raised the minimum wage for federal workers to $10.10 per hour

It is not surprising that fast food jobs don’t pay a living wage to the workers employed by giant corporations like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell. For many, the fast food industry represents everything that is wrong with the American food system: low wages, unhealthy food produced unsustainably and sourced from mega-farms that are responsible for widespread ecological destruction. Small, local food producers are often seen as a panacea for the abuses of the large corporations that dominate the industry. 

All the buzz about local, sustainable food systems has begun to capture the imaginations of New York City politicians. In early 2013, the New York City Economic Development Corporation launched the Food Manufacturers Growth Fund, which offers affordable financing to “enable eligible small businesses in the City’s food manufacturing sector to expand.” Policy makers like Christine Quinn and Melissa Mark-Viverito have been enthusiastic supporters of efforts to encourage local food production and distribution. They see the creation of a vibrant, local food economy as a way to create jobs, make healthy food more accessible to low-income communities and reinvigorate the city’s industrial economy.

But, as the workers at Amy’s Bread and other small, local food manufacturers can attest, such businesses are often no better than major corporations when it comes to paying fair wages or respecting workers’ rights. The 14,000 New York City workers in local food manufacturing companies face the same problems as fast food and other low-wage workers throughout the U.S. economy, and city government’s economic development efforts do not include provisions to ensure that they are treated fairly.

One of the biggest issues in New York City’s food manufacturing industry (and in the low-wage economy as a whole) is wage theft. According to a recent report by Brandworkers and the Urban Justice Center, 79.2 percent of workers in the industry do not receive paystubs. This makes it very difficult for workers to prove that they have been underpaid or denied overtime because they have no proof. Only 4.7 percent of workers receive health insurance from their employers and wages average around $10.48 per hour. There are some good jobs being created that pay upwards of $20 an hour, but these well-paid jobs typically go to white workers, while workers of color and undocumented workers earn much less. Work conditions are dangerous, with 43.5 percent of the workers surveyed reporting being injured on the job. And failure to address dangerous conditions can have dire implications for employees: 13 workers have died on the job in New York City food manufacturing facilities since 2001.

Adjectives like organic, natural, sustainable, artisanal and local are proliferating. Despite the fact that these marketing terms primarily target affluent consumers who can afford to pay more, they do also speak to the growing concerns about the food we eat and how it is produced. This concern rarely extends to the farm workers, warehouse workers, processors, stock clerks, cooks and cashiers all along the production line. Until recently, their working conditions and labor rights have largely been left out of the conversation about how to create a sustainable food system. But this is changing. Organizations like Brandworkers have helped food manufacturing workers to recover close to $1 million in unpaid wages and to improve working conditions on the shop floor at New York City companies like Wild Edibles, a high-end seafood distributor; Pur Pac, a food distribution warehouse that supplies Chinese restaurants; and Flaum Appetizing, a kosher food manufacturer. In addition to the Amy’s Bread campaign, workers are also organizing at Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City. 

Grassroots groups like Brandworkers are forging alliances with traditional labor unions through coalitions like the Food Chain Workers Alliance, formed five years ago. These groups are experimenting with new strategies and tactics to build worker power in the food industry: Instead of relying on top-heavy bureaucratic organizations, paid organizers and legal contracts between management and the union, emphasis is placed on direct actions led by the workers themselves on the shop floor. The gains of these campaigns have so far been modest. But, given the size of the food industry, which employs 20 million workers nationwide, and the growing public awareness around the food we eat, the potential for organizing in this sector is vast. 

Maggie Dickinson is an anthropologist, writer and former labor organizer. She writes about food politics, poverty and activism and is currently working on a book about food stamps.