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Foodies Get Wobbly

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 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."

"The business model," he says, "is exploitation of recent immigrants."


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