Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy

Organic Consumers and the Labor Movement

On February 5, 2009, Alexis Baden-Mayer, the Organic Consumers Association's Political Director, participated as a panelist in the national Green Jobs, Good Jobs conference in Washington, DC, a joint effort of the labor, consumer, and environmental movements.

The U.S. system of petroleum-based, bio-tech, and chemical-intensive agriculture produces an enormous amount of relatively inexpensive food, at least if you ignore the huge hidden costs to taxpayers and damage to public health, the environment, and climate stability; not to mention the routine exploitation of family farmers, farm workers, and millions of laborers, both domestic and overseas, in the food sector. When our elected public officials look at ways to revive our failing economy, stabilize the climate, and conserve nonrenewable resources, we should push them to create jobs in the food and farming sector that help, rather than undermine public health; that conserve and rejuvenate, not harm, the environment; and that guarantee workers throughout the food chain living wages, safe working conditions, and the right to organize. Energy-efficient, carbon-sequestering organic agriculture, of course, is the only system with the potential to turn back global warming, create millions of good, green jobs, and produce healthy, affordable food for both rural and urban communities.

Currently, few food production workers are unionized and many of them are deprived of labor rights under the law because of the type of work they do, because of their legal status as immigrants, or both. To give just one example, farm workers in Florida had to sue their employer under the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, because the working conditions they suffered were tantamount to slavery, and because the labor laws did not adequately protect them as immigrant farm workers.

Agriculture is one of the most polluting of US industries. Agriculture's toxic pollution affects the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink, the health of wild animals and the ecosystems, and it impacts food safety. To give just one example that has been in the news recently, detectable levels of mercury have been found in most foods that contain high fructose corn syrup. That is because high fructose corn syrup is not really a food ingredient. It is the result of a chemical process and that chemical process leaves mercury behind.

Farms engaged in modern-day slavery and mercury in soft drinks is not simply the result of a race to the bottom or an accident of the free market. The labor exploitation and toxic pollution that are the hallmarks of US food production have arisen through a system of laws. This is a system that was created with our tax dollars, by politicians who were lobbied by powerful corporations or who are themselves a product of the revolving door of lobbyists and government officials.

The National Labor Relations Act excludes farm workers from the right to organize, and modern-day slavery is the direct result of our failure to extend labor rights to all workers, including those without a legal immigration status. The food safety problem is the direct result of the priorities of the US Department of Agriculture's $90 billion-a-year budget, which has been steered by the chemical companies towards agricultural production methods that require vast amounts of synthetic chemicals in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified seeds, and food processing aids. Each year, the USDA budget includes $25 billion dollars in cash subsidies that go to handful of industrial producers of a few crops, notably corn, soy, cotton and canola. The ubiquitous appearance of high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, and hydrogenated vegetable oils made from cotton and canola, is a direct result of the subsidy system.

It is little wonder that we are experiencing an explosion in diet-related illnesses, including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Consumers must look for alternatives to industrial food production for the sake of our own health.

For personal and ethical reasons, consumers are demanding alternatives. One alternative is certified organic food. Organic food is free of the toxins that permeate chemically produced food and organic food is less likely to be contaminated with food-borne pathogens that thrive under factory-farm conditions. Organic food is free of sewage sludge fertilizer, toxic pesticides, genetically modified crops, and synthetic chemical ingredients. On a personal level, it is healthier to eat organic. But, consuming organic food also has the potential to benefit the world around us, by limiting the exposure of workers to dangerous chemicals, improving the health of waterways and ecosystems, making the treatment of animals more humane, and mitigating global climate change. Industrial agriculture contributes a greater share of green house gas pollution than transportation. Organic agriculture builds the soil, which is our greatest carbon sink. Organic soil fertilized with manure traps more carbon than wetlands or forests.
Another alternative is Fair Trade certified food. Markets for Fair Trade have grown with the expansion of the organic food market, especially for imports like coffee, chocolate and sugar. Fair Trade certification is proof that the producer has followed labor standards that, among other things, protect the right to join a union, and the producers have a social responsibility to the community that the workers live in. There is now a movement for Domestic Fair Trade certification that has been implemented on a small scale by Equal Exchange, the Local Fair Trade Network, and the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group.

But consumers should not have to pay a premium for safe food that is produced without labor exploitation.

This is why the Organic Consumers Association has teamed up with the labor movement. Consumers should not have to keep having to pay extra to opt out of a system they were already forced to pay for with their tax dollars. We want systemic change where Organic and Fair Trade are the rule, not the exception, where businesses that live up to Organic and Fair Trade standards do not have to pay to be certified, they get paid to certify, and where Organic and Fair Trade products are subsidized, inexpensive and widely available for consumers.
What the Organic Consumers Association is most excited about right now is partnering with the labor movement on corporate campaigns to organize workers in the companies that are already marketing themselves as alternatives to the worst aspects of industrial agribusiness. We are organizing organic consumers to push for full labor rights for farm workers and illegal immigrants and to support the Employee Free Choice Act. We also support union drives with consumer pressure.

We recently worked on a successful campaign to help workers at a cattle feedlot called Beef Northwest have their union cards recognized. The Employee Free Choice Act would require employers to recognize a union once a majority of employees have signed union cards, but as the law stands today, many employers, and this is what Beef Northwest was doing, refuse to recognize union cards and force votes after they have let the employees know the union is not welcome. Beef Northwest is a regular industrial feedlot, a confined animal feeding operation or CAFO, what we would call a factory farm, but they also finish beef that is sold at Whole Foods under the Country Natural Beef label, so our members were the natural constituency to demand that the company recognize the union. Organic Consumers got even more wound up when it was revealed through employee whistle-blowing that Beef Northwest committed an FDA violation by administering drugs to its livestock above legal limits.

Conscientious consumers who are already paying a premium for organic and fair trade food are the natural allies of the labor movement, especially when businesses that claim to follow higher standards are exposed as benefiting from labor exploitation or green washing. Consumers expect to get what they pay for. We don't want to be scammed. We demand integrity and truth in advertising from companies that claim to share our values.

Likewise, an organized workforce is the natural ally of the organic consumers. Unionized workers can protect us from being fooled by green-washers and help us hold green businesses to the high standards they claim. At a basic level an organized workforce is essential to food safety. You don't get whistle blowers when workers don't feel safe to do the right thing. We wonder why nobody knows how the salmonella got in the peanuts. You can bet there is an employee who knows, but if the employees are non-union, or they are immigrant laborers, they're not going to feel safe enough to speak out. Without a union, whistle blowing means losing the jobs. In the case of the Peanut Corporation of America, when the company shut down the plant and laid off all its workers, they began to talk, but by that time it was too late to stop an outbreak or save their jobs. Think how different things would have been if Peanut Corporation of America had been certified organic and unionized. Eight people who died would still be alive and 575 people who got sick would be well.

The partnering of conscientious consumers and organized labor is the perfect inside-outside strategy. Together we can make sure that green jobs are good job and good jobs are green jobs.


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