Could 2022 Be the Year of the Food Worker?

February 7, 2022 | 11:15 am
photo of people marching and carrying signs calling for a union outside a Burgerville restaurantBurgerville Workers Union
Sarah Reinhardt
Senior Analyst, Food Systems and Health

Stories about the “Great Resignation,” the sweeping trend of workers leaving their jobs in search of something better, have flooded the front pages of newspapers in recent months. But even as many workers have rightfully rejected industries and workplaces providing paltry wages and subpar benefits, many others have made it clear that they’re not going anywhere—and they’re demanding changes in their workplace.

Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than in the food industry: Frito-Lay, Nabisco, and Kellogg’s workers went on strike; a major union drive by Amazon workers (yes, many warehouse workers are food workers!) is still ongoing in Alabama; the first-ever Starbucks union was formed; and of course, across the restaurant sector, many workers simply walked away from the industry, demanding better jobs.

Are these temporary reactions to a particularly taxing period in labor history, or could they be a sign of something much bigger?

To help us answer this and other questions, we talked with Elizabeth Walle, Development Coordinator at the Food Chain Workers Alliance. This coalition of worker-based organizations—whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food—organizes to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain.

Do you think we’re in a new era of labor organizing?

ELIZABETH WALLE: The data tell us that we’re still in the steady decline of unionization that began in the 1960s. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the overall union membership rate in 2021 was 10.3 percent—a slight decrease from the 2020 rate, and the same as 2019. When broken down by occupation, some of the lowest unionization rates in 2021 were in food-related sectors like farming, fishing, and forestry (4 percent); and food preparation and serving (3.1 percent). 

However, there has been an increase in organizing activity among workers who want unions, in the food sector and elsewhere. And the American public is coming back around to the idea, as well: a 2021 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans approve of labor unions—the highest percentage since 1965. So while organizing activity and pro-union sentiment are likely on the rise, unionization remains low because of anti-worker and anti-union policies.

Why is organizing so important for food workers in particular?

ELIZABETH WALLE: Food workers were already the lowest-paid working group in the country before the pandemic. Wages have been stagnant for years while production demands, mandatory overtime, and electronic surveillance have all steadily increased. Then COVID made everything worse with new health risks, amplified by minimal health and safety measures and no benefits to protect people who do get sick. 

What are your predictions for food workers in 2022?

ELIZABETH WALLE: In 2022, workers will continue to be pushed past their limits as the pandemic wears on, and they will continue to inspire each other to push back—like members of the Burgerville Workers Union [pictured above] who ratified the first fast-food labor contract in the US in December of last year. That means more and more unions, worker-owned cooperatives, and other collectives could be formed this year as workers continue to organize. To make that happen, workers will need to continue to talk to each other about their needs and to acquire the basic skills and knowledge to organize together. Meanwhile, the public and news media must continue to lift up these stories and stand with them. 

It won’t be easy, because organizing is hard work, and corporations like Starbucks, Amazon, and Chipotle will keep bringing out the big guns to union-bust. Plus, as the pandemic reminded us, government institutions like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can’t and won’t protect workers, and our “most pro-labor president” in decades has yet to earn the title. But more workers standing up for their rights has an exponential capacity to inspire further organizing, so this flurry of activity makes it a prime time to build solidarity. 

What’s next for the Food Chain Workers Alliance, and what actions can readers take to support food chain workers right now?

ELIZABETH WALLE: To sustain this movement, the Food Chain Workers Alliance and our members are providing opportunities for workers to gain organizing skills and build solidarity with each other across different sectors of our vast food chain, which employs nearly one in seven members of the entire US workforce.

We want to change our food system to one in which workers have dignity and their fair share of the wealth they create. So we’re talking about a massive shift that requires public support. You can start by telling your senator you support the Protecting the Right to Organize Act to restore workers’ rights to freely and fairly form a union and bargain together for changes in the workplace, and you can tell your elected officials at all levels of government that you support expanded rights and protections for workers, regardless of their immigration status.

Finally, pay attention to food worker stories in your wider community—because they’re out there—and think about the human labor that helps bring food to your table. We need to listen to workers when they speak out. 

Elizabeth Walle is the Development Coordinator at the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a network of 34 worker-based groups organizing for workers’ rights along the food chain in the United States and Canada. Follow FCWA on Twitter to stay up-to-date with food worker issues.