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Food Chain Worker Power at the 2015 New England Food Summit

Food Chain Workers Delegation

At my house we share “gratefuls” before dinner. This week holding hands around the table set with fresh veggies and grains with grumbling tummies I thanked the farmworker who sweated as they planted the collard greens weeks earlier. I thanked the grocery store worker whose back ached as they stocked the produce section a few days ago. I wondered how many other dozens of food chain workers who I’ve never met or maybe even imagined labored to provide the food in front of me.

Last week I did get to meet a few more workers along the food chain at the New England Food Summit. For the first time, the Summit included a Food Chain Worker Delegation. Over the past few weeks I had worked with Abel Luna, a member of the Network Team of Food Solutions New England and a Community Organizer at Migrant Justice in Vermont, to coordinate this new delegation. We reached out to organizers at worker centers throughout New England to invite worker-organizers to the Summit. Abel and I then connected with workers individually and as a delegation in the weeks leading up to the Summit to plan how the delegation could most effectively participate in the Summit.

During the Summit, I was exceptionally grateful to 11 incredible food chain worker-organizers for their courage and tenacity in the fight for worker justice in their work providing food for New Englanders. When fish processing plant worker Rafael Huerta showed me his healing but still swollen hand that was sliced open on March 27th at 7 am by machinery my stomach clenched imagining his pain. Harol Lopez, Vice President of Fuerza Laboral in Rhode Island, told the Summit he has sustained three injuries including a broken nose at the warehouse where he works. Recognizing the normalcy of dangerous working conditions and hearing workers speak to more common themes including wage theft, sexual harassment, racism, and threats of retaliation from management for organizing I felt overwhelmed by the regularity of these abuses.

Abel Luna (left) and Miguel Ventura speaking at the 2015 New England Food Summit dinner

That night over a hundred Summit attendees gathered close to hear workers Miguel Ventura, Thelma Gomez, and Senowa Mize-Fox share their stories. Milk With Dignity leader Thelma Gomez called for solidarity with Vermont dairy workers as they invite Ben and Jerry’s to stand up for the rights of dairy workers in their supply chain. Ben and Jerry’s prides themselves on their sustainable business practices but they have not yet decided to support the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility program that dairy workers created to ensure fair working conditions. I felt anticipation as Thelma announced Milk With Dignity’s National Day of Action on Saturday, June 20th, to a room full of New Englanders working towards food justice. As the campaign builds momentum across the country, how could the network in this room help Vermont dairy workers win fair working conditions?

Ask Ben and Jerry’s to sign on for human rights here!

At the end of the Summit, Harol was beaming as he held a sign reading “Welcome to Gourmet Hell” that he was bringing to an action less than 24 hours later. Rhode Island Jobs With Justice and Fuerza Laboral are organizing a campaign asking the owner of Gourmet Heaven to pay back workers’ stolen wages. Gourmet Heaven, a restaurant and grocery store chain serving gourmet foods in Connecticut and Rhode Island, pays workers as little as $4/hour. One Gourmet Heaven worker was punched several times by their manager on the job. The day after the Summit, Saturday, June 13th, Harol got up at 3 am to join a bus of workers and allies headed to wake up the owner of Gourmet Heaven with a protest outside his home at 6 am. Read about how the action went here.

Harol Lopez at the end of the 2015 New England Food SummitDuring the Summit, we were able to discuss our collective vision for a sustainable food system in New England with workers voices and worker justice present in our conversation. As we move forward, we have to figure out how we can continue to bring these voices to the center of our conversation so that we do not continue to subsidize our food with exploitation of workers. This year I want to strengthen our movement by putting workers at the center by supporting worker-led campaigns and standing in solidarity during actions.

The night before the Summit a group of delegates watched The Hand That Feeds together. An individual in the film discussing restaurant workers’ fight for their workers rights references the title of radical feminist Audre Lorde's essay, "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House." They say that for the workers it will be hard to win only in the courts since that system was created to protect the interests of wealthy. The courts have become the tool those with wealth and power use to maintain status quo. As a network we must build our movement to stand with each other and think outside - and even fix - the systems where we have traditionally done our work.

The food chain workers left the Summit inspired by their determination to work towards a food system where workers rights are essential. They’re taking that energy with them next Tuesday, June 23rd, when the Food Chain Workers Delegation will act in solidarity with restaurant workers at the One Fair Wage lobby day at the Massachusetts State House. This campaign is led by restaurant workers like delegate Mileika Arroyo, a member Restaurant Opportunity Center United in Connecticut. I invite you to join us! Email me at shira at namanet dot org for details. You might even get to see Thelma’s awesome twins Renata and Regina, the youngest Summit attendees, who brought lots of love and joy to the Summit. She knows we can do it!

Keep checking this blog for future posts from Food Chain Worker Delegates with opportunities to support worker-led campaigns!



 

Shira Tiffany was a member of the Food Chain Worker Delegation to the 2015 New England Food Summit. Shira is a Community Organizer at the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance building a network of community-based fishermen, fishworkers, and allies promoting a healthier ocean through community based fisheries.

 

Featured image of UMass Amherst Dining courtesy of the Henry P. Kendall Foundation.