Special Report: Labor, the Food System, and Your Co-op

By nell abercrombie, cooperative advancement team, Central Co-op, printed in Central Register, used with permission.

In mid-December, an ongoing labor dispute between Teamsters Local 117 and United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) resulted in a strike at the Auburn, WA UNFI distribution center. The largest distributor in the natural foods industry, UNFI delivers about 80% of the product you see on our shelves. At press time, this situation is still unfolding. Regardless of its outcome, it shines a light on the labor that makes our food system run, often behind the scenes and out of sight.

The food movement has been successful in highlighting production: the farmers, farmworkers, farms and land that grow our food; and consumption: the buying, preparing, eating, and sharing of food. These roots and fruits of our food system offer tangible qualities we can feel and experience deeply and directly.

More hidden are intermediate processing and distribution: raw product goes through processors, packing plants, loading docks, ships and trucks to centralized storehouses, and then to grocery stores, markets, restaurants, food banks and other outlets. Just as actions for farmworker justice brought attention to working conditions on farms, the Teamsters strike highlights the labor that powers our food system, and the struggles for justice taking place there.

For example: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, meatpackers earn about 30% less than the average for all manufacturing jobs, but suffer twice the rate of illness and injury; WhyHunger reports that 58% of all warehouse workers in one survey were temps or seasonal workers, typically receiving low wages and few/no benefits. Warehouse workers are commonly exposed to very high temperatures and exhaust pollution. Warehouse workers and delivery drivers are often under intense pressure to work at high speeds to meet quotas and achieve the fastest possible deliveries, exposing them to safety risks; A 2011 Restaurant Opportunities Centers United report, “Behind the Kitchen Door,” found that the thousands of surveyed restaurant workers earned on average about $15,000 a year, just one-third of the total private sector average. Almost half had experienced violations in overtime pay; International systems, like free trade agreements, create relationships between industries, employers, workers, consumers, economies, governments, and environments in different countries. These relationships are often characterized by unequal power, environmental degradation, and worker exploitation.

There’s a lot happening to transform this part of our food system. Unions help workers influence the conditions of their work. Values-based organizations like consumer co-ops are more likely to support fair production and distribution as integral values, not profit-generating fads. Workplaces that incorporate worker ownership and decision-making into their structure are better positioned to support their workers over the long term. Worker and community organizations, like the Food Chain Workers Alliance, WhyHunger, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and Seattle’s own Community Alliance for Global Justice, educate the public about working conditions and government policies, help workers learn about and stand up for their rights, and build momentum for a fair food system. Food policy councils (like the Puget Sound Regional Food Policy Council) work for local and regional laws and systems that support community health.

Central Co-op stands in support of these movements, and has taken steps to honor the Teamsters’ strike, because our founding statement of purpose dedicates us to “work towards the community’s providing itself with wholesome food and products that are produced and distributed in a manner respectful of the earth and its people.” And because, in the words of our GM, Dan Arnett: “Labor and cooperatives have a common wellspring in the US. We share a lot of values with the labor movement and we’re going to express those values as well as we can.”

We’re dealing with an imperfect system. Like you, we don’t have full control over the choices available to us. Still, we’ll continue to work hard to source products that align with our values, support movements that advance those values, and empower our community to understand the systems that bring food to our tables. Thanks for being part of it all.

Posted in Food Justice Blog Posts.

One Comment

  1. Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity are now organizing to picket Whole Foods to pressure them not to deal with UNFI until they settle the labor dispute. We will keep the Teamsters out of it as we don’t want them to get any violations against them. A member of our steering committee is going to Whole Foods to speak with their management to ask them to stop accepting deliveries as you and PCC have done. We are asking organizations like yours to join us at the Roosevelt store this Saturday from 11 to 1 if they refuse. If you can rally some support for this action that would be very helpful. If your interested I can confirm this action is going forward as soon as we’ve contacted our members and get the go ahead from Teamsters.

    We just received an email from UNFI management in which they state they’ve done nothing wrong and strikers were all to blame. It was so absurd I could hardly believe they said it. OWLS went to Auburn this week and joined them on the picket line their story is quite different.

    Hope to hear from you,


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