The Fight for Living Wages

This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2016 LocalHarvest Newsletter
it is reprinted with permission

Rebecca Thistlethwaite and husband Jim Dunlop run the Tastes Like Chicken Ranch in Los Lomas, California

I need to preface this discussion by pointing out my – and LocalHarvest’s – longstanding commitment to social justice, fair trade, and living wages. Yet, as a re-covering farmer who had a business large enough to have employees, I also understand the invisible math that most people never get to see. In the December newsletter we spoke to some of the challenges that US farmers face when competing with cheaper, imported food. If a retailer or a consumer can get a cheaper organic tomato grown for a 10th of the labor costs as a US organic tomato, they just might do that. Now imagine if those US labor costs were to go up 50%?

Building on the momentum of the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaigns around the country, mainly in big cities such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, there is now a growing movement to raise minimum wages to between $12 to $15/hour at the state level in places such as New York, Oregon, California, and Massachusetts. Some states are talking about establishing different wages around their state based on the relative costs of living. So in more rural coun-ties, the wages won’t go up quite as high or quite as fast. California, however, is talking about $15 across the state, regardless of location, cost of living, or industry.

Without diving into some of the really hot-button issues around employment, wages, and farm labor, I am just going to share a couple stories and quotes from various people thinking about how a substantial increase in wages (30-60%) may affect the viability of small and mid-scale farmers, particularly those growing more labor-intensive crops like fruits and vegetables. Will farmers have to drop growing specialty crops, the very same ones that we are supposed to be eating for optimum health? For example, winter wheat uses a lot less labor than cherries, but do we need to be eating more wheat?

I know that if our farm had a 50% increase in labor costs that we would have probably scaled down to hire less labor or we would have invested in a better piece of equipment that would have required one person to work it rather than two. Either way we would have employed less people. That may be an unintended consequence of steep wage increases- less employment opportunities.

New York State is talking about an increase to $15, after just implementing a new $9/hour minimum wage last December. That represents a pretty staggering 66% increase in minimum wages. A central New York farmer Tony Emmi was quoted in the paper saying that a $15 wage would cost his 300-acre farm in Lysander almost $200,000 extra a year, a burden that would cause him to hire fewer workers. Another Tony, this one Tony LaPierre of Rusty Creek Farm in Coopersville, has a dairy with 500 cows with a crew of eight full-time and four part-time employees. He said that if the NY governor’s plan to hike the minimum wage comes to fruition, some farms will need to cut back on their workforce and in some cases look to technology to do so. For those farms that can’t invest in modern technology, he said, there is a possibility they will go out of business. Will these large increases in labor costs further disadvantage small and mid-scale farmers because they don’t have the capital to invest in expensive labor-saving technology? For example, an Iowa State University study showed that a robotic milker (called Automated Milking System) cost around $210,000 each. A dairy farmer, unless they bottle and market their own milk, can’t usually pass increased production costs onto their consumers. Farmer LaPierre said that, unlike some other businesses, dairy farmers can’t simply charge more for their milk to make up the difference. Milk is a commodity, with prices set by the market and the federal government.

Another negative impact a large wage increase like those proposed or being implemented could cause is discouraging farms from hiring young people or inexperienced workers. That will not only close another industry from hiring young people (whose unemployment rate hovers around 15%) it will also inhibit new, inexperienced folks who want to get started in agriculture.

“My workers are all worth 15 bucks an hour because they’ve been around,” said Duane Chamberlain, who also sits on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors in California. “Starting people out, it would be nice to hire kids at lower wages because they’re not worth it. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Farmer Sarah Wiederkehr of Winter Hill Farm in Freeport, Maine whom I interviewed for this article felt similarly. She said “We definitely would NOT be hiring young, inexperienced labor if we were mandated to pay a much higher minimum wage. We already decided to stop hiring apprentices because we simply cannot afford the time it takes to train newbies. We decided last fall to only hire hourly employees, and ones with experience.”

Another nuance to consider is that farms often provide other forms of compensation, such as free or reduced cost housing, transportation, food, and sometimes child care, health care, or other services. None of these things are taken into account when a city or state passes new wage laws. Although agriculture has a long and sordid history of not providing the best compensation and working conditions compared to many other industries, it also has a history of providing housing of some sort, often due to the rural location of the farms. Will farms be able to afford to continue to offer housing or to fix up and improve their housing if wages go up 30-60%? Farmer Wiederkehr of Maine says that she would also like to offer benefits beyond workers compensation insurance (mandated by her state), but currently she cannot figure out how do so and likely could not if she had to pay a mandatory higher wage.

Northeast Organic Farmers Association of New York (NOFA-NY) understands the need for farmworkers to be more fairly compensated but also understands that farmers have to earn living wages themselves. The current system does not satisfy either.

With regards to NY governor Cuomo pushing for increase minimum wages, NOFA-NY states: …”Fairness is an important value for NY’s organic farmers, yet the wages farmers pay their workers range from only $9 up to $20 an hour. Most of the farmers are not earning much more, and farmers in the first 10 years of their farming careers often pay their workers more per hour than they earn themselves.”

The minimum wage is not tied to inflation. It should have been indexed to inflation a long time ago, rather than just raised every now and again based on political whims. Had the 1968 floor of $1.60 per hour been indexed to inflation, it would be $10.90 per hour today, more than 50 percent higher than the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. However, should some states be raising their minimum wages by double that $7.25 over a few years to make up for decades of political inaction? What price will our diversified family-scale farms pay for these rapid cost increases? And are you, as consumers, ready to do your part by paying higher prices for your food, particularly the labor-intensive healthy foods you should be eating? Not only will food be more expensive, which is not necessarily a bad thing, some specialty crops will be scarcer because some farms will choose to stop growing them.

Overcoming Organic’s Price Squeeze

photo by Rosie Newton
Healthy organic produce

As the organic market expands, the cost to consumers is slowly but steadily dropping, making organic food somewhat more accessible to more people. This has been good news for wholesalers, processors and retailers. For farmers—and farm workers—not as much.

Why hasn’t the expansion of the organic food industry translated into higher wages and farm gate prices?

The simple answer is because organic farming is at the wrong end of the value chain.

But that is true for all farmers. What puts organic farming at a disadvantage is, in an organic nutshell, capitalism.

The high retail price of organic food frustrates farmers and consumers alike. Reasons given for the price difference between organic and conventional food–for some crops up to 300 percent–revolve around factors like low supply and high demand, greater labor input and postharvest handling, inefficient distribution chains and disadvantages in economy of scale.

All commodities—including food—are the products of human labor. Even honey, made by the planet’s beleaguered bees, needs to be collected and processed by human labor; wild mushrooms still need to be gathered; salt needs to be mined or produced in evaporating ponds; and wild fish must be caught. One way or another, the value of labor is embedded into everything we produce.

Organic systems use on average of 15 percent more labor than conventional farming systems. Sustainable organic farms provide a suite of valuable environmental services including soil, water and biodiversity conservation. Because of this—though it doesn’t translate into higher wages—the actual value of organic farm labor is much higher than the average wages paid for conventional labor. This is due to the extra skill required in organic farming and because conventional farming has set an artificially low level of “socially necessary labor time” in food production. Socially necessary labor time is a measure of the average level of worker productivity in a society. It determines how much labor is valued within a product.

Once this value is established, other market factors can come into play, for example, supply and demand, input and transaction costs, organic premiums, conventional subsidies. Regardless, the main difference in price between the two is determined by the socially necessary labor time set by conventional agriculture.

When we understand food’s value (rather than price) the question, “Why is organic so expensive?” becomes, “Why isn’t organic more expensive?”

But that’s only half the story. Farm workers are also exploited in the food system, as evidenced by their abject poverty. The value of their labor is actually much higher than its cost in the labor marketplace. Why? Because the value of socially necessary labor depends on how much it costs to produce labor power in a society; how many years and resources it takes to raise and train, feed, clothe, house and maintain her or him, and the costs of health care and retirement. This is referred to as, “the cost of reproduction of labor.”

Undocumented workers—without whom the food system would collapse—are criminalized by definition. This status makes it extremely difficult for them to demand living wages, benefits or basic rights. Further, a significant part of the cost of undocumented labor is assumed by the immigrant’s countries of origin and are free to both Western Europe and the United States. The low cost of undocumented labor works like a tremendous subsidy to the food system. Most of this value is captured by shippers, processors, retailers and input suppliers. As a result, both farm labor and the family labor on organic farms are tremendously undervalued.

But, you say, an organic carrot is not the same product as a conventional carrot! The organic carrot has no pesticide residue, did not use synthetic fertilizers and did not poison people or the environment!

True, but the price of the extra labor power and the higher level of skill needed in organic production is not determined by the organic production process itself but by the cost of socially necessary labor in agriculture, generally.

This helps explain why it is often hard for small, organic farms to pay living wages and provide benefits to their workers. Many do, of course, but it is harder for them than for larger, conventional farms. It also helps explain a trend in organic farming to shift from small, diversified, labor and knowledge-intensive farms to large, capital-intensive, organic monocultures. These are the farms giant supermarket chains like Wal-Mart buy from because they can pay less for the product from these larger organic farms, and the product comes in familiar, standardized pallets on a fixed schedule.

The downward pressure of socially necessary labor time on wages also helps explain the growing conflict between small-and large-scale organic farms and be-tween peasant farmers and new, mechanized farms producing ancient indigenous crops like quinoa for newer commodity markets. The combination of mecha-nization, large buyers and lack of regulations against environmental pollution by large-scale conventional production lowers the value of socially necessary labor and favors large, conventional farms.

Small-scale, organic family farmers tend to “self-exploit.” It’s not uncommon for them to make less hourly than the seasonal workers whom they hire. They may not be able to save much for their children’s education or their own retirement. It is in their objective interest to ally with farm workers to raise the mini-mum wage and improve working conditions on all farms—large and small, organic and conventional, because this would raise the value of socially necessary labor in food commodities and the value of the farmer’s own labor. If all farm workers received living wages and basic social benefits, it would help to level the playing field between large-scale industrial operations and small-scale production, ultimately benefiting farms that use family labor.

There are many social and environmental benefits to certified organic and fairly produced products, including the possibility for small and medium-sized farmers the ones upon whom both the organic and fair-trade systems were built—to get a better price. However, the steady entry of large-scale producers into these markets is driving down the value of socially necessary labor time. This is welcomed by large retailers because higher volumes mean more sales (and prof-its), it also lowers prices for the farmers and eventually squeezes out all but the largest producers.

From the perspective of value, there are different measures that could protect small and medium-sized producers. One is to peg the organic and fair-trade premiums to the costs of production rather than to the conventional price. Another is to internalize the environmental externalities of conventional production (a “polluter pays” principle for agriculture). Another would be for society to make housing, healthcare education and social services free to farm workers who work on diversified, organic farms, and to provide incentives for farmers to hire more year-round workers. This would raise the “social wage” to workers and help recognize the value of their work. If we continue to favor organic, sustainable and fairly produced food—and make large-scale chemical agriculture pay for the damage it does to people and the environment—eventually, organic will become the dominant system, re-setting the levels of socially necessary labor time.

The undervaluing of labor in food commodities is a heavy leveler and helps explain why organic and fair-trade products have failed to “raise the bar” in the mainstream food industry. When voting with our fork, we should remember that the freedom to buy food according to our values does not, in and of itself, change the power of conventionally produced commodities in our food system. If we want to change that, we have to change the way we value the labor in our food.

This article is excerpted from the July 6, 2016 issue of In Good Tilth

Resources on Domestic Fair Trade, Farm Labor and Living Wages

Domestic Fair Trade and Farmer Justice Organizations

Domestic Fair Trade Association
The Domestic Fair Trade Association is a collaboration of organizations representing farmers, farmworkers, food system workers, retailers, manufacturers, processors, and non-governmental organizations. Our primary goal is to support family-scale farming, to reinforce farmer-led initiatives such as farmer co-operatives, and to bring these groups together with mission-based traders, retailers and concerned consumers to contribute to the movement for sustainable agriculture in North America. DFTA has posted on its website a detailed evaluation of fair trade claims in the US market. NOFA is a founding member of DFTA. http://www.thedfta.org/

Agricultural Justice Project
The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) is a non-profit initiative to create fairness and equity in our food system through the development of social justice standards for organic and sustainable agriculture. On the website you will find a Tool-kit for farmers with resources on fair labor policies, intern con-tracts, fair pricing, contracts and the background for fairness in international law. NOFA is a founding member and a continuing partner in AJP. http://www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org/

Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI – USA)
The Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA’s mission is to cultivate markets, policies, and communities that sustain thriving, socially just, and environmentally sound family farms. RAFI works nationally and internationally, focusing on North Carolina and the southeastern United States. RAFI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Pittsboro, North Carolina and incorporated in 1990. On the website, there are many resources for farmers and the staff provides counseling for farmers in financial distress. Their vision: Family farmers have the power to earn a fair and dependable income. Every-one who labors in agriculture is respected, protected, and valued by society. Air, water, and soil are preserved for future generations. The land yields healthy and abundant food and fiber that is accessible to all members of society. The full diversity of seeds and breeds, the building blocks of agriculture, is reinvigorated and publicly protected.

Fair World Project
Fair World Project (FWP) educates and advocates for a just global economy where: people are treated fairly with dignity; the environment is respected and nourished; commerce fosters sustainable livelihoods and communities in a global society based on cooperation and solidarity; fair market opportunities and fair government and trade policy defend and support the contributions of farmers, workers, and artisans to our global society; marketing claims have integrity and promote throughout entire supply chains, and support dedicated brands that put people before profits. FWP publishes a quarterly magazine with reports on domestic and international fair trade, evaluations of standards and certification programs. www.fairworldproject.org
“Justice in the Fields: A Report on the Role of Farmworker Certification and an Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Seven Labels” (2016) http://fairworldproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Justice-In-The-Fields-Report.pdf

Farmworker Organizations

Farmworker Justice
Farmworker Justice is a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety, and access to justice. http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/
• Labor and Immigration Resources: http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/resources-publications/labor-immigration
• Farmworker Justice/Oxfam America Report on Farmworker Abuse: http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/files/immigration-labor/weeding-out-abuses.pdf
• Farmworker Justice Report on H2A program: http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/images/stories/imm_labor_files/LitanyofAbuseReport_Dec2008_FINAL.pdf
• Farmworker Justice’s Selected Analysis of 2011-2012 National Agricultural Workers Survey Memo
• Farmworkers’ Health Fact Sheet: Data from National Agricultural Workers Survey
• Migration Policy Institute Briefing on Farm Labor Highlights Recent Data Trends (September 2015 Blog)

The Farmworker Support Committee (El Comite de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas, CATA), based in Glassboro, New Jersey. Empowering and educating farmworkers through leadership development. The Farmworker Support Committee is a membership-based migrant and agricultural worker advocacy organization. In an effort to improve the conditions of workers, CATA has been working for over 35 years to help farmworkers and migrant workers improve their working and living conditions through organizing, capacity-building, and self-empowerment. CATA is a founding partner in the Agricultural Justice Project and has a food justice project, helping farm workers grow their own food in community gardens in Glassboro and Bridgeton, NJ and Kennett Square, PA. CATA has its own radio station: Radio CATA: the station plays on 102.5 FM in Bridgeton and is streaming online for the rest of the world to hear at www.radiocata.com. http://cata-farmworkers.org/

Migrant Justice/Justicia Migrante
Based in Burlington, Vermont, Migrant Justice builds the voice, capacity and power of the migrant farmworker community and engages community partners to organize for social and economic justice and human rights. http://www.migrantjustice.net

Workers’ Centers

There are Workers’ Centers in Central New York, Tompkins County, NY, Western, NY, the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, and Vermont. These cen-ters provide training for low-wage workers in their legal rights, support workers who have been cheated out of wage and overtime pay, connect workers with unions and with information about medical treatment for injuries on the job and how to apply for Workers Compensation or medical leave. The Workers Center of Central New York focuses on organizing dairy farm workers. The Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center mission statement is typical of these centers: “The RVWC builds power with low-wage, and immigrant workers in Western Massachusetts. Through innovative and creative work-er-organizing strategies, the Center unites community allies to win real change in the lives of working families and our communities.” Centers engage in direct action, document human trafficking, and educate the public about labor issues.

They organize campaigns on immigration reform and help re-unite immigrant families broken up by the arrest and detainment of a family member, facil-itate bail and identify sources of legal help. The Tompkins County Workers’ Center certifies Living Wage Employers who must commit to paying the liv-ing wage calculated by the center for the Ithaca area of NY.



Farmworker organizations in other regions:
Farmworkers Association of Florida (www.floridafarmworkers.org)
Centro Campesino, Minnesota (www.centrocampesino.net
Community to Community Development, Washington State (www.foodjustice.org)
Lideres Campesinas, California (www.liderescampesinas.org)
Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), based in Toledo, Ohio. FLOC organizes farmworkers in Ohio, NC, SC and Mexico. (www.floc.com)

United Farm Workers
Founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers (UFW) of America is the nation’s first successful and largest farm workers union, currently active in 10 states. The vision of UFW is to provide farm workers and other working people with the inspiration and tools to share in society’s bounty. http://ufw.org/
• Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States – March 2011: http://www.ufw.org/pdf/farmworkerinventory_0401_2011.pdf

A new grouping led by young undocumented workers who are organizing first a boycott by the undocumented and then a general strike to demonstrate the importance of immigrant workers and their families to the economy of the US. Their goals are protection, respect, and dignity for the undocumented, and paths to citizenship for those who choose it. http://www.lahuelga.com/

Support Services for Farmworkers

Worker Justice Center of New York
Formed from a merger of Farmworker Legal Services of New York, Inc. and the Workers’ Rights Law Center, the Worker Justice Center of New York pursues justice for those denied human rights with a focus on agricultural and other low-wage workers, through legal representation, community empowerment and advocacy for institutional change. (http://www.wjcny.org)

Rural and Migrant Ministry (RMM)
RMM “works for the creation of a just rural New York through nurturing leadership, standing with the disenfranchised, especially farmworkers and ru-ral workers, changing unjust systems and structures.” RMM runs educational centers for farmworkers, summer camps and other educational programs for farmworker youth, and coordinates the Justice for Farmworkers Legislative Campaign that seeks to pass the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. http://ruralmigrantministry.org/

Cornell Farmworker Program
The Cornell Farmworker Program (CFP) is dedicated to improving the living and working conditions of farmworkers and their families. We also seek recognition for farmworkers’ contributions to society and their acceptance and full participation in local communities. Staffed by Mary Jo Dudley, the Farmworker Program conducts research on farm worker conditions, provides training to farmers and farmworkers on improving communications, and provides resources for farm workers on its website. http://devsoc.cals.cornell.edu/outreach/cfp/

National Center for Farmworker Health
The National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH) is a private, not-for-profit corporation located in Buda, Texas dedicated to improving the health status of farmworker families by providing information services, training and technical assistance, and a variety of products to community and migrant health centers nationwide, as well as organizations, universities, researchers, and individuals involved in farmworker health. http://www.ncfh.org/

The New Farmer Development Project
The New Farmer Development Project (NFDP) identifies, educates, and supports immigrants with agricultural experience by helping them become local farmers and establish small farms in the NYC region. http://www.grownyc.org/greenmarket/nfdp

National Farm Worker Ministry
The National Farm Worker Ministry is a faith based organization which supports farm workers as they organize for justice and empowerment. When United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez began organizing in the 1960’s, he called on the religious community to change its emphasis from charity to justice. NFWM became the vehicle for people of faith to respond to that call. NFWM brings together national denominations, state councils of churches, religious orders and congregations, and concerned individuals to act with the farm workers to achieve fundamental change in their living and working conditions. Grounded in faith, NFWM works side by side with farm workers throughout the country, organizing vigils, picketing, coordinating boycotts and educating constituents. http://nfwm.org/

Books, Films, Articles:

Labor and the Locavore: The making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic
By Margaret Gray (U. CA Press, Berkeley, 2014) The result of ten years of study of the conditions for both farmworkers and farmers in the Hudson Valley of New York, Gray gives us an honest picture of how farm labor relations look through a labor justice lens.

“The Hands that Feed Us: Challenges and Opportunities for Workers Along the Food Chain”
From the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of organizations that includes farmworkers, restaurant workers, unions that organize food service workers, and other grassroots stakeholder groups. This study is based on a survey of FCWA members and reports on their work, their wages and benefits, and makes recommendations for change. http://foodchainworkers.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Hands-That-Feed-Us-Report.pdf

Farm Hands By Tom Rivers
Batavia, N.Y. newspaper reporter Tom Rivers wrote a first-person series about farm work in 2008 that won state and national awards. Now the series, with more background and other information, is compiled in this newly released book, Farm Hands: Hard work and hard lessons from Western New York fields. http://www.farmhandsbook.com/

Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers (Verso, 2012)
By Frank Bardacke
Not for the faint of heart, this 740 page study by a man who worked with UFW for a decade in the 1970’s, attempts to capture in great detail both the strengths and weaknesses of Cesar Chavez and the organization he created. Bardacke paints a vivid picture of the obstacles to organizing farm workers, struggling against farms and agribusinesses determined to maintain control, and the bitter fights within the labor movement.

The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming. By Natasha Bowens, 2015.
A voice for food sovereignty in communities of color as well as a book by Natasha Bowens. The Color of Food is a multimedia project that aims to address the lack of voices from Asian, Black, Latino and Native American communities in the dialogue on healthy food and food justice. http://thecolorofood.org/home.html

New York Times Articles:
Immigrants Go From Farms to Jails, and a Climate of Fear Settles In (December 2006) http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/nyregion/24migrant.html

Illegal Workers Swept From Jobs in Silent Raids (July 2010) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/10/us/10enforce.html

The Other Side of Immigration (Film)
Based on over 700 interviews, The Other Side of Immigration asks why so many Mexicans leave home to work in the United States and what happens to the families and communities they leave behind. http://www.theothersideofimmigration.com/

After I Pick the Fruit: The Lives of Immigrant Farm Women (Film)
For ten years, Nancy Ghertner filmed the lives of 5 women farm workers in Wayne County, New York, at work, with their families, dealing with the Border Patrol and deportation. http://www.afteripickthefruit.com

Harvest of Empire
This film examines the role that US military and corporate intervention in Latin America has played in triggering massive waves of migration from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Based on book by Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! Available for free viewing on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6AQ2mOaG7Q