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Rebuild Farmer-Labor Solidarity

This article originally ran at Reposted with permission.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deep divisions and inequalities in our economy, especially in food and agriculture. We can now see, clearer than before, just how fragile our food system is.

Looking across the supply chains, the impacts are vast and interconnected—from the farmers with overstuffedlivestock barns and overflowing milk tanks; to the processing and distribution bottlenecks caused by quickly shifting demand; to the sickened and endangered workers in food-processing plants, food service operations, and retail spaces; to the millions of families unable to buy food due to unemployment and loss of household income.

We’ve seen farmers, already in dire economic straits, being forced to dump milk and euthanize animals because of supply chain disruptions. Prices paid to farmers have been at record lows for many years, largely due to overproduction. Meanwhile, the costs of production are rising, thanks to increasingly consolidated markets that give farmers little choice of where they can do business.

This issue was around long before Trump came into office and disrupted trade relationships with his heated rhetoric. Where I live in south central Wisconsin, I see the auction notices in the farm newspapers and hear about farmers selling out or going bankrupt. The state, known as America’s Dairyland, has lost 5,637 dairy farms over the past decade, a decrease of 44 percent. In 2019 alone, 818 Wisconsin dairy farms bit the dust. Similar large losses are taking place throughout the country.

My family’s 400-cow dairy farm is hanging in there, but just barely. The prices paid to farmers like us do not cover our costs of production and, despite our 100-year history and asset building, we are at the end of our rope as dairy producers.

As we move to the next stop on the supply chain, from field to fork, we’re seeing the highly consolidated meatpacking industry, aided by dictatorial mandates from the Trump Administration, forcing workers into environments made deadly by COVID-19. Leah Douglas of the Food & Environment Reporting Network has tracked the COVID-19 outbreak on farms and in food-processing plants in real time.

As of July 27, at least 510 meatpacking and food-processing plants have had confirmed cases of COVID-19, sickening at least 47,006 workers and killing at least 189 of them. Workers in more than forty states have been affected, from egg farm workers in Arizona and blueberry pickers in New Jersey, to cheese plant workers in Colorado.

Meatpacking plants have been the hardest hit. And the names of the corporations that own and operate these plants are familiar: Tyson, Cargill, JBS, Smithfield, Conagra, and Hormel. The same companies that have bankrupted farmers with low prices due to reduced competition are now hotspots for worker COVID-19 illnesses and deaths. A disproportionate number of those sickened and killed due to exposure in agriculture and the food industry are Latinx.

The good news is that, in response to these threats, farmers and workers are coming together. Could the crisis of the pandemic be the spark we need to save us?

In a statement released in late May, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union joined with groups representing U.S. farmers and ranchers in calling for better protections for workers in meatpacking plants and throughout the food chain.

“We support the workers’ call for mandatory worker protections,” said rancher Kathryn Bedell in Fruita, Colorado. “If they don’t get protective equipment and safe working conditions, the food system will remain vulnerable and we all lose—producers, workers, and consumers.” She faulted the lax federal regulation that has allowed global meatpacking companies to skirt antitrust laws and “manipulate prices paid to livestock producers to the detriment of our livelihoods.”

In late April, President Donald Trump, prodded by dubious claims of possible meat shortages,  invoked the Defense Production Act, declaring the plants “critical infrastructure” and forcing them to reopen.

While the COVID-19 crisis has united people across geographical lines, the current administration has worked hard to amplify a perceived rural-urban divide by fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia.

Yet I take inspiration from history, as shown in a picture of the Chippewa County Farmers Equity Union Juniors at their Wisconsin State Fair booth in 1940. They are calling for a label to be put on products that support cooperation and “reciprocal protection” between farmers and workers. The mutual goals set forth in their call for reciprocal protection and solidarity are ones that are still urgent today:

· Fair share of national income

· Full value for dollars spent

· Equitable tax system

· Protective legislation

· Peace. Democracy. Security.

The work being done around this time, between the two world wars, has connections to The Progressive’s own “Fighting Bob” La Follette and his sons, Philip and Bob Jr. They spent decades fighting against corporate monopolies, especially railroad monopolies that kept farmers from getting their crops to market at a reasonable cost. They also built political power by uniting farmers and workers, through the Nonpartisan League and Farmer-Labor Party.

We must work to fix these systems and repair the damage that has been done recently and since before the pandemic. We must untangle and rebuild a complex system so that it works for people while it protects the land and water. To achieve this, we need to strive for the following interlocking goals:  

  • Fair prices for farmers and fair wages for workers.

  • Justice and safety for workers including for immigrant workers that are so critical in agriculture and our food system.

  • An end to corporate dominance and monopoly power in the economy.

Now is the time for us to come together and build farmer-labor solidarity and work on cooperative and collaborative solutions across class, race, and geographic lines. Let’s pick up the work that many of us have already been doing for decades and decades, while at the same time listening to communities who have been excluded in the past.

To this end, I am heartened by expressions of solidarity from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the range of Great Plains farmer organizations. The National Farmers Union and other groups have also come out with strong statements in support of protections for farmers and meatpacking workers. The Wisconsin Farmers Union, of which I am a member and former staffer, recently convened a coalition of groups to do the careful work of building and rebuilding relationships across these supposed divides.

In addition, we need to build relationships with all working families, not just those directly involved in agriculture and the food system. A common trope for denying farmers and food system workers better prices and better wages is that this would result in higher food prices. The goal is to pit the interests of farmers against those of consumers, a false dichotomy.

The fact is that the monopolistic corporations driving the food system are taking more than their fair share. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, less than fifteen cents of every consumer food dollar goes to farmers. We can fairly compensate and protect farmers and food-production workers without overly burdening families spending their hard-earned dollars in the grocery store.

Let’s reject the divides that are constructed to weaken our power. We can build an agricultural and food system economy that supports everyone: farmers, farmworkers, and those who work in the processing plants, restaurants, and stores that get food to families. This system can be built to support everyone in the supply chain, while at the same time ensuring access to good and healthy food for all.

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