Struggling Over Food
Words by Angry Workers; Illustration by Ada Jusic
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Last week I tuned into a talk organised by the The Left Book Club on the topic of ‘Anticapitalism and Food’, led by Gargi Bhattacharyya, and featuring Shiri Shalmi from Cooperation Town, Amardeep Singh Dhillon and Melek Erdal. If you missed it, you can still watch it on YouTube here. Listening to it I was reminded of the power of imagination, of the inherent worth in voicing the possibility of other worlds, of other systems and ways of doing things, even if our current system seems to envelope and smother all of us ─ an expanding duvet that just keeps increasing in tog strength. How can we change the world if we can’t imagine it first?
By coincidence, I bumped into Melek Erdal the day after, and she also talked about the importance of learning counter-theory ─ that to talk about anti-capitalism does not mean a Soviet-style communism, or even anarchism, but perhaps new ways of doing things that do not adhere to all the shibboleths we have taken as given. Can we imagine a world where food isn’t a commodity? Where food isn’t simply transactional? Can we imagine a world where food production isn’t controlled by corporations who pay their workers poverty wages? Can we imagine a world where consumption in the Global North is not predicated on exploitation in the Global South. Or as Dhillon put it, could the Left even imagine a food provision system as radical and as complex as the langar?
Today’s newsletter by Angry Workers deals very much in the concrete, but asks you to take an imaginative leap at the end. The system isn’t working, but the counter to the system doesn’t seem to be working either, or only deals in attrition. Angry Workers ask, what changes do we all have to make in our lives, in our own jobs, to achieve a shared goal. I think there is a lot of power in that imaginative leap. The late academic David Graeber, who makes an appearance in today’s newsletter, puts it this way: “As the whole thing falls apart in front of us, the one battle they’ve won is over the imagination.”. Nothing is truly inevitable; imagine first, the rest can come later.
Struggling Over Food, by Angry Workers
I used to work in a food factory making ready meals for all the major supermarkets. I left just before the pandemic hit, feeling pretty burnt out. The disconnect between the food we made for public consumption and our own meagre lunches, between the money being made out of us and the wages we earned, was stark and drove me to spend four years trying to improve our conditions and get workers together. Poor pay and conditions have become synonymous with the food industry. Workers are usually migrants and on the lower rungs of the labour market, with few options other than to suck it up. Now, with food workers labelled as ‘essential’ and being called ‘heroes’, the disparity between what society says they’re worth and what they earn seems even greater.
A year ago, I questioned the repositioning of food workers as altruistic ‘heroes’ just as the pandemic was proving how integral their labour is to keeping society fed. The biggest change I’ve seen since then is that food workers now have a greater sense of the importance of their own jobs. As ‘essential workers’, they continued to go in during the lockdown. They put themselves and their families at risk. In the food factory I used to work for, which was on the outskirts of London, safety measures were put in place but they came late in the day and were often unworkable. Ex co-workers told me three people died, one of whom was a mother of two in her late 40s. This didn’t make the headlines and at no point did the factory close down. But has this sense of sacrifice translated into feelings of self-worth and power? Much has been made of the increasing number of workers who have taken up union membership during the pandemic, but is this actually becoming the basis for new and more confident food workforces, willing and able to fight for their own interests and improve their pay and conditions?
Well, they certainly have more leverage. But whether and how it is being used, by both workers and the trade unions, varies. One food factory in Spalding (represented by the Unite union) is in the middle of pay negotiations where workers are demanding a 4% wage increase due to the contribution they made during the lockdowns. They will undoubtedly have to fight tooth and nail to wrestle even this paltry sum from management because, by food industry standards, it exceeds the usual 1-2% increases that are usually asked for. Meanwhile, my former employer responded to the ongoing efforts of workers who had rejected the company’s most recent pay offer by withdrawing their measly £30 Christmas bonus, which itself had been gradually whittled down over the years, as punishment.
What workers receive varies across company sites too, despite belonging to the same union. The GMB trade union at Tillmanstone Salads managed to negotiate full pay for those off sick with Covid after two workers died. This did not happen where I worked, despite more Covid deaths. My co-workers had to make do with statutory sick pay and the minimal contractual obligations, while asking for longer periods of sick leave was a financial choice few of my co-workers could afford to take. The union also postponed pay talks because “now was not the right time” to ask for more, citing the “national emergency” during which we should “all be pulling together”. This was overturned on the insistence of workers, but it is a good example of how unions and workers’ interests are not always aligned.
For many mainstream unions, appealing to the company or the government to do the right thing has become their main weapon of defence. This has limited success because the profit imperative is the primary motivation for companies and what’s good for businesses is usually what’s good for governments. A strategy that relies primarily on the media and appealing to the ‘better nature’ of capitalists is already an admission of defeat. It means the union has no faith that workers are willing or able to enforce their demands.
This is why unions have gone on a media charm offensive during the recent strikes against companies’ fire and rehire policies in the UK, focusing on the community and food banks as a way to make moral arguments about ‘worthy’ striking workers. The well-wishing Left likes to emphasise how ‘good’ the strikers are, so for example, much was made of British Gas or Rolls Royce workers supporting their local food banks. It’s good PR – but only if you think striking workers are inherently problematic. The problem is that this won’t necessarily help to make the strike successful. No one is asking if the strikes actually hurt the employer and to what degree. A strike that isn’t successful, that can’t increase wages or save jobs, will make the working-class more dependent on charity and ultimately those very same food banks – so we end up in a vicious circle.
But there have been a few encouraging cases over the past year, though interestingly these involve delivery and distribution of food rather than manufacture. Around Christmas, a dispute started at the DHL distribution centre in Liverpool for Burton Biscuits, the company that makes Wagon Wheels and Jammy Dodgers, about low pay and victimisation. Their strike won them a 3% pay rise, despite police using Covid regulations as a cover to harass fully legal and compliant picket lines. (It’s no coincidence that the government wants to implement their Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill at the same time that one in ten workers is facing fire and rehire from bosses.) There was a similar dispute at a distribution centre in Warrington, a town between Liverpool and Manchester, by Eddie Stobart haulage workers who deliver Walkers Crisps. Strikes were called off, but negotiations continue. Earlier this year, Quorn workers in Teeside also threatened to strike over a paltry pay offer, but management ended up offering them a better deal, which the workers voted to accept. Douwe Egberts coffee workers are currently voting to strike over fire and rehire plans in Oxford. And hundreds of Deliveroo riders just went on strike for a living wage and basic workers’ rights, coinciding with the company’s tumultuous stock market flotation.
From these examples, it seems that warehouse, transport and distribution workers have more clout. They are usually slightly better paid than food manufacturing or retail workers (as the recent Asda equal pay claim showed, where men in warehousing were paid £1.50-£3/hr more than female shop workers), or, in the case of many Deliveroo workers, their job is a second one, meaning that going on strike may not have the same impact on your finances than if it was your sole source of income. There tends to be more men in these sectors – who usually have fewer barriers and more confidence to organise themselves. My food factory mainly employed migrant women on the assembly lines. Their poor English, the constant surveillance at work, plus their considerable childcare and domestic responsibilities hugely affected their self-worth and confidence, which made it much harder for them to band together and fight for themselves. This, combined with a broader societal marginalisation of feminised labour, all adds up to giving delivery and logistics workers a more immediate sense of their own role in the supply chain, making it more likely that they see where their power lies and how to use it for their own ends.
In the first months of the pandemic, the media narrative around food focused on the idea of the supply chain. Global imports slowed down and the possibility of sudden food insecurity on a mass scale became a tangible fear. The problem, some food writers suggested, was the global food system itself; that the solution was to shorten supply chains and be more aware of where our produce is grown. However, what is clear from the last year is that if we want a society more connected to where our food comes from, we cannot just look at what organic farm it originated from or think that everything will be solved by just ‘buying local’. The question of workers’ control will be essential to achieving this. Where, then, should we be looking?
Globally, agricultural workers face some of the harshest forms of repression and exploitation as the seasonal nature of their work means they need to be squeezed hard when needed, then gotten rid of straight after. This work is often mediated through mafia-type or paramilitary structures. The state also uses its immigration regimes to control this type of labour. So when agricultural workers do act, the significance of going against such powerful interests is massive. In the ‘plastic sea’ of Almeria in southern Spain (so-called because the aerial view of shimmering plastic that covers the fruit and vegetables looks like the sea), migrant agricultural workers won their struggle for higher wages against greenhouse owners. Further along the supply chain, a six-day strike of largely migrant warehouse workers and drivers at the world’s largest wholesale produce market in New York’s Bronx borough doubled the wage rise that was initially offered by their company this year.
While there are some reasons to be hopeful, it’s safe to say that the general picture shows spots of activity, rather than a wildfire. It’s often difficult to find out the nitty-gritty of what made a particular struggle successful because the unions involved usually only like to proclaim victories, while workers’ own critical or self-reflective voices are absent from the discussion. Ideally, workers who have been successful or have more agency to act would help those who haven’t, especially when their work is connected. This will take more strategic discussions between food workers themselves, who have to contend with top-down trade unions who rarely encourage rank-and-file self-organisation, as well as anti-trade union laws – such as the ban on secondary picketing – that try to restrict solidarity amongst workers in different companies. In the case of food, the workers with more power, namely the male warehouse and distribution workers, should reach out to their sisters across the supply chain. Delivery drivers would reach out and be joined by restaurant workers in their common struggle for better pay, given that both depend on each other’s labour. The question is, is there the appetite to learn from each other and do so?
‘Essential’ workers have pulled society through a natural health calamity and it is those same workers who are soon going to become victims of a man-made economic crisis. Many are already losing their jobs, while others have had to work overtime due to further decreasing wages, staff reductions and spiking demand. Who or what decides if we lose our jobs or our wages are cut? After a decade of talk about the liberating potentials of automation and artificial intelligence, why are we still supposed to work more for less? The experiences during lockdown, the current defensive struggles in food and other industries, and job cuts push us towards the question of who is in control of our daily life and society in general. During the pandemic, workers on shop floors had to ask why labour is organised the way it is and why we produce what we produce. They had to constantly assess if working was worth the risk to their health and life. On a wider social level, we were also forced to ask ourselves why our material survival is based on so relatively few shoulders, perhaps a third of the total workforce, while the rest of us slog away in what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”.
While real solidarity across borders between food workers will only occur out of a practical necessity to strengthen and win our own struggles at work, what about consumers? What is their role in supporting food workers? It isn’t just about paying over the odds for something that is supposedly ethical or lamenting the plight of ‘those poor victims over there’? This isn’t about thinking that, somehow, you’re in a position to make a real difference by buying one product over another. Besides, small-scale usually just means more direct repression by your boss. Being aware that you will never be ethical within capitalism means knowing that you’re not outside this system and that, in fact, you have just as big a responsibility to question what’s happening in your own workplace as food workers do.
Rather than look at food workers’ struggles in isolation, it’s vital we look at how they connect not just to other precarious workers, but also ourselves. Changing society so that it is not built on exploitation and destruction but co-operation and sustainability will be a mass collective struggle. Those of you in ‘bullshit jobs’ – even if they might be relatively well paid – are not outside of this discussion. You also need to ask yourself: does my work make sense? Is it fulfilling? Does it pay for more than the bills? Do I have control over the work I do? What can I do to change things? Maybe the question you could be asking isn’t “how can I support food workers?” but rather “what I am doing in my own workplace?” Only as workers in a common struggle can we offer practical solidarity to each other, rather than superficial pity.
This article was written by a member of Angry Workers. For an in-depth look into the food industry from a workers’ perspective – from where food comes from to the role of unions and how to organise beyond them – check out their book – https://pmpress.org.uk/product/class-power-on-zero-hours/
The illustration is by Ada Jusic, who specialises in illustrations with a political or social context. You can find more of her illustrations at https://adajusic.com/ .