Labor and Workers in the Food System

Jay Owen Community Development Solutions

Sustainable food must be produced in a way that takes not only the environment and consumers into account, but also the people who grow, harvest and process it.

Current methods of production of crops, like corn and soybeans, rely heavily on machinery. Thousands of acres can be planted, sprayed and harvested by just a few people operating large equipment like tractors and combines; the latest versions of which have built-in GPS and computers to analyze the field.

But for raising and processing fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, the agriculture industry still relies primarily on human labor. Farm and food workers are mainly an immigrant workforce, many of whom are undocumented. They are often poorly paid and work in harsh or dangerous conditions. This is just the latest chapter in a long history: the US was built on exploitative agricultural labor that dates back to slavery. Today, however, some of the most successful worker-organizing strategies are emerging from the fields, as farm and food workers fight for their rights and dignity.

A Brief History of US Farm and Food Labor

The struggles of today’s food and farmworkers are not new. The National Farm Worker Ministry spells out that since the earliest US history, agricultural workers have been a disenfranchised group, often brought against their will and denied the right to vote once in the US. A brief examination of a history of US farm labor shows that it is inseparable from a history of state-sponsored racism. 1

In the 1600s, indentured servants were brought from England with the agreement to work as field laborers in exchange for their passage to the so-called New World. When farm labor demand began to outstrip the supply of willing servants, land owners and bosses expanded the African slave trade, developing an economy reliant on the labor of enslaved people kidnapped from Africa. The practice continued legally for 200 years, enriching businesses in both North and South, until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Following the war, constitutional amendments passed prohibiting slavery and granting citizenship to formerly enslaved men, and promises were made to help integrate them into society. But instead of granting formerly enslaved people their promised “40 acres and a mule,” the white power structure passed the sweeping Jim Crow laws of the 1890s, institutionalizing discrimination and ensuring that cruel treatment of African-Americans would continue for decades to come. As a result, many former slaves and their descendants continued working in the fields sharecropping or to pay off debts, often in conditions not notably better than enslavement.

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