Food, Worker, and Immigrant Justice: Why We Need to Link These Movements

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Robert Gottlieb, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. He is the author of a dozen books, including Food Justice (with Anupama Joshi, MIT Press), Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City (MIT Press), and Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Island Press). He is the editor of two series from MIT Press: Urban and Industrial Environments, and Food, Health, and Environment, and is a long-time social and environmental justice activist and historian of social movements.

Robert Gottlieb

One of the challenges that social movements in this country face is their tendency to focus on a single issue and the conflicts and lost opportunities that may result. The food movement, for example, includes a focus on how to increase healthy and local food in school cafeterias. It’s a critical goal and has a strong social justice message, including the need to strengthen the capacity of local farmers and to provide healthy food for school age children, particularly those kids in low income communities and communities of color who often lack access to such food. The labor movement has a focus on improving the wages and working conditions of those they seek to represent – for example, food service workers who are often paid low wages and have little say in their work, even though they also are crucial in helping school kids make healthy food choices. And the immigrant rights movement has a focus on basic human rights—to not be exploited and harassed and threatened with deportation in jobs where undocumented workers are employed, such as food service jobs.

A year ago, on Food Day, I had the occasion of participating in a gathering at Pomona College regarding the food service operation at the College. My talk was about the need to enlarge the food justice agenda and the importance of including worker justice and immigrant justice as central to that agenda. Pomona had begun to shift towards a local and healthy food approach, but had been hostile to the idea that its food service workers should be able to decide on union representation through a neutral process of their own choosing. Union food service workers at other U.S. colleges and universities have a living wage and stronger roles in the food service operation, including helping make the shift towards a healthy and local food approach. The workers at Pomona wanted the same opportunity.

Isabel Sanchez, who was a cook at Pomona from 1992 to 2008 before injuries she sustained in the workplace forced her to quit.

Moreover, several of the Pomona food workers were immigrants. Just a month after Food Day, the College investigated the work permits of its own employees and fired 17 workers who could not present the college with valid work authorization documents. While the college says it did not conduct the investigation and firings in retaliation for union activity, this type of immigration investigation has the effect of scaring workers who have been peacefully organizing to form a union.

In the Pomona case, it became clear why each of the movements – food justice, worker justice, and immigrant justice – needs to make common cause, and, in the process, strengthen their ability to make change in the areas they focus on. The Real Food Real Jobs campaign provides a crucial starting point in creating that common agenda. And that’s why I signed the Real Food Real Jobs pledge. And it’s why I hope my friends in the food justice, worker justice, and immigrant justice movements join me in signing it as well to help build that common social justice agenda.

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