Our VoiceNews & Politics

Contract Workers in the Belly of the Food System

Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Jun 01, 2011

A block-long tent city of pickets and placards lines a main thoroughfare on the south side of Minneapolis, just off  the property of a huge Cub Food supermarket.  Hunger strikers supporting low-wage contract food system workers underscore the irony of the setting.  Otherwise unknown and unheralded grocery store floor cleaners, who work nights for $8 an hour, have here taken a stand against exploitation.

Organized by Centro de Tabajadores Unidos en Lucha, the workers are taking on one of the largest food chains in the metro Twin Cities, calling it to accountability for its contact with Carlson Building Maintenance, the janitorial service that employs the floor cleaners.  The company, not surprisingly, has taken a hands off stance on the matter, telling the workers to take up their concerns with Carlson, their “employer.”  Some one thousand Carlson workers—most of whom are immigrants—maintain the floors of the Cities’ big grocery stores.

The Minneapolis fight underscores one of the harsh and hidden realities of the nation’s food system—the plight of low-wage contract workers who are “conveniently” beyond the responsibility of the companies that retain their “employers.”  Contract cleaning crews—from meatpacking plants to restaurants to grocery stores—are now the norm in the food system. In a Missouri hog processing plant, contract cleaning crew workers were not given the hourly wage promised on recruitment, and safety training, clothing, and equipment necessary in the use of dangerous chemicals was minimal.

In an Iowa poultry processing plant mentally-challenged workers on contract with a Texas company were paid as little as forty-four cents an hour, and housed in squalid conditions.  Henry’s Turkey Service was fined $1.1 million by the state, will pay $1.76 million in back wages, and is now the subject of a federal lawsuit.  The company that contracted with Henry’s was not the workers’ employer—and was thereby “innocent” of the workers’ treatment.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that companies can be held liable for “knowingly” hiring undocumented workers, it is likely that “contract employment” will become even more the norm in the low-wage, worker of color- and immigrant-reliant food system as owners seek to distance themselves from federal scrutiny of employment documentation. As if conditions for most food workers were not challenging enough—particularly for those largely unseen in remote rural areas, in kitchens or warehouses, or working nights—the trend toward contracting does not bode well.

For the Minneapolis grocery store floor cleaners—and for countless other food system workers—the relentless struggle for racial justice and for worker justice lands once again on the streets, with a growing base of support across communities.  From fields to packinghouses, from supermarkets to restaurants, and at every point in the food system workers who feed the nation are all too often unable to afford good food themselves—think $8 an hour with few benefits, caring for an entire family.

While their struggle looms large, so too does the vision of a new reality emerging from the floor cleaners, and from the Food Chain Workers Alliance and its outspoken new allies among food workers across the nation.  No more contract workers in the belly of the food system.  Instead, contracts.  Just contracts.

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