Taking the High Road Toward A Sustainable Food System

As we honor the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today - shortly after what would have been his 85th birthday - we've been thinking about workers in our food system. The last few years have seen great progress and increasing momentum in the movement of workers in the restaurant industry and food production as they have organized for fair wages and better working conditions.

Dr. King's last months were devoted to the support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis as a part of his campaign to end poverty (and in anticipation of an intended "Poor People's March"). In his March 18, 1968 speech to Memphians, King said:

"So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth...All labor has worth."

As of 2009, 1 in 12 private-sector workers were employed in the restaurant industry, with 90 percent of those workers receiving no paid sick days, no paid vacation days and no health insurance paid by their employers. In their January, 2012 report "Taking the High Road: A How-to Guide for Successful Restaurant Employers", Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) shared examples of "win-win-win" solutions benefiting workers, customers and businesses. By offering livable wages, benefits and professional mobility, they've been successful at retaining loyal employees. For many businesses, the admittedly higher short-term costs of offering such investment in their workers offset the long-term costs of high employee turnover.

For many businesses, the admittedly higher short-term costs of offering livable wages, benefits and professional mobility to their workers offset the long-term costs of high employee turnover.

While restauranteurs can draw on the report's advice and case studies as some make changes on a local scale, workers nationwide are organizing and going on strike in campaigns for a living wage and against the fast food industry. Fast Food Forward, a New York City-based part of the national movement, has grown since their big strike in November 2012, which was shortly followed by workers in Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit. Fast Food Forward chose another strike date, last April 4, as it was theĀ  anniversary of Dr. King's assassination. (You may have seen Fast Food Forward's Naquasia LeGrand on Stephen Colbert's show the other night, discussing the need for a living wage and keeping the pseudo-pundit on his toes.)

Last week's big news as to food and labor came with the announcement that Walmart has joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Program. Walmart sells more groceries than any other US retailer, and is the first grocer to sign the agreement. Writing in Civil Eats, Barry Estabrook said that the deal will likely force competing grocery chains to also sign on to the program, which Walmart joined of its own accord. (Leslie Hatfield covered CIW's November 2012 headline-making deal with Chipotle.) The Fair Food Program bolsters workers' wages to a penny-a-pound paid by participating buyers and requires compliance with a code of conduct with zero tolerance for forced labor and sexual assault, worker education and complaint resolution mechanisms.

ROC's report summed up the benefits of "win-win-win" restaurant labor practices by pointing out that when workers know their needs are met, they're not looking to leave as soon as something better can be found and they're invested in the restaurant's success. GRACE Food Program Director Chris Hunt commented on the benefits of this resource, saying:

"Fundamental to the establishment of a sustainable food system is the assurance that its workers are treated with dignity and respect, and afforded the capacity to earn fair, livable wages. While the results of this study are not surprising, we're excited that hard data can now be presented to those who have the power to improve conditions for restaurant workers - and that the data demonstrate that doing right by these workers ultimately benefits everyone."

Americans are still striving to achieve Martin Luther King's vision of dignity, respect and fair compensation for all of our workers. Strengthening food workers' movements reflect a new generation influenced by King, further proof of his profound, ongoing legacy.