Meet Jose Oliva of the Food Chain Workers Alliance

by Kate Johnson


The Food Chain Workers Alliance is a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members plant, harvest, process, pack, transport, prepare, serve, and sell food, organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all workers along the food chain. We chatted with Co-Director Jose Oliva about how he became involved in labor issues within the food industry, some of the biggest challenges the Alliance faces and how the Alliance’s work inspires a more sustainable food system at large.

Let’s start from the very beginning. Tell us about your background: How did you come into this work? What inspires you the most?

I came to this work because of the intersection between immigration, workers’ rights and food.  My story is not unique; it’s really the story of millions of economic or “food” refugees from Latin America. My grandfather was a young economist in Guatemala in the 1940s and he was caught up in the post WWII idealism. He joined students, workers, women’s organizations and civil society to establish the first democracy in Guatemala in 1944.

In 1950 he soon became the agriculture minister. After 10 short years of democracy, in 1954 a coup sponsored by the CIA overthrew the fledgling republic. The coup happened at the bequest of the United Fruit Company (UFC) because a new agrarian program was giving land to landless peasants, and Allen Dulles (CIA) was brother to John Foster Dulles, the CEO of UFC. The coup triggered a long and bloody civil war; in the context of the Cold War anyone who opposes the regime is branded a “communist.” Over 200,000 people were murdered and over 1,000,000 were displaced as refugees; my family was amongst these refugees. We came to the US after my mother, who was a school teacher, was accused of being a communist because she attempted to organize the parents from her school to demand running water and electricity in the schoolhouse.

Coming to the US wasn’t easy; there was no official refugee status for anyone fleeing the conflict, its consequences or causes. We were undocumented for almost 20 years. After being a teacher back in Guatemala her entire life, my mother ended up, like many immigrants, working in the restaurant industry. There, she worked hard for measly wages and was constantly sexually harassed. When I graduated high school and wanted to go to college I realized that as an undocumented immigrant I couldn’t access any scholarships or grants, so I started working in the restaurant industry throughout high school and college, paying for credit hours as I went.

My own experience in the restaurant industry, as well as my mother’s, led me to create a workers’ center in Chicago to help organize restaurant workers. Some workers called us to complain about horrible treatment at a fine dining restaurant. We immediately sprang to action bringing local pastors, media and community members to an impromptu march on the boss. When he first saw us he immediately kicked us out, so instead we started to march on the front door, telling customers what was happening as they entered and exited the restaurant. Within minutes the manager was outside trying to get us to stop, so we were finally able to negotiate an agreement with him that was good for the workers. I thought we’d invented a new model for organizing workers, until I met Saru Jayaraman from Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) and she explained how ROC has been winning agreements with restaurants for years.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, I decided to join Saru at ROC and help her form the national network that is now ROC United. At ROC, we realized that there was a new breed of food consumer out there. Our members consistently report that customers would ask about the food in ways they’d not seen before: “where was this chicken raised? Is this organic produce?” and so forth. This trend didn’t slow down in the subsequent years, and other food worker organizations, such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which organizes farm workers in Immokalee Florida, started to notice as well. This ultimately led to the creation of the FCWA.

How did the Food Chain Workers Alliance come to be?

In 2008, we decided to launch an alliance of food workers with the dual purpose of inserting workers into the ongoing discourse around food and to explore what a multi-sector campaign to improve the food system overall would look like.

With that mandate, and with lots of support from some local and national funders, we started to convene what we called a “food bloc conversation.” At the time, we didn’t know there was already another parallel effort underway, led by Navina Khanna. She was way ahead of us in the process of bringing together the distinct sectors of the food movement.

What are some of the biggest labor-related issues facing the food movement currently? Why are labor issues important to the food system as a whole? 

Core food occupations and industries include farmworkers (production), slaughterhouse and other processing facilities workers (processing), warehouse workers (distribution), grocery store workers (retail) and restaurant and food service workers (service). These particular segments employ over 20 million workers, or one in five private sector workers and one-sixth of the nation’s entire workforce. However, more than 86 percent of workers earn low or poverty wages. Ironically, food workers face higher levels of food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat, than the rest of the US workforce. In fact, food system workers use food stamps at double the rate of the rest of the US workforce. Food system workers also toil in environments with health and safety violations, long work hours with few breaks and lack of access to health benefits.

The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) believes in a truly sustainable food system, one that can provide healthy and locally made food, and that has the potential to lift up communities, workers and our shared environment.

Taken together, the size of the food industry and the low wages and bad conditions mean that the entire economy is being driven in the direction of “McJobs.” Our food system is in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations: in the meat sector alone eight corporations control over 60 percent of the market. This means these mega corporations wield extraordinary influence, not only on our culture through marketing and consumer campaigns, but also direct influence on lawmakers and other regulatory bodies through electoral campaign financing and lobbying.

Can you tell me more about your vision for the food system? What approaches do you employ to achieve this end?

The Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA) believes in a truly sustainable food system, one that can provide healthy and locally made food, and that has the potential to lift up communities, workers and our shared environment. A food system that is democratically controlled by communities would produce food that everyone needs to lead productive lives. To encourage a vibrant and sustainable local economy, food enterprises should be cooperatively owned. Taken together, this would lead to jobs with dignity, livable wages and meaning for workers — a food system that works for all.

In order to accomplish this we must band together in a multi-sector coalition that has transformational goals. This is why we co-convened the Health Environment Agriculture and Labor (HEAL) Food Alliance.  The HEAL Food Alliance has put forth a transformational 10-point platform informed by the wisdom of member-based organizations and advocates representing the people who make up our current food system:

  • Farm workers
  • Food chain workers
  • Rural and urban farmers, ranchers and fishers
  • Rural and urban food access organizers
  • Institutional food buyers
  • Agricultural and food researchers
  • Public health, economic development and federal policy advocates

To make the Real Food Platform a reality, we will use the following approaches:

Cross-community organizing: HEAL Food Alliance connects people across and among communities to learn from, share and build upon successful campaigns and policies that address health, environment, agriculture and labor.

Example: the “Good Food Purchasing Policy (GFPP)” — a municipal procurement policy framework that we are supporting in multiple regions.

Influencing elected officials: We will use the power of our collective membership to pressure elected officials and other decision makers to champion solutions that fix our food system. We will hold accountable those politicians and leaders who mislead the public or work against healthy, fair, affordable food or practices that protect the environment.

Example: HEAL’s partnership with Food Policy Action — which calls for a National Food Policy Agenda rooted in the Real Food Platform and championed by Congress members and presidential candidates.

Exposing bad actors and rewarding good actors: HEAL will expose businesses that abuse workers, small farmers, public health and the environment, and highlight businesses that adhere to the Real Food Platform.

How might fostering a coalition of worker-based organizations influence and inspire the sustainable food system at large?

The only counterbalance to corporate power in our society is worker and community power.  Through worker and community power we can change the rigged system that keeps bad food flowing into our communities. Worker-based organizations are in the best position in the food movement to identify strategies that shift the market, corporate behavior and public policies in the direction of good food (which includes livable wages and good working conditions).

What are some of the Alliance’s biggest successes?

One of our most notable achievements is simply inclusion. Five years ago, many of the spaces in the food movement had not yet come to the realization that workers ought to be an integral part of the movement. Today, this has changed. While there are still spaces that exclude workers or talk about workers without worker organizations present, most of the food movement actors now consistently engage worker organizations.

Additionally, FCWA has been on the forefront of building innovative programs, campaigns and coalitions. For instance, it was through our work at the LA Food Policy Council that the Good Food Purchasing Policy was pioneered and first implemented. We have now successfully passed GFPP in LA and San Francisco and are very close to adoption in Chicago and Oakland. We are also working to have the policy adopted in New York, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Madison.

The Food Chain Workers Alliance is certainly a leader in the food movement, and is very accomplished. How can consumers help to shape a more just food system?

Consumers hold a tremendous amount of power by buying products or eating at restaurants that pay livable wages and make other sustainable choices. However, the marketplace is crowded with claims of “good,” “sustainable” or “fair” products and establishments. The only way for consumers to be sure that a claim is not empty is to be in direct relationship with workers. FCWA can provide consumers with contacts at worker organizations that will help the consumer make the best choice of where and what to eat.

Stay up to date with the latest from Food Chain Workers Alliance!

Facebook: Food Chain Workers Alliance

Twitter: @foodchainworker & @foodandlabor

Instagram: @foodchainworkers


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