By Anthony Pahnke
Rural Voices Correspondent, Wisconsin Farmers Union
According to the USDA, Americans spend less on food as a percent of their incomes than anyone else in the world.
This may seem like a good deal, especially for people who struggle to make ends meet.
The reality, however, is another.
In fact, our cheap food economy is really a crooked one, with family farmers and food system workers underwriting a system that disproportionately benefits corporations.
What’s brought this into focus more than ever is the pandemic, which has highlighted how the system cheats rural and urban working people out of a decent life.
Mario Ramirez, the lead organizer of the Voces de la Frontera Essential Workers Rights Network, notes how the responses to the pandemic from companies have been far from adequate with respect to addressing the problems that workers face in meatpacking plants.
“They treat workers like machines,” Ramirez says. “There were people, after raising concerns, who were fired and who worked there for fifteen or twenty years. They thought they were like family.”
Ramirez’s comments come after the Voces Essential Workers Rights Network helped claim $264,000 for workers who had been terminated at Strauss. The workers were fired after raising concerns over workplace conditions at the Strauss meatpacking facility located in Franklin, Wisconsin, outside of Milwaukee.
The conditions that were denounced at the Strauss plant are not unusual.
Meatpacking companies across the country have been consistently criticized since the pandemic began for failing to provide face masks, sufficient space between workers, and information on the nature of the disease.
Concerning pay, Ramirez notes that some workers received compensation for working under duress, but that it’s not enough.
“Workers risk their lives,” Ramirez emphasizes, “and they also have to pay rent, make car payments, support their kids, and so on.”
Average pay for frontline workers in the industry hovers around $15 an hour – far from a living wage for a family.
Farmers, too, have suffered from the effects of a pandemic.
Jim Briggs, a dairy farmer and member of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, notes how COVID-19 has shown that our consolidated food system needs change.
“With consolidation,” Briggs explains, “milk goes to just a handful of places to be processed. Then when one of the places shuts down in this pandemic, it throws a kink in the whole system. We wouldn’t have this problem if we had more processors for milk and beef.”
Briggs adds that farmers have been struggling, with restaurant and school closings making already volatile markets even more unpredictable, leaving many vulnerable to price dips and unable to pay off debts.
When asked about the financial relief from the government that farmers received in the aftermath of COVID-19, Briggs says, “It’s fine, but not enough. We wouldn’t need this if we had decent prices all year long.”
So, what’s keeping farmers and workers from receiving adequate pay?
In one word – margins.
Specifically, the difference between what farmers and workers are paid, and what companies sell their products for.
According to the National Farmers Union, farmers receive under $.15 for every food dollar that is spent.
“It’s disturbing to see corporations announce record profits, as some have in recent years, even as we’ve lost thousands of family farms,” said Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden.
So many risk so much because our food system is crooked, with power tilted towards the corporations at the top that rake in the profits instead of offering dignified pay and work conditions.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change the system so that pay and working conditions improve.
Besides providing a living wage for workers, as well as improved conditions and legal protections for those who raise complaints, farmers need a floor price for their products. Workers and farmers would both benefit from enforcing antitrust legislation, which would put the breaks on corporate consolidation.
This doesn’t mean that prices at the grocery would rise. No, what would happen is that corporations are made accountable to working people, sharing the risks and the rewards more evenly.
This pandemic has exposed critical weaknesses in our food system. Let’s work on addressing these issues so that essential workers are no longer treated as if they were disposable.
Anthony Pahnke is helping to elevate rural issues through Wisconsin Farmers Union’s Rural Voices project. He is the Vice President of Family Farm Defenders and an Assistant Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University. Learn more about Wisconsin Farmers Union and the Rural Voices project at www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com/ruralvoices.