Five Questions with Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer for the AFL-CIO

Elizabeth Shuler

Food Tank, in partnership with the George Washington University, is hosting the 1st Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington D.C. on January 21-22, 2015.

This two-day event will feature more than 75 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policy makers, government officials, and students will come together for panels on topics including food waste, urban agriculture, family farmers, farm workers, and more.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer for the AFL-CIO, who will be speaking at the summit.

(FT): What will your message be at the Food Tank Summit?

(LS): In 1904, Upton Sinclair worked undercover in Chicago meat-packing plants. What he encountered was the basis of his great novel, The Jungle, revealing the abuse and exploitation of immigrant workers in the industry. Public reaction forced federal measures to make food safer—but not conditions for workers.

In December of 2014, 110 years later, a Los Angeles Times series exposed the abuse and exploitation of Mexican farmworkers who work to put produce on American tables. Companies that profit from their work have done little, the series reported, to “enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections, such as clean housing and fair pay practices.”

Even though it’s been 110 years since Sinclair investigated meatpacking in Chicago’s stockyards, the United States food system continues to include some of the nation’s most dangerous and poorly paid occupations. Proposals for international trade agreements threaten governments’ ability to make and enforce laws regarding food safety. And the entire U.S. regulatory system that keeps workers and food safe is under attack.

America’s unions represent workers in every part of the food system—from the farmworkers who pick the tomatoes, to the grocery clerks who ring up their sales, and the restaurant workers who slice them into salads. For more than a century, we have fought to improve their jobs and strengthen their voice at work through collective bargaining and advocacy. We’ve had many successes, but the struggles go on, and in some ways are more intense today than ever.  

My remarks at the Food Tank Summit will provide an overview of worker issues in the food system, and demonstrate that improving the system will require improving conditions for workers.

FT: How are you contributing to building a better food system?

LS: AFL-CIO unions represent workers throughout the food system—farm workers, meat cutters, poultry workers, restaurant workers, grocery workers, workers who transport food products, food safety inspectors, and others. These are hard jobs, career jobs, and the workers in them want to do them well. Their working conditions are everyone else’s eating conditions—think about the effects of whether food workers have earned sick days and health care, for example. What union workers win at the bargaining table has a direct effect on what we all put on the dinner table. 

Jobs in many of these fields pay low wages and are among the most dangerous in the nation, with threats ranging from exposure to pesticides in fields where produce is harvested, to backbreaking labor in food processing plants. The AFL-CIO, our member unions, and allies have fought for decades to enact and strengthen laws and regulations protecting the workers’ safety and health. This fight has intensified as the entire U.S. regulatory system has come under attack from corporate interests and right-wing extremist legislators.

Many undocumented immigrants work in these areas and are especially vulnerable to workers’ rights violations, such as wage theft and lack of adequate safety and health protections. Unscrupulous employers often respond to complaints about working conditions and attempts to form unions by simply threatening to call in immigration officials.  The AFL-CIO is a leading advocate for comprehensive immigration reform with a clear path to citizenship so immigrant workers can come out of the shadows. In the face of congressional gridlock on a comprehensive approach, we have urged the Obama administration to provide relief from deportation and the opportunity to apply for work authorization. The recent executive orders on immigration will afford millions of workers the status to assert their rights on the job and will improve standards for food production in the process.

Through the AFL-CIO’s work on international trade, we seek to ensure that trade deals don’t interfere with governments’ ability to legislate and regulate in the public’s interest. This means:

- Food safety standards should be strengthened—or at the very least not weakened—by international trade agreements. Trade agreements should never be vehicles for reducing the safety of the food we eat.

- The choice to engage in local purchasing, which supports local farmers and others in local food industries, should remain with local purchasing authorities and not be set by international trade agreements.

- The World Trade Organization should respect the choices of governments about how to source food for hungry people.

FT: What are the biggest obstacles or challenges you face in achieving your organization's goals?

LS: Most of what was previously mentioned: Lack of public awareness around working conditions, and their connection to the food we eat; trade policies that weaken standards; political and legislative policies that undermine enforcement of our laws;

FT: Who is your food hero and why?

LS: Since I’m not as immersed in the food movement as much as most participants, the first person that comes to mind is fairly obvious: First Lady Michelle Obama. She made the issue of childhood obesity and making healthy food choices an every day topic. The visibility she’s provided to issues around access to fresh food, sustainability, local sourcing, etc. has been remarkable. I was also tremendously impacted by the film “Forks Over Knives” and admire the way Rip Esselstyn has taken his father’s plant-based crusade and made it accessible to people – and the fact that he’s a former fire fighter and public servant is a natural labor connection! 

FT: In 140 characters or fewer, what is the most important thing we can all do to help change the food system?

LS: Recognize the importance of workers who grow, harvest, process, distribute & prepare our food.

The event is SOLD OUT, but interested participants can sign up for the live-stream HERE. Or JOIN US for dinner and a reception to celebrate Food Tank's two-year anniversary on January 21st at 5:30pm EST. This event will also sell out fast, REGISTER NOW.