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Food Justice and Worker Organization: An Interview with Luigi Rinaldi, Industrial Workers of the World

Interview with Luigi Rinaldi - Theory in Action, Vol. 7, No. 4, October 2014, reposted by Providence IWW

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Q: First off, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview, Luigi. This issue of Theory in Action is centered on food justice and sustainability. For a lot of people, food justice cannot be coherently separated from the experiences of workers in the food industry and, I think, if we mean the term “sustainability” in its most widely applicable way, that also means looking at how people’s lives and livelihoods are made unsustainable by our dominant institutions. I know your union, the Industrial Workers of the World, over the last few years has had various campaigns in food service. Can you start by briefly outlining the economic situation of workers in the food industry? Why should people be concerned with the plight of food industry workers?

Luigi Rinaldi (LR): Thank you for the opportunity to talk about these issues! I would say that it is impossible to talk about food justice without touching on capitalism and, therefore, the class relation. Workers in the food industry, throughout the whole process – from farm to restaurant – are in a situation that leaves them extremely precarious. Now, I’m primarily going to focus on the food service end of things, because that’s the part of the industry I’ve worked in, but there’s a lot to be said for the production side and the supply chain as well. The work isn’t the same, but the conditions that it creates are similar.

What you have is a very precarious and low wage industry. You can expect to hold a job for less than a year and to earn less than ten dollars an hour. My previous workplace, a café and bakery, had about 90% turnover in a year… I would say that is low for most of the industry, especially when you get into fast food. Contrary to the popular image, most of these workers are not teenagers, but adults trying to eke out a living. They are fathers and mothers who often have to work two or three jobs, because in the food industry full time employment is rare, and even with full time employment the wages are too low to get by on. The work conditions are often unsanitary and you are subject to harsh and arbitrary discipline. There should be concern about this industry because it’s one of the fastest growing, at least here in the United States. It’s already one of the largest private sector employers and while job growth for the rest of the economy is around 1.5 or 2%, food service is growing at a rate nearly double that. The industry is expected to add 1.3 million jobs to the economy over the next decade. With the decline of many manufacturing and even professional jobs from our economy in the United States, look at where there’s job growth: that’s where you’ll be applying.

Q: Yes, one of the long term political economic trends here in the United States has been deindustrialization, or the outward migration of older, often unionized manufacturing jobs. So, the rise in the various service industries (including food service) has, indeed, provided some recovered “lost” jobs, but often at the price of a unionized workforce and along with that a decent living for the workers in these industries. Recently, there’s been a lot of interest in the “Fight for Fifteen” campaign as a way to address this state of affairs. From your perspective, what are the particular strengths and weaknesses in that campaign?

(LR): I think “Fight For Fifteen” presents itself as a serious challenge, and for radicals and for members of my union, the IWW, it has to be taken seriously. It’s really evident that it at least has some traction… Undoubtedly it’s mobilized thousands of these low wage workers and it presents as a militant movement. Its one-day strikes have got peoples’ jobs back, and I’ve even heard small wage increases have already happened at a lot of the targeted locations — though far from the $15 an hour they are demanding. Tied to a weakness, they use community pressure to plug holes — to show numbers at shops where they are weakest, which is a good use of tactics. This is exciting, it’s something younger people like myself haven’t really seen. When we’ve been involved with workplace organizing, it’s mostly been small to mid-sized struggles. Now we’re seeing mass mobilizations, which gives us the opportunity to learn some new things, but we should be careful of how we interact with FF15 precisely because of its weaknesses.

Although it’s a militant movement — as in, they are willing to use many of the confrontational, direct action tactics that radicals are always proscribing — it is a militant reformist movement, one that doesn’t seek to overcome capitalism, but may in fact be trying to save it. This ties into some of the weakness I’ve observed, both here in Rhode Island, and as I’ve followed FF15 around the United States. First, let’s look at who is running the show. For the most part, it’s organizations like the Service Employees International Union, which is an incredibly bureaucratic and undemocratic union even by business union standards. The result has been, even though we see mass mobilization, that worker participation is minimal — the decisions and life of the campaigns are staff driven. Another weakness I perceive is that, although their slogan was “$15 and a union” the second part of that has been quickly put to the sidelines — SEIU, at least for the moment, doesn’t have an interest in forming unions in food service, they have an interested in putting public pressure on the Democratic Party, their allies in the State, to attempt to push through new minimum wage legislation. By using the enthusiasm of poor working class people in the industry, their rallying cry of $15 an hour makes the Democrats $10.10 an hour seem “reasonable.” This is all very dangerous, because if the results SEIU wants aren’t achieved, I don’t think it’s out of the question that they will pack up and leave these workers behind.

Q: You describe SEIU as a “business union” and mention its bureaucratization. Can you explain for readers who are unfamiliar with the terminology what you mean by a “business union” and how other worker organizations might differ from that model? Where does your union, the Industrial Workers of the World, fit into this and how might workers in the food industry—all along the production chain—benefit from involving themselves with it?

(LR): Of course. “Business union” is a term that is used in many radical circles, including in the IWW, mainly to describe the unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the Change to Win federation (SEIU is a part of CTW). There are also some independent unions that would likely fit under this umbrella term, but they are largely minor in comparison to these larger organizations — they do, however, tend to be more democratic in practice and vision if they are unaffiliated. Essentially, a business union is one that treats its operation like just that — a business. Their aim is to make money, which means getting dues paying members. In their model, the only way to do this is through establishing a collective bargaining agreement, a contract, with the employer. In doing this, although they are almost never legally obligated to do so outside of the public sector, they sacrifice the right to strike for the duration of their contracts. Since workers are their paying customers they provide a service to them, that is, they service their contract through paid staff who deal with grievance processes and other bureaucratic operations. You see, because they are a service organization they tend to focus on workers’ rights, as defined by labor laws and contracts with employers, instead of workers’ power within a shop. The presence of the union is very small most of the time, though people are mobilized every few years around political action or contract negotiations. Although they pretend to be apolitical, they are actually very politically connected with the Democratic Party. I think those are all reasons to be critical of these organizations, but not to dismiss them outright. They are big players and when they are in motion, well, things move. That’s why I say don’t ignore FF15, but think carefully about how you’re going to involve yourself — are you a bird dog for the union staffers or are you helping to develop working class power for itself?

Q: What food worker campaigns is the IWW currently involved in? What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of your own campaigns?

(LR): The IWW has been involved in food service for a while. Probably the most well-known campaign has been the ongoing one at Starbucks. This campaign was started in New York City about ten years ago and has since spread across the nation. It’s gone through ups and downs, as any drive does, but it is definitely still kicking. A fellow IWW in my branch volunteers with them a bit, they’re also a cafe worker, and they told me Starbucks Workers Union gets contacts around the country all the time. I believe SWU currently has around 300 members. Another public campaign is at Pizza Hut, which is being conducted by our British section. Several years ago the Twin Cities branch organized at a sandwich chain called Jimmy Johns, which attempted to win a National Labor Relations Board election. They lost, but the results were thrown out by the NLRB, so now they are continuing the organizing without NLRB. Recently in Gainesville, Florida, a small grocery store called the Citizens Co-op went public with over 2/3 of the staff joining the IWW, they’re currently fighting against the mass firings that ensued. In my branch we had two organizing campaigns, both at cafes. I worked at one of these and was involved for about a year. These campaigns never went “public” and have since ended, but we learned a lot and are going on to new and hopefully better campaigns.

In the IWW we tend to use a model of organizing called “solidarity unionism,” a phrase coined by labor activist Staughton Lynd, the emphasis of this model is on workers showing solidarity with each other to gain power in our workplaces. It stresses democratic organization and relationship building, but it also stresses politics. There is a saying that goes, “you are the union.” We try to take that to heart, and I think this is a strength. We try to prioritize the qualitative growth of our organizers, which then will lead to the quantitative growth of our union. But the IWW is far from perfect… In some cases IWW organizing drives have paralleled any other union drives and we become a volunteer service organization with red and black flags instead of purple and gold (SEIU’s colors). There is definitely a fear that people will be “imposing” themselves by organizing explicitly IWW unions, with IWW politics, and as a result we don’t see growth where we should or we miss out on opportunities to make headway into workplaces or industries. And while the IWW typically tries to avoid the bureaucracy of the state, some campaigns do get tied in fights over Unfair Labor Practices and NLRB elections. These are dangerous and disarming, putting the struggle in the field of lawyers and professionals, instead of in the hands of workers. One good development has been that the IWW does not allow no strike clauses in its contracts anymore. Oh, and another positive is the possibility of staying on with the union after the job — you can work anywhere and be in the IWW, I think this gives the IWW an advantage that it needs to take seriously, especially when engaging in food service organizing. Many people think it’s temporary, which is true for some, but it gives people an opportunity to be life-long revolutionaries.

Q: Recently, I ate at a cooperative cafe/bookshop in Baltimore called “Red Emma’s,” named after the somewhat infamous labor organizer and rabble-rouser, Emma Goldman (not coincidentally, also one of my favorite writers and historical figures). The workers there explained to me that their cooperative is an IWW union shop. How many food-related union shops are organized with the IWW that you know of and where are they located? And how do the politics of self-managed, cooperative shops figure into your labor strategy around food service?

(LR): Aside from Red Emma’s, there’s also Red and Black Cafe in Portland, OR; North Country Food Alliance in Minneapolis, MN; Just Coffee Cooperative in Madison, WI; and at the Central Co-op in Seattle, WA there is both an IWW and UFCW presence in the shop. There could be more, but these are the ones I could remember off the top of my head. The IWW and cooperatives have a long history together. There have been a lot of them affiliated with the union over the years, and there are a lot today — namely in the printing industry. But, there’s been a lot of contention around them. You see, there is a critique out there that cooperatives tend to be very insular, very white, very middle class. And this is true to a degree. Within the IWW, they also tend not to interact with the broader organization or with social movements generally. Not all of them, of course. Another issue is, what do they do for us tactically or strategically? I don’t think we can out-compete capital by forming our own businesses that run on the market, but democratically. For better or for worse, we have to confront the power of the bosses in capitalist industry with our own power as workers.

I have thought a lot about how to use cooperatives to further class struggle, and I do think there is some utility in them. I’m just sort of throwing this idea out there, but cooperatives would be a good way to help out those who aren’t hire-able. By this I mean, we should have means to support people who are essentially blacklisted due to their union activity or for our comrades in prison who will have a hard time finding employment when they get out. They could also be places for people to pick up work in between jobs or organizing drives. Basically, I would like to see them serve the movement to organize against capitalism in a real, material way.

Q: It sounds as if the IWW has an interesting strategy for workplace organizing, but surely people might also put these practices to use in their communities. Do you have any suggestions for how people might organize in their communities around issues of food and/or environmental justice?

(LR): Absolutely, I think what could broadly be called “syndicalism” is applicable in a lot of situations that aren’t just “workplace” — after all, it is important to recognize the changing political economy around us in regards to precariousness and unemployment, and also to have a politics that address broader issues of everyday life. Again, these thoughts are my own, but something of interest of might be the idea of “self-reduction of prices.” You see, in the 1970s in Italy there was a big revolutionary movement called autonomia, and one of the things they did would be to organize neighborhoods around making life, well, livable. They would impose their demands on supermarkets (they also did this in regards to rent and utilities). Like, large groups of people would go to the market, fill their cart with food, and say something to the effect of “we’re getting a 25% discount today, you don’t have a choice.” They did something similar to this in Spain somewhat recently and anarchists in Greece have been known to expropriate food from markets and distribute it for free. Maybe not everyone is in a situation where they can do that, maybe these sorts of things need to take place in a situation where there is sort of a heightened level of struggle, with lots of mass fights going on over various grievances. I don’t know. But it’s a thought and I’ve always thought it was a good idea to strive for.

Of course there are probably much simpler things. Creating communal gardens even or creating organization from the bottom up, like real neighborhood associations (the ones in Providence tend to be junior partners in gentrification) that act as mutual aid societies. The Black Panthers used to do free breakfast for kids. I study history in school so I tend to like to look at examples that other groups have done, it can give us an idea or a kernel that we can develop a better idea from. If we create tenant associations using syndicalist methods, bottom-up organization, to win demands around our rent, why not look at our food security or pressuring the city to make our environments safer for our families? A friend of mine in Worcester, MA was doing organizing around some environmental issues with youths. He told me the ground soil there is so polluted it’s practically unsafe just to live in the city. That’s crazy to me even though Providence probably isn’t much different. Environmental issues seem to be really big issues to me, way bigger, in some cases, than food justice. I think right now we have at least an apparatus for distributing food if we made efforts to make it work better (I say better because I don’t think it will ever work perfectly and it’s really going to take revolutionary social change to get most of the work done probably), but we don’t have the same sort of apparatus for keeping ecosystems from collapsing. I wish I had more of an answer to that, but I will say the response will likely need to be an international movement.

Q: Most of the readers of this special issue will likely be broadly sympathetic to the IWW’s politics, particularly around the plight of food workers. Is there anything else you’d like to leave folks with or specific ways that people might support your ongoing organizing?

(LR): I think the best way people can support my organizing and the organizing of the IWW more broadly is to fight around the issues that make sense for their own lives. Sometimes that means a workplace struggle, sometimes that will mean struggle in and with the IWW, but not always and that’s okay. I think an issue generally with radicals is looking for where the hot issue is so they go there, but what about right where you are? Fight where you’re at, fight where it has meaning for you and material connection to your life and that of your kin and those around you. If we can start to do that I think we’ll start to be able to find more solutions to our problems.

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