Student Unions

Fair Food Project logo

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This carrot-wielding fist appears on the website housing “Fair Food: Field to Table” a multimedia presentation created by the Fair Food Project in cooperation with the California Institute for Rural Studies. The project draws on a visual iconography of labor and political activism as part of its educational outreach to university students. It also aims at turning students into educators with its three-part multimedia presentation and associated resources. More about the project,including video, after the jump.

Anyone who reads much about food culture or food politics has likely come across Barry Estabrook’s article (published last March in Gourmet, the now defunct food magazine at which he was a contributing editor) “Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes”  (I ran across the story and Estabrook’s new endeavor on Mark Bittman’s Bitten blog a few months back). Estabrook’s article focuses on enslaved migrant tomato harvesters in Florida and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers,a modern day (and East Coast) inheritor of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers mantle, that is working to protect these men and women from abuse. The Fair Food Project includes Immokalee workers along with farm workers from California and other US locations. Part one addresses the plight of enslaved and abused farm workers. Part two profiles several farms around the nation with sustainable labor practices. Here is part three, “The Advocates”:


Along with the website’s suggested reading list—including historical, fictional and photographic accounts of “Okie” migrant workers who made Californian agriculture possible during the nineteen-thirties—the Project’s visual iconography reveals a conscious sense of its own historical position(the Marxist in me wants to say “its historical struggle”). The worker’s raised fist graphically links the Fair Food Project to the long history of international labor movements, and the substitution of a carrot for the more traditional hammer or wrench makes a visual argument about the solidarity of farm workers with labor’s more traditional realm of industry. While some people may be most familiar with the fist icon through its later development in Socialist Realism,  it has a long history of use by labor movements in this country, particularly in the political imagery of the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies. The Wobblies’ political aim and motto—“One Big Union”—is graphically represented in this 1917 poster that prominently features farm workers (note the pitchfork) alongside their industrial counterparts.


IWW poster

Image Credit: "One Big Union" by Ralph "Bingo" Chaplin

The most interesting thing about the Fair Food Project is the way that it embraces and expands on this image of solidarity. While positioning itself squarely within the international and domestic history of labor movements, the Fair Food Project overtly extends this solidarity to consumers. The Project’s website is aimed largely at university students and includes information about a number of organizations students can join to collectively bargain with the people and organizations who make food-purchasing decisions on college campuses (dining halls, fast food companies, etc.). They even provide resources to help students “unionize” at colleges where such organizations don’t already exist. I find this demand-side unionization a remarkably savvy strategy for challenging agri-business corporations and the modern food-production/distribution industry. By attempting to forge solidarity between the farm workers who grow the nation’s food and the consumers who often have little control over what food choices are made available to us, the Fair Food Project and its associated organizations are reconceptualizing the IWW's “One Big Union.”


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2013-2014 editor

Breaking the Union

Coye, this looks like compelling material--I wonder what kinds of issues are raised by food movements borrowing this political/labor connection.  Does it mean that food, along with the personal, is always political?  And what kinds of politics are being represented here?--I imagine most people would associate things like slow food, etc with an upwardly mobile class position, whereas traditional union movements have often been on behalf of dispossessed individuals.  Does that make this a kind of class appropriation?--or is Big Agra always in the bourgeois position?

means of production

I think a really interesting question is"Who or what counts as Bourgeoise?" or "What do we mean by Bourgoise?" If the term means nothing more than individuals of the upper or upper-middle classes, then class struggle is nothing more than vindictiveness or jealousy or (at best) an overdeveloped sense of fairness.

If, on the other hand, class struggle has to do with who controls the means of production-- and, in this country at this time, that especially includes the means of distribution and availability-- then workers and consumers share a legitimate struggle for the interests of their communities and their livelihoods. When nearly the entire food supply is controlled by AgriBusiness corporations, then food is definitely political, both for the workers who grow it in the fields and those who must have it to live (i.e. everyone). From this perspective, both workers and consumers have to compete against profit motive for their own best interests (so, of course, it's in the industry's interest to pit workers and consumers against each other to maximize profits).

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