Organic Labor


Even the weakest area of the movement’s evolution-farm labor-is at last making gains. Jim Cochran, an organic strawberry grower near Santa Cruz, California, is a leader in pushing the movement to get this part right. He is the first organic farmer to sign a United Farm Workers Union contract with those who labor on his farm. It provides wages of $8 to $12 an hour, medical and dental care, a pension plan, and paid vacations. “Farmers need to see that it can be done,” he said. “We need to go from saying ‘I’m doing the best I can’ to realizing that we should do more.”

Michael Sligh, a third-generation farmer and the founding chairman of the National Organic Standards board, heads a coalition of farmers, farmworker advocacy groups, and others that is developing a social justice label for organic production. The foods will carry a sticker certifying that the producer meets the standards of fair treatment for workers, which includes providing decent wages, health care, and the right to unionize.

Like fair trade labels and the organic label itself, the social justice sticker will educate consumers, literally bringing home the message that labor issues are central to the very concept of “organic.” Not only can social justice labeling help workers, but it will also help to distinguish the participating farmers from the Wal-Marts that are trying to muscle in on the organic trade.

The giants want to claim that their products are organic, even if they’re grown in China under abominable labor conditions. The justice stickers up the ante on the global conglomerates, setting a standard of wholesomeness that their business model won’t let them even try to achieve. It puts more power in the hands of consumers to shape the economy. As Sligh said, “Every time we go to the grocery store, we’re choosing what kind of food system we want.”

Excerpted from Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow, by Jim Hightower with Susan DeMarco, published by John Wiley & Sons.