Honoring Labor Unions in the Fight Against Hunger

Honoring Labor Unions in the Fight Against Hunger

As May arrives and the global north bursts into full bloom, we stop to recognize a date that carries profound significance for millions worldwide: May 1st, International Workers' Day, also known as May Day. While many may associate May with sowing seeds and spring planting, this day holds a much deeper meaning rooted in the struggle for workers' rights and the fight to end poverty. 

The origins of May Day can be traced back to the Haymarket Affair of May 4, 1886, in Chicago. During a peaceful protest advocating for an eight-hour workday, a bomb was thrown, leading to tragic consequences, and igniting violent clashes between police and demonstrators. This event became a catalyst for the international labor movement and a symbol of the struggle for workers' rights. The historical importance of May Day and the struggle towards economic justice is integral to WhyHunger’s mission to end hunger. 

At the heart of May Day celebrations is the recognition of workers' rights. Labor unions have long been at the forefront of advocating for fair wages, safe working conditions, and the right to organize. Unfortunately, economic injustice persists in various sectors including the food system, where eighty-six percent of jobs in the U.S. offer wages at or below the poverty level. In addition to low wages, many workers also experience inadequate benefits, underemployment, and limited economic opportunities. This means that the people who grow, pick, and process our nation's food cannot afford to nourish themselves. 

Over the last decade, increasing income inequality, concerns about workplace conditions, and a growing desire among workers to have a stronger voice in decisions that affect their lives has driven more workplaces to embrace unionization. And in 2019, the movement finally extended to the emergency food system when more than 100 employees (about half of all employees) at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank voted overwhelmingly to form a union with representation by Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 29. By addressing economic injustices and promoting social equity within the workplace, unionizing creates pathways for employees to achieve food security and thrive. The negotiation between the SF-Marin Food Bank and the union resulted in a contract that brought about several positive changes including a yearly pay increase of 3%, a floating holiday, and a boot stipend for warehouse workers. The union's presence has also encouraged proactive management decisions, leading to additional benefits such as pay equity raises. 

In 2023, Alameda County Community Food Bank followed suit, becoming the second large emergency food provider to unionize. With over 80% of participating employees voting yes, the decision to unionize was driven by a desire among workers across various positions, from warehouse associates to program coordinators, to address issues of equity, increase pay, and foster solidarity within the organization. And just a few months later, it was reported that workers have already observed greater unity and dialogue among staff since launching the union bid. 

As the movement to unionize workplaces gains momentum, we stand in solidarity with workers seeking fair treatment and equitable opportunities, recognizing that collective action is essential for creating lasting change and ending hunger within our communities. 

To bring about the change we seek, WhyHunger and our partners have established Closing the Hunger Gap (CTHG), a network of organizations and individuals working to expand hunger relief efforts beyond food distribution towards strategies that promote justice. This includes advocating for thriving wages and safe, fair working conditions for all staff and workers in anti-hunger and hunger relief organizations. Made up of primarily emergency food providers and allied grassroots food access organizations, the network works to model our commitment to economic justice. In 2022, CTHG launched Next Shift, a narrative change campaign focused on challenging the food banking and anti-hunger community to look internally at our own systems and practices that perpetuate economic injustice within our sector. In 2022, CTHG hosted a public popular unionizing webinar sponsored by the Next Shift, a narrative change campaign focused on challenging the food banking and anti-hunger community to look internally at our own systems and practices that perpetuate economic injustice within our sector. “The change starts with us,” said Alison Cohen, an independent consultant supporting hunger relief organizations and the panel moderator. Over 100 listeners from across the country tuned in as Emily Citraro and Marchon Tatmon from the San Francisco Marin Food Bank and Nati Kahsay, an organizer at OPEIU (Office and Professional Employees International Union) shared their story. 

Regardless of occupation or industry, people around the world join hands on May 1st to show solidarity with the labor movement and to amplify the voices of those fighting for dignity and respect in the workplace. These stories serve as a testament to the transformative power of union organizing in addressing economic injustice and creating positive change within the workplace. And they are not the only ones. Last fall 

The United Auto Workers strike made headlines as workers across several major automakers walked off the job and demanded better wages, benefits, and job security. The strike highlighted the ongoing struggle between labor and management in the auto industry, resulting in significant concessions from the companies involved to address the workers' concerns. This historic win has even resulted in non-union workers in the industry seeing a bump in pay

Through collective bargaining, unions negotiate for living wages that provide workers with financial stability and purchasing power, reducing the risk of food insecurity among employees. As we celebrate this year, let us not forget the true meaning behind this day: a recognition of workers' rights, solidarity, and the ongoing struggle for economic justice. May Day provides an opportunity to reflect on these achievements and to recommit to the ongoing struggle for fair and just working conditions for all. 

At WhyHunger, we remain steadfast in our commitment to ending poverty and injustice, and we stand in solidarity with workers everywhere in their fight for a brighter future. Join us as we continue to build a just world where every individual can afford to put nutritious food on their table and is treated with dignity, respect, and fairness in the workplace.

Happy May Day!