By Kevin Robbins
In 1996 La Via Compesina introduced the concept of “Food Sovereignty” at the World Food Summit. The idea behind food sovereignty is that sustainable, healthy and culturally suitable food is a human right, and that the food system needs to prioritize the rights and needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume food over market demands and corporate interests.
Food sovereignty unites farmers, consumers, migrants, landless peasants, and food system workers in common cause. (Photo credit: ILWU)
Food sovereignty unites farmers, consumers, migrants, landless peasants, and food system workers in common cause. It is not just about how our food is grown, but about how it is picked, processed, sold, transported, and eaten.
Last week the organization Family Farm Defenders declared its solidarity with a worker rights fight in Longview, Washington, reminding us of the link food sovereignty creates between food rights and worker’s rights: “One of the underlying principles of food sovereignty is that ALL workers deserve a living wage, dignified working conditions, and the right to organize. This guarantee extends to everyone working in the food/farm system—not just farmers and farmworkers, but also meatpackers, retail clerks, restaurant servers, truck drivers, and dockworkers.
The catalyst of this declaration was a dispute between union, grain-processing dock workers who are members of the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Local 21 and EGT, operator of a new grain terminal and joint venture of Bunge North America (a large, international agribusiness with operations ranging from the farm to retail), ITOCHU (a Japanese trading firm), and STX Pan Ocean (a South Korean shipping company) .
After EGT built a US $200 million, state-of-the-art grain terminal in the Port of Longview—the first built in over two decades—it tried to employ workers that were not members of the ILWU. The ILWU’s contract with the Port of Longview states, however, that all dock work be done by members of their union.
All grain-related dock work on the West Coast is performed by ILWU members and their unity and strength has earned them high wages and good benefits. EGT had hoped to operate the first non-ILWU port in eight decades. Critics feared that this would have created the opportunity to provide inferior pay, benefits, and working conditions, opening the door for lower standards up and down the coast.
When EGT broke off negotiations with the ILWU and partnered with a contractor to hire workers who were not members of the ILWU, union members organized pickets, demonstrations, and work stoppages. Over 100 workers and members of their families were arrested.
Tensions intensified as the first scheduled boat delivery of grain approached. The ILWU planned massive peaceful demonstrations, other dissidents like the Occupy Movement threatened direct action to stop the delivery, and the Coast Guard, along with several other law enforcement agencies, was instructed to escort the cargo.
With the help of Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, a tentative agreement was reached and announced on Monday. ILWU President Robert McEllrath said, “This is a win for the ILWU, EGT, and the Longview community. I want to thank Governor Gregoire for her leadership in working with both parties to find common ground. The ILWU has eight decades of grain export experience in the Northwest, and we look forward to the opportunity to develop a positive working relationship with EGT.”
The agreement is a positive step for worker’s rights and for the food sovereignty movement that unites farmers, workers, and consumers worldwide.
Kevin Robbins is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
To read more about food, agriculture, and unions worldwide: Real Food, Real Jobs: An Interview with Chris Bohner, Snapshots from the Field, Fighting for Farmworkers’ Rights for More Than 40 Years, and Giving Farm Workers a Voice.