Power to the People: How Worker-led Movements are Changing the United States Dairy Industry
By Anna Canning
Hidden behind the glossy images of green pastures, pristine black and white cows, and red barns, there’s a crisis in the dairy industry. As a decades-long push to “get big or get out” has transformed the landscape, those red barns are a vanishing relic of the past. The winners of this transformation — and industrialization — of dairy are just a handful of big food companies. And the losers? The rest of us.
Here’s how it works: Corporate purchasing practices squeeze farmers, with low and volatile milk prices driving down earnings. And that, in turn, pressures farmers to keep workers’ wages low and to cut corners on proper housing and safety equipment. It’s a race to the bottom to churn out more and cheaper milk at a high cost to the people and animals involved.
Like most farm work in the United States, this hard, dangerous work is overwhelmingly performed by immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented. The days are long, with shifts commonly stretching 12-14 hours, often six days per week. The industry is dominated by men, yet women face unique challenges, including lower pay, fewer job opportunities, and the threat of gender-based violence. And despite the risks, from aggressive cows or from chemicals, the pay is low. Yet these workers’ labour fuels plenty of profit for those at the top of supply chains
Farmworkers in the United States have long been over-exploited and under-protected. And that’s not by accident. The legacies of plantation agriculture and chattel slavery continue to shape the global food system. In the United States, much of the law that defines worker protections was written during the New Deal era and those laws specifically excluded farmworkers (as well as domestic workers) — workers who were disproportionately Black when these laws were first developed in the 1930s. As part of a compromise with Southern legislators, farmworkers were deliberately omitted from critical federal legislation establishing minimum wages, overtime pay, and protections for the right to organize. In the words of one researcher, this exclusion “was well-known to be a race-neutral cover for maintaining the domination of white supremacy in the South and excluding Black workers from labour law’s protection”.
While the demographics of U.S. farm labour have changed in the past century, the foundation remains the same. The labour and expertise of farmworkers continues to be devalued, even as companies profit from their labour. Just how stark that distinction is has been clear in recent months. Greek yogurt maker Chobani recently filed for an IPO valued at $10 billion. News coverage of the IPO often mentions Chobani’s commitment to the people who work for their company, their support for immigrants, and the stock they’ve given to workers. But what the news doesn’t mention is the years-long campaign for justice by the people who milk the cows in their supply chains.
Fair World Project’s For a Better World podcast has had the honour of speaking with some of the people organizing for better conditions and human rights in the dairy industry. And one thing is clear: while the industrial agriculture system is built on centuries of exploitation, there is a centuries-long legacy of resistance too. Workers are organizing and bringing innovative tactics and strategies to address the root causes of the issues in their workplaces — and the wider food system.
In New York, workers tending the cows whose milk flows into Chobani’s supply chains have been calling on the yogurt maker to meet with them and to take responsibility for working conditions in their supply chains. Organizing with the Workers’ Center of Central New York, those workers won historic victories — changing laws in New York state to win higher minimum wages as well as protections for union organizing and overtime that too many farmworkers nationwide lack. Yet Chobani continues to ignore their calls to negotiate and instead has gone their own way, working with Fair Trade USA to develop a “fair trade dairy” label, without the participation or support of the very workers it claims to benefit. In the words of organizer Crispin Hernandez of Workers’ Center of Central New York, "We've spoken with workers on several of the farms participating in this program and without fail they are all confused about the program — how it works, who's running it, what their rights and benefits are, and how to get more information. Meanwhile, working conditions and housing issues have not changed. We haven't seen any benefit to workers."
Too often, workers’ calls for justice are met with false solutions, like this label, that try to rebrand the status quo as ethical, and distract the solidarity efforts of all who seek a fair food system. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Through their own organizing, dairy workers in New York have won new laws and legal protections that are the same or greater than those promised by the “fair trade dairy” label. And in Vermont, dairy workers organizing with the group Migrant Justice created the Milk with Dignity program, breaking new ground by incorporating worker protection requirements into binding contracts to hold corporations accountable for human rights in their supply chains. Ben & Jerry’s is the first brand to sign onto the Milk with Dignity Program. To sell to them, farms must meet a range of worker-driven standards for dignified work and quality housing. The critical difference between this program and so many corporate social responsibility initiatives is that here, workers are the frontline defenders of their own human rights.
The Milk with Dignity program is making a real change in people’s daily lives. “Workers have been organizing on farms under the program for more things,” says Marita Canedo of Migrant Justice. “More wages without fear of retaliation, housing improvements. Some farms have been able to bring new housing and repair the old housing conditions.” Canedo also says that workers have been able to touch on another important topic, which until now wasn’t often spoken about: the issue of sexual harassment.
Gender-based violence is far too common on farms. A 2010 study of women working on farms in California’s Central Valley found that 80% of them had experienced sexual harassment on the job. Yet the Milk with Dignity program, and similar Worker-Driven Social Responsibility programs, are seeing tremendous changes on participating farms. By addressing the long-standing power imbalances at the root of exploitation, gender-based violence, as well as other abuses, can become a thing of the past.
The exploitation of working people is fundamentally a question of power. The dairy industry, and the industrial food system as a whole, is built on treating the people who feed us all as exploitable and disposable, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown all too clearly. Changing those dynamics requires more than crafting a list of rules. It means shifting the balance of power from one that favours corporations and profit to one that prioritizes people, their rights, and humanity.
Anna Canning is Fair World Project’s Campaign Manager, where she works to build a more fair food system through corporate campaigns. She also co-hosts the podcast “For a Better World,” telling the stories behind everyday foods and lifting up the stories of workers, farmer leaders, and advocates building a better world. She has over 15 years of experience working all along the supply chain for fair trade companies in the natural foods industry and brings this hands-on experience to her analysis and a passion for challenging power by changing the stories we tell.