BY: MARCIA BROWN | 02/13/2023 05:01 AM EST
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than a million workers in everything from meatpacking plants to grocery stores, lost hundreds of its members to Covid-19 — an experience that revealed the stakes of the 2023 farm bill, says President Marc Perrone.
Last week, PRO spoke with Perrone, who outlined how his union plans to flex their political might during the negotiations over the half-trillion-dollar legislation, which is up for renewal this year.
Perrone’s perspective on the farm bill is informed not just by UFCW members, but by his own family history. His parents and grandparents were farmers and he worked in food retail before becoming involved in union leadership.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
PRO: Are there programs in the farm bill that you think could make life easier for your members? Or is there a new program that you’re imagining, some kind of relief program or assistance program?
Perrone: There was this, during the pandemic, Food and Farm Worker [Relief] Grant Program, which helped workers provide themselves with PPE. There was a pilot program within that program that also covered a very small portion of retail food workers. However, it certainly wasn’t large enough to cover all retail food workers.
But I do think that, as it relates to the farm bill, we think there should be fair labor standards in food procurement. We think that you know, that procurement should go to high-road companies that allow for freedom of association for workers, paying living wages, making sure that it’s a safe workplace because, quite honestly, a lot of our members work in some pretty dangerous locations.
If we were to condition contracts on labor standards, the federal government could lift standards for all workers in that industry and at the same time, making sure that we’ve got a safe and resilient food supply to nourish the nation.
This can be done administratively. We do support the current efforts that the federal government’s doing. However, we also know that these rules can be changed, you know, with the next administration. The USDA is the second largest purchaser of meat after the Defense Department. The federal government does have some control and should think about the impact on workers when they’re making these purchases and how employers — whatever the reason — comport themselves.
PRO: The vast majority of the spending in the farm bill is towards nutrition programs. How would cuts to the SNAP program or boost to the SNAP program affect your members and their communities?
Perrone: Well, I think our members, you know, 80 percent of the SNAP programs is really provided for through retail food stores. And those SNAP benefits are impactful to the hours of those workers, whether or not they’re union, it has an impact on the community in that particular way.
If people don’t have to pick and choose about whether or not they’re gonna get their children fed, I think it has other benefits within society. We would like to see an increase that would be available to people that really need the assistance and we’d also like to see that the purchasing program on the [SNAP] delivery systems wouldn’t be limited to just two suppliers. Because virtually [every grocery store] now has a food delivery system.
Initially, [SNAP online food purchasing] was listed through Amazon and Walmart. But in 36 states now, online food purchasing is the standard and it’s no longer a pilot. So members and workers from all aspects, any company that has a food delivery system could access it.
PRO: Are there any parts of the farm bill that you think could improve supply chain resiliency?
Perrone: Probably the biggest thing is in health and safety.
A lot of that could really be covered through a connection to worker safety in that farm bill … so that it can be done in conjunction with other parts of the federal government to ensure that there was adequate workers safety, especially during the stress times … to make sure that we had an [food] ample supply.
If you think about normal food processing, [it] does not take place in the major metropolitan areas. A lot of it’s done out in rural parts of the United States.
There’s not a huge worker supply in those areas that can actually perform our jobs. If five or six workers on a particular section in line get sick, and they’re highly trained in doing that work, then it has this tendency to slow the entire food supply. I think that if you have health and safety in the [farm] bill we can avoid some of this.
PRO: Anything else in the farm bill you’d like to see?
Perrone: I think that [the farm bill is] a pretty broad bill. I think one of the biggest ways, and I have talked to some senators about it, that we do believe that having a provision that talks about workers. You know, workers aren’t really mentioned very much in the farm bill at all. Trying to have some labor chapters would in fact, codify it in a very different way than [we’ve] done in the past.
We’d like to see the Meatpacking Workers Act put in place to modernize health and safety standards in these plants. We would like to see the food and farm worker relief bill, or grant extended.
As I indicated before, our members run across this country. The House Chairman of the Ag Committee, we’ve got 800 members in his district. So we cover everybody, whether or not they’re Republican, whether or not they’re Democrat. I just hope that everybody comes to some realization that [workers’] lives are important.