César Chávez, one of the founders of United Farm Workers, said these words some years ago: “Our very lives are dependent, for sustenance, on the sweat and sacrifice of the campesinos. Children of farm workers should be as proud of their parents’ professions as other children are of theirs.”
It’s ironic that farm workers aren’t held in higher esteem. After all, farm workers supply the fuel for all other work. Their contribution is foundational.
During the 1970s, the farm worker movement made great progress in gaining fair wages and safe working conditions. But since the 1980s, that progress has been eroded by two developments: the growth of big agribusiness, and the growth of large food retailers.
In big agribusiness, the people who make decisions about how farming is done have become farther and farther removed from the labor of growing and harvesting food. The decision makers are not out in the fields; they work in air-conditioned corporate offices. When they set company policies, they’re not looking at people; they’re looking at numbers on spreadsheets.
In agribusiness, the main concern is for the bottom line: profits for corporate management and for shareholders. The men and women who work in the fields are treated like cogs in a machine, objects of exploitation without dignity or value.
Large food retailers—corporate restaurant and grocery chains—are another step farther removed from the labor of farm workers. Their goal is to maximize profits, which means getting their fresh produce from suppliers at the lowest possible cost. This usually means turning a blind eye to the conditions that the suppliers impose on their workers to keep their prices low.
We, the consumers of what farm laborers produce, are one step further up the chain. But we are in a position to make food retailers accountable for the products they sell. By allying with groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and International Justice Mission, we can pressure food retailers to hold their suppliers accountable for paying their workers fairly and providing them with safe working conditions.
As you prepare and eat food this Labor Day weekend, I would ask that you do these things mindfully, with awareness of the food’s tangible qualities—its flavor, its aroma, the energy it provides to your body—and its qualities that are not tangible to you: the people who labored to grow and harvest it, and the conditions that these women and men work under every day.
My grandparents were farm workers in northern Ohio. Their work provided sustenance to countless thousands of people whom they never met. Their work also earned income to provide for my parents, and help them get through college. And through my parents, those benefits also have come down indirectly to me. My grandparents have been dead for many years, but their contribution lives on, unseen, in me. Their work continues on in all of the work that I do.
Labor has two aspects: physical and spiritual, seen and unseen, temporal and eternal. The physical fruit of labor is transient. The food on our plates is quickly consumed, used, and eliminated. The spiritual, unseen outcome of labor, on the other hand, continues on and on, like an endless series of ripples in a pool.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Unitarian Universalism Examiner.