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Better Together: the Policy Potential in Pairing the Food & Labor Movements

By Tanya Moss

GSPP recently hosted a panel discussion, “FOOD+LABOR: Forging a Truly Sustainable Food Policy Agenda for California in 2015,” which examined what a joint food and labor policy agenda might look like in 2015.

The reason the panel was held is that these two movements have generally worked separately but are, in fact, deeply connected.  How can we fight for a sustainable and ethical food system without fighting for fair wages and working conditions for those that grow, prepare, and serve our food? And what does it mean to simply raise wages for food workers without addressing the fact that the majority of the food those workers produce and sell makes us sick? 

A joint food and labor agenda makes sense. These are two policy areas that can learn a lot from each other. The labor movement has been more successful at passing policy (such as paid sick days and minimum wage increases), but less successful in building a consumer movement around the issue and engaging those already fighting for food system reform. The food movement has mobilized consumers to demand healthier and more sustainable food options, but has been less successful in passing regulatory policy that incentivizes a healthier food system.

While the idea of a joint food and labor policy agenda is a good one, the panel discussion missed a crucial roadblock to a successful joint policy agenda. Much of the opposition to public health regulatory measures that aim to move us away from an industrialized food system to healthier food systems focuses on the fact that regulatory measures will kill jobs. Businesses protest policies such as soda taxes or warning labels, restrictions on advertising to children, or reduced commodity crop subsidies by saying these policies will raise food costs, harm small businesses, and lead to job losses. 

For example, the very Assemblymember who authored a recently passed bill that requires paid sick days for California employees organized against, and ultimately secured, the defeat of another bill that would have placed a label on sugar sweetened beverages warning consumers of the health risks of consuming those products. When making her case against the bill, she cited lost jobs due to reduced soda consumption as the reason she was opposed. Here, we have the healthy food movement and the fair labor movement in opposition. How can a joint food and labor policy agenda reconcile this issue?

The questions we need to answer are: do these regulatory policies really threaten jobs in the markets they seek to regulate? And if so, at what point is it worth it to proceed anyway? 

To the first part of the question—of course it depends on the policy. Businesses make similar sounding arguments against paid sick days and minimum wage policies, citing increased costs and potential layoffs as a reason not to make these changes. However, when looking at evaluations of past regulations, especially minimum wage increases, the weight of the evidence shows that businesses are able to absorb the costs of increased regulation, and jobs are generally not lost. 

The second part of the question is trickier. What if a proposed policy really does have negative employment effects? How do we know when it is still worth it to proceed? First, we must realize that the food industry produces many negative externalities—greenhouse gas emissions, degradation of land and habitat, and poor diet leading to chronic disease, sky-high healthcare costs, loss of productivity and loss of life. It is not beneficial to protect an industry that costs us so much. If jobs are “lost” in these industries, they will most likely be gained elsewhere—ideally in an industry that does not produce as many negative externalities. 

This is a complex issue that must be addressed through careful policy analysis and not in a blog post. But if the food and labor movements are really to come together effectively, the issue must be addressed. Otherwise, we will continue to be unsuccessful in our efforts to create a truly sustainable and just food system.

Tanya Moss is a dual-degree MPP/MPH candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and the School of Public Health, and a new blogger for The Wire. This article was originally posted on PolicyMatters Journal.