Food fights against austerity

From fighting for union rights and higher wages in New York to land occupations in Spain, food fights against the system are having an effect. Photo posted on metro.us.

The European markets might be quiet for the moment. The alarm bells are not ringing in Greece or Spain. However, underneath the numbers about economic growth, recovery rates and forecasts, the social crisis in the eurozone is deepening.

Where once abundance reigned, poverty and devastation now rule. This is particularly the case in rural areas far from the metropolitan centres that tourists get to see. For example, roughly 350,000 Andalusian families are malnourished according to Caritas Internationalis.

Miguel Sanz, a prominent activist with the Andalusian field workers’ union SAT, told me that children faint in classrooms. In Germany, the main benefactor of the crisis, every fifth child is considered poverty-stricken.

It is no surprise then that communities from Berlin to Barcelona are campaigning, creating alternative institutions and transformative structures which show that food production and distribution could be organised in the interest of people and nature.

Land occupations in Andalusia, the Fast Food Forward Thessaloniki, and restaurant strikes at steakhouses across Germany have created new fault lines in the fight over who is to pay the price of the crisis.

In the past, writers and commentators have focused on food as a lifestyle choice. One could become a vegetarian, or buy Fair Trade instead of ordinary produce. The slogan was “consume to change the world.” But things have changed. Today, questions about our food are no longer linked primarily to our purchasing habits but to the way we work, our pay and conditions.

The story of the Andalusian fieldworkers’ union SAT underlines this. In the summer of 2012, 200 members of the SAT organised a “food expropriation.” They walked into the local Carrefour and Mercandor supermarkets, loaded their trolleys with rice, beans, potatoes, bread—and left without paying a single cent. This action struck a chord with millions of people across the Spanish state, especially as the food expropriation fed a total of 26 families across three municipalities and forced Carrefour to donate 12 trucks of food to local NGOs.

Tierra Y Libertad

In the early part of the 20th century, European socialist and labour movements placed the question of land distribution at the centre of their work, from the Bolsheviks who raised the slogan “Peace, Land and Bread” to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who argued that the newly founded Italian Communist Party had to build an alliance—a historic bloc—between workers in the northern car factories and peasants in the south of the country.

Revolutions might have been won in the urban centres but they were lost in the countryside. In more recent decades, organisations such as La Via Campesina or the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) catapulted themselves to the forefront of the struggle in Brazil, where they organised land occupations of large estates.

Back in Andalusia it is said that one can walk from the east to the west of the region without leaving one man’s land. Here, property concentration is 10 percentage points higher than during the Second Republic (1931–6).

Yet there is also resistance. Workers and landless labourers have occupied bare land. The Somonte farm near the town of Marinaleda, for example, has been occupied for more than a year now. Where previously unemployment and hunger prevailed, less than five per cent of the town’s population is unemployed.

SAT leader Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo told Dan Hancox, author of Utopia and the Valley of Tears, “Our aim was not to create profit, but jobs, so we created a complementary industry to transform our agrarian products: peppers, artichokes, favas, broccoli, olive oil and olives. *La tierra es de quien la trabaja** (The land is for those who work it).” This is a small yet significant victory against austerity in a state with 34 percent unemployment.

Land occupations have a long history in Spain. In the 1930s, the Republican government started a program of land redistribution. This opened up the possibility for farming cooperatives and experiments in self-organisation. As the civil war of 1936–9 spiraled into a popular uprising, land occupations became one of the driving forces of the revolution. Readers will remember Ken Loach’s thoughtful engagement with the question of land collectivisation in his film Land and Freedom.

But can these projects exist as utopian islands amid a vast sea of capitalism?

That remains to be seen. They do however threaten the unity of the Spanish state, the monarchy and political parties such as the PSOE, which lost more than four million votes in the 2011 elections. Somonte feeds people and provides them with jobs, while giving the social movements a transformative structure. The smear campaigns against Sánchez Gordillo and heavy fines against the SAT have only made them more resolute. As Martin Luther King Jr. said shortly before he was murdered in 1968, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

…strugglin’ to put food on my plate

In April 2013, 400 New York Fast Food workers shut down 70 fast food outlets in a bid for better pay, conditions and union rights. They carried signs—“I am a man” or “I am a woman”—to evoke the sanitation workers’ strike which King supported before he was murdered.

On the 45th anniversary of King’s assassination, churches, community groups and trade unions rallied under the banner of Fast Food Forward to demand a minimum wage of $15 an hour for the 50,000 workers employed in the city’s fast food industry. Currently workers’ wages don’t even cover their basic living expenses. Workers are reported to skip meals and to walk several miles to work.

Josh Eidelson of Salon has argued that these strikes mark a significant shift in the U.S. labour movement. They have dispelled the myth that workers are powerless against a multi-billion dollar industry. The campaign is ongoing. The strikes have spread from the Big Apple to more than 15 cities across the U.S.

Black and Latino communities have suffered at the hands of the fast food industry for decades. A 2004 study conducted in New Orleans highlights how issues of racism, work and food production intersect. It revealed that Black neighbourhoods have six times as many fast food outlets as white neighbourhoods.

In New York the picture is much the same according to Naa Oyo A. Kwate, a researcher on healthy eating: “We found that [public elementary] schools with high proportions of White students have the lowest exposure [to fast food restaurants]. Only schools with low proportions of white students and high proportions of Black students have high exposure.”

In Germany, there have been strikes at the steakhouse chain MAREDO and Burger King against the victimisation of trade union activists. In Britain, the catering industry is the most casualised of industries in the economy.

Perhaps it was for that reason that people broke into McDonald’s and started flipping burgers for hundreds during the 2011 London riots.

The darker the night,the brighter the star

In austerity-ridden Greece, experiments in self-organisation are trying to solve the hunger crisis. The Potato Movement, set up by a university professor and his students, has spread to more than 200 cities and towns across Greece in less than two years. As it cuts out the middlemen who inflate the prices, market rates for potatoes and other agricultural goods have fallen.

Previously, expensive Egyptian potatoes were imported to Greece while Greek potatoes were exported to the Balkans. Now the producers sell to the consumers. Meanwhile, the fascists of Golden Dawn have their own response to the food crisis, setting up soup kitchens for Greeks only and opening fire on 20 immigrant strawberry pickers from Bangladesh who demanded their wages after going unpaid for six months. In the wake of that incident, workers set up the first Greek agricultural workers’ union in decades.

Born out of necessity and based on the collective action of hundreds and thousands, these alternatives have the power to change the world. As the crisis deepens, people are forced to find immediate solutions in the here and now.

Austerity is throwing up multiple lines of fracture. New political actors will take centre stage depending on whether the anti-austerity movement lends them support. In Britain, the proposed abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board which regulated wages for 10,000 agricultural workers fell on deaf ears. Workers and rural communities will be impoverished as a consequence.

As the issues of food consumption and production have left the pages of middle-class lifestyle magazines and entered the realm of workers’ self-organisation, they open up possibilities for genuine movements of liberation tackling pressing issues of the day.

On the day of the Andalusian food expropriation, SAT leader Sánchez Gordillo tweeted: “We have to expropriate the expropriators who have spent centuries expropriating millions of human beings sunken in misery and hunger.” It is that spirit of defiance which connects these disparate struggles in desperate times.

Mark Bergfeld was a leading participant in the UK student movement in 2010. He has written for Al-Jazeera English and the New Statesman among others. He is currently a postgraduate research student at Queen Mary University of London. His writings can be found at www.mdbergfeld.com.