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In Historic First, Workers Unionize at 2 Major Farmers’ Market Nonprofits

Despite providing essential services, wages and benefits for these workers lag far behind those of other city workers.

A worker rings up customers at the Plant Masters booth at the Columbia Heights FRESHFARM farmers market in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington D.C., on May 15, 2021.

This year, workers from GrowNYC and FRESHFARM, two sustainable food access nonprofits in New York City and the Washington, D.C. metro area respectively, formed unions. Workers who support and organize farmers markets, compost programs, and other initiatives will begin collectively bargaining for higher wages and job security in the coming months for the first time in the history of the industry.

In New York City, it all began last spring, with a few informal conversations during a period of organizational turmoil at GrowNYC, a nonprofit that organizes about 70 “Greenmarket” farmers markets, the city’s composting program, food box programs sourced from local farms in lower-income areas, educational programs about zero waste, community gardens, and more.

GrowNYC’s jobs aren’t easy. Farmers market workers set up and break down tents, manage the EBT “food stamp” system and ensure the busy markets run smoothly, sometimes working 12-hour days. (Individual vendor tents are run by farmers and distributors, not GrowNYC.) Compost drivers wake up at dawn to navigate the notoriously difficult streets of New York City.

“We are workers who are providing essential services to the city,” Avery Hotchkiss, a compost site coordinator who was involved in the early stages of the unionization process, told Truthout. “And we are receiving city money to provide essential services. It’s easy to look at MTA workers, or sanitation workers who are doing really similar stuff and [if you look at] the benefits and wages that they have compared to what we have, it’s very easy to see we’re being exploited.”

In addition to discussing exploitation, some workers talked about how management lacked an understanding of day-to-day realities on the ground, a problem typical of many hierarchical organizations. Others lamented their seasonal or part-time status, and some sought more job training and clearer protocols related to security and safety issues at farmers markets. “Some people have the opinion that it’s not going to be useful to have police [at the markets]. We need something a little bit better when it comes to dealing with security,” Erik Menjivar, a Greenmarket manager and compost coordinator, told Truthout.

These discussions quickly evolved into more formal meetings with the intent of unionizing, and more and more coworkers were invited to the meetings.

“It’s just grown and grown and grown to the point where we have a super majority of support and we outgrew the space where we were meeting,” said Hotchkiss. “We’ve been having larger meetings every week.”

Sitra Bowman, a GrowNYC education and engagement lead in the zero-waste schools department, told Truthout that workers approached her about the union in February of this year and she was immediately interested, especially in light of management’s rejection of her and her coworkers request for a pay raise.

Nonprofits are among the industries seeing increasing election filings, with workers often citing low pay, overwork and undemocratic workplaces.

“I was also thinking about the benefits that I have as a full-time worker in general, and how some of my co-workers and other departments don’t get those benefits because of their part-time status,” added Bowman.

On April 25, only about a year after Hotchkiss and his coworkers started organizing, nearly 200 of GrowNYC’s employees — the overwhelming majority — sought voluntary recognition of their union with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the same union that organized a union drive with Amazon workers in Alabama last year and recently won election filings at three Barnes & Noble stores and three REI stores. After 24 hours passed without the union receiving voluntary recognition, workers filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board.

While GrowNYC’s President and CEO Marcel Van Ooyen said the nonprofit would accept the union in a statement, it also hired the infamous union-busting firm Littler Mendelson, and, for a couple of weeks, it was unclear whether a struggle was on the horizon. Shortly after releasing the statement, GrowNYC disputed its employee’s characterization of their jobs, according to The New York Times, and claimed its lowest-paid worker earned $20 an hour, not $19 an hour, as workers had said. Van Ooyen makes $270,000 a year, according to tax filings.

Then on May 16, GrowNYC workers announced their union won recognition. “Workers at GrowNYC will begin bargaining their first contract swiftly as a result,” the union wrote in a press release. “Companies at any time can voluntarily recognize a worker union, doing so expedites the process of union representation and the pathway to a union contract.”

Just months prior, FRESHFARM, the nonprofit in the D.C. area, went through a similar process. On February 8, 2023, about 25 farmers market workers announced the formation of a union with United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400. FRESHFARM’s leadership did not interfere with the organizing process and workers will collectively bargain for better pay and more job stability, according to DCist.

Both successful union drives come at a time of resurging interest in labor organizing. The National Labor Relations Board reported a 53 percent increase in election petitions from fiscal year 2021 to 2022. According to Gallup’s most recent poll, 71 percent of Americans approve of labor unions — the highest recorded figure since 1965. Nonprofits are among the industries seeing increasing election filings, with workers often citing low pay, overwork and undemocratic workplaces. In some cases “progressive” employers weaponize their organization’s charitable mission against their own workers in attempts to sabotage organizing.

Many young people organizing their workplaces are not only seeking better material conditions, but also democratizing their workplaces, and sometimes altering the nature of their work. At White Electric, a cafe in Providence, Rhode Island, workplace demands for racial equity in the wake of the George Floyd uprising led to a unionization effort, which eventually resulted in the workers taking over the cafe and transforming it into a cooperative.

Bowman said influencing the direction of the nonprofit is part of a bigger conversation that has been brought up a bit in the union. “We’re thinking about our mission and how we can help support that mission and make it more sort of profound and really community-oriented versus something that’s top-down,” said Bowman.

Many GrowNYC workers are passionate about food justice, and are hoping that unionizing will help them better serve this mission. “I took on this job because I’m passionate about the environment, food access, and wanting to better serve people,” said Menjivar. “And I was only able to do so much with what I was given. …[After unionizing] I have a better outlook on the future and also on this job of being able to serve people better.”

It’s possible that labor organizing at GrowNYC and FRESHFARM will spark a national trend within the industry. Many other U.S. cities have similar organizations: In Boston, Mass Farmers Markets supports more than 200 markets, advocates for increased grants that support fresh food access and manages three farmers’ markets; Los Angeles’s Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA) manages six markets and provides a variety of nutrition education programs across the city; Chicago’s GreenCity Market manages several markets and educational programs. San Francisco’s Heart of the City Farmer’s Market is managed cooperatively by farmers themselves with the mission of making fresh food accessible for low-income customers.

Despite popular support of unions, the portion of workers who are unionized — just 10.1 percent — is at a record low. Labor organizers and experts attribute this decline, in part, to U.S. labor law’s increasingly steep barriers to unionization, employer intimidation and high employee turnover rates in modern workplaces.

It is illegal for farmers to unionize in most states, for example. But in 2019, New York State passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which allows them to collectively bargain. Chelsea Connor, RWDSU’s national director of communications and media relations, told Truthout “it’s only a matter of time” before more farmers unionize in the state. RWDSU began representing 12 workers at a Long Island vineyard — the first farm workers’ union in New York State — two years after the law was passed.

GrowNYC sees itself as part of these larger agricultural struggles. “We see a lot of people who are working in agriculture and food service are starting to unionize,” said Bowman. “We see workers at Trader Joe’s organizing, we see workers like the United Farm Workers who have also been organizing, so GrowNYC is definitely part of that movement and it offers a lot of different services to the city of New York, especially with the new composting program that the city wants to implement. GrowNYC is a major part of that and we should be paid fairly for that.”

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