Member Profile: Pioneer Valley Workers Center
By: Chelsea Gazillo, FCWA Intern
The city of Northampton, Massachusetts lies in the heart of the Pioneer Valley and is known for more than 100 restaurants providing good food, tasty libations, and live entertainment. These establishments generated over $7,675,500 worth of annual sales, according to a 2015 report released by thePioneer Valley Workers Center (PVWC), which is a member of the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA).
The small charming city is also home to over 1,600 restaurant employees who contribute to the vitality of the town. It was a surprise for many residents when the night before Monday, May 23rd, owners of the Japanese restaurant Zen were told they would not be needed for their scheduled shifts the following day and the restaurant would be closed indefinitely. The restaurant provided jobs to 16 people, as well as supplying many of the staff with employee housing. In response, thePVWC immediately organized the workers, held a public action, and raised several thousand dollars to support the workers in the face of their sudden loss of wages. They also have helped several workers engage in a lawsuit to recover money stolen through previous wage theft and other violations.
Lin Geng was among these restaurant workers who lost their livelihoods. Geng, a long-time restaurant worker in Northampton, described the support of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center following the restaurant closure as having “…given me a sense of community and home.” He said thatPVWC immediately mobilized to support Zen employees. Many workers in Northampton, including the employees of Zen, are victims of wage theft. One of the PVWC’s main campaigns this year is to advocate against the numerous forms of this illegal activity.
Geng has become very involved in working with the PVWC to organize Northampton restaurant workers to pressure the City Council to pass a anti-wage theft ordinance, which would tie compliance with wage and hour laws to business licenses, protecting restaurant workers, regardless of their legal status. Geng reflected on the unfortunate reality that many restaurant workers have been victims of wage theft. “When we did the survey, most kitchen workers have experienced wage theft, their wages being stolen by the boss. So that is their biggest concern. We hope the workers can help to pass the bill, so our wages can be protected.”
PVWC does more than just advocate on behalf of restaurant workers in the Pioneer Valley. On July 15th, 2016, the Food Chain Workers Alliance joined forces with the PVWC in Northampton to host a panel that highlighted how advocates across the food chain could work together in solidarity. FCWA’sDiana Robinson moderated as a panel of five food chain workers and advocates discussed how they could support one another in the fight for food justice. Panelists included Alex Zwicker Galimberti, the National Director of the RAISE program with ROC; Neftalí Duran, a Oaxacan Chef and the Project Director of the Nuestra Comida Initiative in Holyoke, MA; Ben Clark of Clarkdale Fruit Farms; Rosendo, a farm worker atNext Barn Over; and Talib Toussaint, the Food Justice and Community Outreach Manager for Gardening The Community. The panel discussed how different food movement advocates could work together and support one another in their fight for racial, economic and social justice.
Gabriella della Croce, Development Coordinator and Community Organizer for PVWC, said that panelists addressed how important it is for others to show up and support each other’s events, especially in light of the racial inequalities and police brutality in the United States. Additionally, the panelists supported one another in their quest for economic justice. It became apparent during the discussion that what each organization does within the food system (e.g. advocating for workers rights, GMO labeling, supporting local agriculture and sustainable practices) was less important than their common underlying principles. Each organization is able to provide support to the others in working towards the goal of unifying the food movement. Often this support comes in the form of ‘showing up’ or being present at each other’s events.
Finally, Diana described some of the biggest takeaways from the panel as “how vulnerable and honest the speakers were about race in our food system. They offered participants concrete and practical ways of being allies and supporting racial justice in our food system. It was very powerful and exciting to see how receptive the audience was.”
Many audience members were eager to know how they could support the advocates on the panel. In response, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center suggested joining local initiatives, such as their FAST (Food Action Solidarity Team) which focuses on worker organizing and other efforts such as supporting the boycott of Driscoll Berries, which has been alleged to abuse workers by paying them less than minimum wage and providing inhumane working conditions.