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2019 Leadership Award Winner Pioneer Valley Workers Center

Sarah Maiellano

April 24, 2019

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Pioneer Valley Workers Center photo Jason Kotoch Photography
Photo: Jason Kotoch Photography

Honored for building the collective power of workers and immigrants in Western Massachusetts and beyond.

Western Massachusetts is home to a vibrant food justice movement that focuses on organic food, sustainability, animal welfare, and buying local. But until a few years ago, the voices of food system workers were not always part of the conversation, according to Rose Bookbinder, one of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center’s lead organizers.
 
That’s changed since the launch of the Center in 2014. “We needed to create a place where food system workers could come together, build power, and garner support from the community to make systemic change in the industry,” Bookbinder says.
 
After a group of foodservice workers tried to unionize and failed, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center took shape. And in just a few short years, the organization has racked up some serious wins.
 
For example, the Center worked with the cities of Northampton and Springfield to pass wage theft ordinances. “Workers very commonly have their wages stolen, are not paid minimum wage, or are not paid overtime,” Bookbinder explains. The ordinance created fines and tied companies’ business licenses to their compliance with wage and hour laws. Workers are reporting positive changes. “Employees are happier,” Bookbinder says. “The quality of food and service improves when you feel valued and have respect and dignity.”
 
Much of the organization’s mission involves protecting immigrants. It convinced the cities of Springfield, Northampton, Amherst, and Holyoke to pass Sanctuary City ordinances, which ensure that police don’t collaborate with immigration enforcement officials beyond what’s required by law.
 
Hundreds of people are involved in the Center’s Interfaith Sanctuary and Solidarity Network, which supports foodservice workers currently living inside churches to avoid deportation. To ensure their safety, the Center arranges for accompaniment for them 24 hours a day. Volunteers also bring the workers food and transport family members for visits.
 
Driving is another crucial part of the Center’s work. Since Massachusetts doesn’t issue drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, “driving is often one of the first places that people get caught in the deportation pipeline,” notes Bookbinder. The Center arranges ridesharing and accompaniment for immigrants to get to organizing meetings and court appointments. “When a person of faith or community leader is there [with them], it’s less likely that [the worker will] end up getting deported.” The organization is currently part of a major campaign to allow anyone to get drivers licenses, regardless of their immigration status.

The Center has around 3,000 members—a combination of immigrants and low-wage workers. Committees of workers determine the issues that the Center will address and create campaigns for. “Those who are most affected and impacted direct the work,” Bookbinder says.
 
In addition to the drivers license campaign, the Center is also working on a statewide wage theft bill, better protection of farmworker rights, and a nationwide effort to extend Temporary Protected Status to immigrants displaced by war or natural disasters, to prevent potential deportations in January 2020.
 
Eight people are now employed at the Center, which is part of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a national coalition of like-minded organizations that won the 2017 James Beard Leadership Award.
 
“Our food system would be decimated if it weren't for the immigrants that are helping to build it,” Bookbinder says. “We have a small budget, but a vast network of people committed to building a movement.”

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The 2019 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award recipients will be honored at a ceremony in association with Deloitte on May 5 in Chicago. Learn more about all our 2019 Leadership Award winners.

Sarah Maiellano is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. You can find more of her work at sarahmaiellano.com and follow her on Instagram at @sarahmaiellano.