Food fights against austerity

Disparate struggles in desperate times: how workers and farmers in Spain, New York, and Greece  are challenging neoliberal austerity

by Mark Bergfeld

In August 2012 two hundred members of the Andalusian fieldworker union 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.

According to Caritas Internationalis roughly 350,000 Andalusian families are mal-nourished. Children are reported to faint in classrooms. It’s no surprise this action struck a chord with millions of people across the Spanish state. Especially given the ‘food expropriation’ fed a total of 26 families across three municipalities and forced Carrefour to donate 12 trucks of food to local NGOs.

Disparate social struggles connect the democratisation and de-commodification of food and land to the fight against austerity in the Global North. Land occupations in Andalusia, fast food worker strikes in New York City, the Potato Movement in Thessaloniki and international calls to boycott ‘blood strawberries’ from Nea Manolada, Greece could strike at the heart of the system, rejuvenate workers’ movements and create counter-hegemonic alternatives to neoliberal austerity.

Tierra Y Libertad

Historically, European socialist and labour movements politically contested land distribution in the early 20th Century. The Bolsheviks raised the slogan ‘Peace, Land and Bread’ and the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of the ‘historic bloc’ calling on the PSI/PCI to build alliances with the peasantry of Southern Italy. Revolutions succeeded or failed insofar that revolutionary urban centres won sections of the peasantry to a viable socialist alternative. In more recent decades, organisations such as La Via Campesina or the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil organised land occupations of large estates. New struggles over land inside the Eurozone necessitate a re-examination on part of anti-capitalists.

Land property concentration in Andalusia is 10 percentage points higher than during the 2nd Republic (1931-1936). Unsurprisingly, workers and landless labourers have occupied bare land. The Somonte farm, for example, has been occupied for more than a year now. Where previously unemployment and hunger prevailed, less than 5 per cent of the town’s population are unemployed. This is small yet significant victory against austerity in a state with 34 per cent unemployment. SAT leader Sanchez 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.”

Land occupations have a long history in the Spanish state. In 1930s Spain, the Republican government started a programme of land re-distribution. This opened up the possibility for farming cooperatives and experiments of self-organisation. As the civil war of 1936-1939 spiralled 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. More recently in 1991, the SAT scored an historic victory when it requisitioned (or expropriated) 1,200 hectares (2,964 acres) of land after twelve years of battle. The occupations of Finca de Turqueilles and Somonte continue that tradition in a new economic and political context.

One assumes that anti-capitalist projects like Somonte can’t exist amidst the vast sea of capitalism. That remains true. The difference is the development of an institutional crisis.

This threatens 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. Extra-parliamentary movements like the indignado@s, the Austurian miners’ strike, and hospital workers hasten this process. Somonte feeds people, provides them with jobs – and the social movements with a counter-hegemonic alternative. For once, it opens up the possibility for an offensive struggle at the darkest hour. The land occupations expose the structural inequities and antagonisms in society. The smear campaigns against Gordillo and heavy fines against the SAT make 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.”

I am a man … strugglin’ to put food on my plate

A strike of fast food workers in New York is the brightest star of the US labour movement.

400 New York Fast Food workers shut down 70 fast food outlets 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. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. 45 years later on the same day churches, community groups and trade unions rallied behind more than 50 000 workers employed by the fast food industry across the city. Workers earn $11,000 on average. By no means, does this cover basic living expenses. Workers are reported to skip meals and walk several miles to work.

Chris Hayes on msnbc and Josh Eidelson have argued that this strike movement indicates a shift in the US labour movement. Furthermore, this group of workers show that one can strike in a low-wage service sector economy. The narrow confines of wages and conditions could be left behind very quickly. New urban struggles over the issues of food production and distribution have the power to strike a blow at the multi-billion industry.

Black and Latino communities have suffered at the hands of the fast food industry for decades. A 2004 study conducted in New Orleans disclosed 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.”

While José Bové dismantled a McDonalds, the Black Bloc smashed up Starbucks and Food Not Bombs served vegan food at anti-capitalist protests it didn’t affect the industry’s racism in the slightest. Instead Morgan Spurlock provided a declining anti-capitalist movement with the pseudo-scientific documentary film Supersize Me. With a rise in urban struggles such as Occupy the Hood which takes direct action against home foreclosures the conditions are far more favourable to fast food workers than at the beginning of the century.

During the 2011 London riots it was widely reported that people started flipping burgers at McDonalds for themselves. In response to the moral panic some replied with a quote by the late British Marxist Tony Cliff: “The riots and looting have been fantastic, but they have not gone far enough. Because they have not been organised, the kids have attacked shops when they should have been attacking factories. We must teach them to take the bakery, not just the bread.” The New York fast food workers have taken a small step into that direction. In Greece, the Potato Movement is making big strides forward.

The darker the night, the brighter the star

Experiments of self-organisation start emerge from below in times of deep social crisis. The Potato Movement first set up by a university professor and his students at the University of Thessaloniki now has spread to more than 200 cities and towns across Greece. It seeks a fair deal for producers and consumers alike. The middlemen who inflate the prices are cut out. As a result EU agricultural policies are defied and market rates for potatoes fall. Prior to the weekly markets, expensive import potatoes from Egypt were sold and Greek producers exported their goods to the Balkans. Now the movement is solving a hunger crisis to an extent.

Food is at the centre of political contestation in Greece. The New York Times ran a story on starving children. One interviewed mother said “It’s simple. ….You get hungry, you get dizzy and you sleep it off.” As expected the fascist Golden Dawn thrive. They set up soup kitchens for Greeks-only. Their ‘altruism’ only extended so far when one of their sympathizers hospitalized 20 immigrant workers from Bangladesh with a shotgun. They demanded their wages after going unpaid for six months. Calls for a boycott of the blood strawberries from Nea Manolada now circulate internationally.

The Potato Movement stands in the tradition of workers’ self-organisation. Historically, there are parallels to Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren programme. It fed 10, 000 children on a daily basis at its peak in 1969 and forced the State of California to roll out similar programmes across the state. More recently, Occupy Oakland fed more than a thousand people a day in late 2011. The issues of food consumption and production have left the pages of middle-class lifestyle magazines and entered the realm of workers’ self-organisation. This process helps workers to become “fit to rule”.

All of these struggles point to a socialist alternative. Born out of necessity and based on the collective action of hundreds and thousands they 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 regulates wages for agricultural wages marks a missed opportunity. The campaign fell on deaf ears. Ten thousands of agricultural workers and rural communities will impoverish as a consequence.

Fast food worker strikes in cities and land occupations in the countryside inspire millions across the Global North. They open up the possibilities for genuine movements of liberation tackling prescient issues of the day. On the day of the ‘food expropriation’ SAT leader Sanchez Gordillo tweeted: “We have to expropriate the expropriators who have spent centuries expropriating millions of human beings sunken in misery and hunger.”

That spirit connects disparate struggles in desperate times.

Mark Bergfeld, a socialist activist who lives in London, was a leading participant in the UK student movement in 2010. He tweets @mdbergfeld and his writings can be found at

Posted in Featured, Food and Farming, Protests & Revolts

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
3 years 5 months ago

Two comments regarding the potato movement in Greece: Greek consumers tend to be unable to properly understand price competition. There is a general idea that the higher the price of a commodity, the lower the quality. That is a completely irrational and paradoxical way of perceiving competition. When the potato movement appeared on the headlines, the main accusation was that they sell bad quality produce and this is how low prices can be explained. That was the primary propaganda line against the movement.
Secondarily just for the records, food markets with no middlemen have faded recently with “solidarity meals”, where food is offered for free instead of being sold to layers of the society in need, becoming more popular.