FRESHly organized: Workers unionize at DC’s leading farmers market organization

March 15, 2023

Illustration by John Woolley

28 workers at FRESHFARM, a D.C. based nonprofit and the third-largest farmers market organization in the country, have voted to unionize in what they believe to be the first farmers market organization in the nation to do so. 

The Feb. 8 vote to unionize prevailed after over six months of coordination between FRESHFARM workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400 union. Before reaching out to the union during late summer of 2022, the FRESHFARM staff were already self-organizing—an increasingly frequent phenomenon, according to Alan Hanson, the organizing director of Local 400. 

Employees of FRESHFARM had internally taken collective action in the workplace by creating an organizing committee, learning about their rights under the law, and writing petitions. With signed authorization cards for representation, the union began holding regular meetings and check-ins to formally organize.

After filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, the counted ballots reflected workers’ sentiments—overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing.

“It’s been a long process, but relatively very smooth. Other big employers have union busting; FRESHFARM released a statement saying they’re proud to have us on a union. And I think we’re all excited to get involved and have negotiations for the contract,” Tommy Coleman, a market operator with FRESHFARM for the Dupont, Oakton, and Reston market locations, said. 

The union will not affect the coordination and layouts of the markets themselves, but rather will ensure federal protections so market operators work under optimal conditions. 

“This makes it easier for us to have protections and to make it easier to negotiate. [The vendors] are all separate farms or businesses, and they do have representation for FRESHFARM where they can go to meetings and voice their concerns, but they’re not involved with the union,” Coleman said.  

With a network of almost 30 markets across the DMV, FRESHFARM has programs to match federal benefits to food access and combat food inequity across the area.

“That’s one of the things I’m most proud about that we do. And I love to see the numbers of exchanges that we do increase. That’s why we cared enough to form a union, because we all really care about the mission of FRESHFARM. We really care about supporting local agriculture, and about the people running the businesses here. And we just want to support them as best we can,” Coleman said.

The union and the market operators will soon meet to begin discussions about the bargaining committee that is going to represent their colleagues, and what will be in the proposal to negotiate a contract that works for them and the FRESHFARM company.

While the move was unprecedented for workers in farmers market operations, it reflected a growing push towards unionization across multiple sectors all over the U.S. 

“I’ve been an organizer for 22 years now and I have never seen a more substantial upsurge of worker organizing. It truly is unprecedented in our time, particularly in food and retail service in Washington, D.C. That’s been a real hotspot for organizing,” Hanson said. “I think that FRESHFARM is certainly a part of that overall process that picked up, at least in the DC area, with the unionization of Politics and Prose in December of 2021 and has really grown ever since. […] And we fully expect that trend to continue because our organizing work is not coming anywhere close to slowing down.”

Regardless of the industry, unionization usually stems from workers’ universal wishes for respect and dignity, fair working terms, and greater voice in the workplace. Local 400 works closely with the entire labor movement in the D.C. area through the Metropolitan Council of The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO)

“This uprising of worker organizing did not come out of nowhere. For the past two decades, you’ve seen these tremendous social movements started,” said Hanson. “Immigrant workers, anti-war protests, Occupy Wall Street, Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and then just the complete and utter disregard that most employers had for workers during the pandemic, [have] really created the conditions for this moment.”

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