The atmosphere at Sisters’ Camelot, a mobile food shelf and kitchen bus based in Seward, has grown increasingly tense as a labor dispute between the newly-formed canvassers’ union and the collective management enters its second week. Sisters’ Camelot is a non-profit organization that delivers thousands of pounds of organic produce to low-income neighborhoods every week. It is collectively run by a group of seven individuals, each of whom have paid positions managing specific aspects of the organization. Their wages and the money for programming comes from the canvass crew, who raise nearly all the funds that allows Sisters’ Camelot to operate. However, canvassers have long felt that their work is not respected by the collective.
“I have been told by several collective members that the fundraising canvassers do is not as important or as valuable to the organization as the food distribution.” said Bobby Becker, collective member and canvass director at Sisters’ Camelot.
Canvassers began organizing over three months ago and contacted the labor union Industrial Workers of the World in December, after three canvassers were demoted from managerial positions and replaced by two collective members with less experience. This was not a disciplinary action, but the enactment of a new policy that only collective members could hold such positions.
“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” said Shuge Mississippi, canvasser. “We’ve had complaints against the collective for years, complaints they were unwilling to seriously address. We decided it was time to take action.”
On February 25 the canvassers went public as an IWW-affiliated union when they marched into a collective meeting and read a statement of intent. A negotiation meeting was planned for March 1, but on that day the collective refused to negotiate any demands and the union went on strike.
Communication continued between the union and the collective and another meeting was scheduled for March 4. The canvassers opened with a statement reiterating their desire to negotiate and promised to end the strike as soon as negotiations proceeded in good faith. The collective responded with two prepared statements: the first offered one canvasser a position on the collective, the second announced the firing of their co-worker Shuge Mississippi.
“[The collective members] recognize that negotiations cannot proceed in good faith until Shuge leaves…. We stand ready to return to negotiations in good faith whenever canvassers are ready to move forward.” read part of their statement. Canvasser Luke Welke expressed his “disgust that the collective could ask us to betray someone in our union who we work with every day and still believe that they are negotiating in good faith.”
The canvassers’ union would not proceed without their co-worker and walked out of the meeting. The situation is currently at a stalemate.
“I really hope this can be resolved soon.” said canvasser Maria Wesserle. “I love Sisters’ Camelot and want to get back to working for them. The collective needs to step back, realize their mistake, and rehire our fellow worker.”
The campaign at Sisters’ Camelot represents a new step for Food and Retail Workers United, an organizing committee of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union. Gaining prominence in recent years for organizing Starbucks and Jimmy Johns workers, the IWW is a global union founded over a century ago for all working people.