How Florida farmworkers have organized a powerful movement to win concessions from some of the biggest food companies — and dignity for themselves.
by Siena Chrisman, former WhyHunger Programs Communications Manager, 03/16/2009
I stopped at a produce stand on my way to the airport in Florida two weeks ago, tempted by tomatoes and strawberries in March. Locally-grown fresh fruit seemed a welcome change from the squash, sweet potatoes, and occasional winter greens that make up the bulk of my seasonally-based early spring diet in New York. But in the end, I couldn’t buy anything. Amidst the wonderful smells of fresh strawberries and ripe tomatoes, all I could think about was whose hands had picked the fruit.
I was in Florida representing WhyHunger in a food justice delegation hosted by theCoalition of Immokalee Workers(CIW) and Just Harvest. The delegation included about a dozen leaders of the sustainable food movement, including Food First Executive Director Eric Holt-Gimenez, Diet for a Small Planet authorFrances Moore Lappé,Stuffed and Starved author Raj Patel, food justice activistLaDonna Redmond, and Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel, as well as family farmers, youth leaders, and writers.
We were there to meet with farmworkers and engage in dialogue and partnership that many think are long overdue. Slow Food USA’s Viertel spelled it out: “This movement has been missing something fundamentally important. Historically, we have focused on the environment, health, and preserving small farms. But we’ve completely missed the boat when it comes to work. Farmworkers need to be part of this movement.” In a very public way, the presence of the delegation signaled that labor conditions and human rights must be part of our definition of “sustainable food.”
Call for Outrage
In the winter months, Immokalee supplies 90% of the nation’s fresh tomatoes, but gained recent notoriety when US attorney Douglas Molloy dubbed it “ground zero for modern slavery.” As reported in this month’s Gourmet, seven cases of modern-day slavery have been prosecuted in the region in the last decade, involving farmworkers held against their will, held in debt servitude, and subject to violence including beatings, shootings, and pistol-whippings. Introducing the Coalition’s antislavery campaign to the delegation, CIW member Gerardo Reyes asked, “There is so much finger-pointing over E. coli in one hamburger; the media goes crazy over one case of salmonella… when will there be the same uproar over people being held in slavery conditions?” CIW calls the seven cases just the tip of the iceberg, and has led a petition and media campaign calling on Florida Governor Charlie Crist to address the issue. (As of this writing, the governor has finally agreed to meet with the Coalition, after two years of requests to do so.)
The majority of Immokalee farmworkers — Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian migrants, harvesting tomatoes and citrus — are not living in conditions as extreme as modern-day slavery. Instead, the standard living conditions for most of the workers reminded author Raj Patel of apartheid South Africa. “Except,” said Patel, “in South Africa, conditions were better.” Seeing the situation of farmworkers in Immokalee, there’s no avoiding that our food system is based on exploitation and gross violations of basic human dignity.
Work If You Can Get It
Our tour began at 5:30 a.m. — an early hour for many of us, but already late for the tomato pickers, who gather in the dark an hour earlier in hopes of getting work. Labor contractors working for the tomato growers run repurposed school buses to pick up workers in a large parking lot across the street from the CIW community center. As each bus pulls into the lot, the crew leader has his pick of more than enough potential workers. With the recent dry-up of Florida’s construction boom, former construction workers have been returning to the fields, further overwhelming an already full labor market. CIW cofounder Lucas Benitez estimates that on a given day, a quarter of the workforce is idle.
Those most likely not to be working are older, injured or female (although women are scarce in the community). Young, fit men have the best chance at getting work, giving crew leaders an enormous amount of power to effectively “retire” people who don’t meet their standards. We heard the story of one man who, after working in the fields since 1975, consistently stopped being chosen for work when he was 55. Although the companies he had worked for had undoubtedly paid into Social Security while paying his wages, he is unable to collect on it because he is an undocumented immigrant. After 33 years of picking this nation’s tomatoes, he is left with nothing but a bad back and no healthcare.
From Field to Trailer
Those who are chosen have a ride to the fields of an hour or more, where they must wait until the sun dries the night’s moisture from the tomatoes before they can finally begin picking. The pickers do not start being paid until the first tomato hits their bucket-as much as four hours after arriving in the parking lot. Work is measured by a 32-pound bucket; filled, lifted, and emptied as many as 150 times on a good day in the height of the season. Workers are paid 45 cents for each bucket, for an average daily wage of about $50 (on an average day, a worker harvests many fewer than 150 buckets) — a rate that has been stagnant since 1978.
At dusk, workers come home to a bleak eight-block area of trailers and small one-story houses. The area is unshaded and sandy; chickens run on the dry grass, watched by idle groups of men. Eight to ten men — strangers, generally — share the one or two rooms in each trailer, waiting in line to use the bathroom in the morning or to make their lunch in a tiny kitchen. One group allowed us to see their trailer; eight bare clothes-strewn mattresses lined the floor of the two rooms, and someone had strung up a garbage bag as a shower curtain. The trailer has no heat or insulation against 40° winter nights, and for a window air-conditioning unit — almost a necessity in the brutal South Florida summer — the men would have to pay an extra $20 per week. The rent for these accommodations is $40 each per week — for a monthly total to the landlord of $1,280. The worker housing is owned by one family, the Blockers, who exploit their monopoly and charge what I recognized as New York prices — for squalid trailers in Immokalee. (For more on farmworker housing, see excellent reports by Raj Patel and Tom Philpott.)
While the pickers are barely scraping by on $.45 per bucket, paying a day’s wages in rent every week, the USDA lists the retail price of 32 pounds of tomatoes as about $56. The question of who gets the other $55.55 is part of the driving force behind the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food, which targets fast food companies and other major buyers to take responsibility for treatment of workers in their supply chains. The central demand of the campaign is to pay a penny more per pound to tomato pickers.
Organizing by Marimba
The Campaign, which has drawn concessions from the biggest fast food companies in the business, began with grassroots organizing in Immokalee. CIW has built its base by being a practical resource in the community — initially, focusing on advocacy for workers who hadn’t been paid by taking the case to the grower or to the Department of Justice if necessary. Just as the growers have learned that the CIW is vigilant in defense of workers, the workers have learned that they can count on the Coalition.
The Coalition engages workers where they live, not only through advocacy, but with free classes, computers, and movie nights at the community center, or with pre-dawn coffee and pastries in the days leading up to major actions. It educates them at weekly general community meetings, women’s group meetings, through popular slogans and messaging, and on the low-power radio station.
Reyes points to a Guatemalan marimba as the group’s newest “secret weapon” for organizing; drawing people in through music, he says, is particularly effective, because it reminds them of their community at home and motivates them to improve their conditions here in hopes of being able to return to their own communities one day.
Staff goes door-to-door to invite people to come to the weekly community meetings, and the personalized attention pays off — the meeting the delegation attended was filled to standing room, with people looking in from the doors and windows. The meetings invite input and discussion of recent projects and concerns and include an educational section on an issue relevant to workers’ lives. Meeting facilitation rotates among CIW leadership; the soft-spoken Lucas Benitez ran the meeting we attended more like he was having a casual chat with a few friends than leading a meeting of 100 people just days before a major action against Governor Crist in Tallahassee. The meeting was largely focused on a debriefing dialogue on the prior week’s Year of the Worker party (a big success, by most accounts, drawing several thousand people), with seamless and inclusive transitions to a talk about human trafficking and concrete planning for the trip to Tallahassee.
Benitez encouraged those interested in planning next year’s party to join the central committee-the democratic governing body of the CIW. “The more people who work with us,” Reyes reminded the crowd, “the more we can advance our struggle, and the easier it is to act if we need to do so suddenly. It’s important to have a large central committee, so that we have more community engagement.” Much more than a party planning committee, the central committee is how most of the Coalition’s decisions get made and, as it is open to all members, is key to the Coalition’s model of shared and participatory leadership. The idea to target tomato buyers instead of growers as a strategy to effect change-which is the heart of the Campaign for Fair Food-developed out of a central committee meeting.
Delegation member Jim Goodman, a Wisconsin family farmer, found many similarities between his dairy farming community and the Immokalee workers. His neighbors’ milk prices have remained virtually unchanged since 1978, and their livelihoods are beholden to the market price for milk — in much the same way as the workers are beholden to wages set by the tomato growers. Pointing to the Coalition’s successful grassroots organizing tactics and participatory governance, Goodman said, “As a small farmer, I have a lot to learn from this organization.”
Through its efforts, Reyes says, CIW has “been able to create a community out of this place that, for years, was little more than a labor camp.” The Campaign for Fair Food recognizes that true change will not come to Immokalee without change in the larger system. The Campaign aims the CIW’s grassroots organizing experience at “changing the industry mentality that sees workers as a disposable commodity to be used and thrown away,” according to Reyes. The idea to adjust the coalition’s lens to focus on the buyers outside Immokalee came from the grassroots; a dedication to building strong partnerships has been key to the success of the resulting campaigns.
From the Grassroots to the Nation
When CIW began its first campaign, a boycott of Taco Bell (owned by Yum! Brands, the largest fast food corporation in the world), Reyes says, “people thought we were crazy — and some of us agreed with them. No one had heard of Immokalee, and we were taking on this major corporation.” The campaign built momentum through partnerships with religious communities and student groups, holding teach-ins about the realities of farmworker life and public actions to draw attention to their plight. After four years of an ever-expanding boycott, media campaign, increased partnerships, and student organizing to remove the chain from campuses, Taco Bell was forced to come to the table.
The CIW then took on McDonald’s , Burger King, and Subway, with exposure, public support and alliances increasing with each campaign. The Subway campaign lasted only eight months before the corporation signed an agreement with the Coalition. Unfortunately, the Florida Tomato Grower’s Exchange (FTGE), the organizing body for the tomato grower corporations, has blocked the agreements by threatening a $100,000 fine to any member growers who participate in the penny-per-pound agreements. (The growers have to open their books in order for the money paid by the fast food companies to reach the workers.) The payments reached under the agreements have currently been suspended, with the money paid by the fast food corporations being held in escrow. The CIW is fighting this in the courts and with the help of several senators, and the issue is on the agenda for the discussion with Governor Crist.
Last September, CIW signed a landmark agreement with Whole Foods, which, although also currently subject to the FTGE blockade, has larger implications than the penny-per-pound payments. Working with CIW, Whole Foods will create a domestic purchasing program based on its third-party verified fair trade program in developing countries. With the development of these new standards, Whole Foods purchasing will support tomato farmers who provide equitable wages and a safe and healthy working environment, which, in Florida, are generally small farmers who find it difficult to compete with the major corporations who are members of FTGE. The CIW is hopeful that the agreement will shift greater market share towards these farms and, ultimately, lead to a radical shift in the industry standard.
United We Stand
WhyHunger is privileged to have supported CIW for many years. The Coalition was a 2006 Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award winner and a 2002 finalist for the award. CIW representatives have often been part of the WhyHunger Forum and other panels, and we have actively featured them as a model program and promoted their action alerts, boycotts, and other campaigns. As I said in a statement at the press conference in Immokalee, WhyHunger sees the abysmal treatment of farmworkers — like the rising rates of hunger and increased enrollment in the SNAP (formerly food stamps) program — as a symptom of a profoundly broken food system. In his Gourmet article, Barry Estabrook points out that many Immokalee farmworkers rely on the local soup kitchen. Food stores are scarce and, lacking transportation, workers are at the mercy of the stores’ high prices. It is a broken system, indeed, when the people we rely on to harvest our food cannot afford to feed themselves.
Particularly at this critical moment of crisis in our financial, energy, climate and food systems, we must take a cue from the CIW and broaden our view to include new alliances. “The environmental movement is absurd and risks irrelevance when it doesn’t address workers,” commented Tom Philpott in his article for Grist. “We can’t heal the environment until we fix the food system, and we can’t revalue our food system until we revalue labor.” The Coalition of Immokalee Workers shows us how to get there, working from the grassroots and moving towards a better future with creativity and conviction. “It is very hopeful,” Food First Executive Director Eric Holt-Giménez reminded the delegation, “that the people most hurt by this food system are the ones bringing us together today.”
For more, please also see Food Movements Unite! Strategies to Transform Our Food Systems by Eric Holt-Giménez, and “The Secret — I Saw, Close-up, the Real Root of Global Economic Collapse,” by Frances Moore Lappe.