Mar 4, 2011

By Jessica Newman

Long after the sun had set over the tomato fields, a weary but electrified group of farm workers crammed into a small office space in downtown Immokalee, Fla. All of the workers in the room had worked 10- to 12-hour shifts in the fields that day, but their outrage and passion kept them awake on a cold December night in 1997.

Days earlier, a crew leader from a multi-million dollar tomato farm had beaten a young farm worker because he paused to take a sip of water. After his shift, the bruised 16-year-old brought his bloody shirt straight to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots, community-based organization of approximately 4,500 immigrants (mostly Haitian, Mayan Indian and Latino) fighting for farm worker justice in the fields.

Now, days after the abuse, he found himself surrounded by other, equally enraged CIW members willing to fight against such an injustice, even though he’d never been to a single meeting.

After a failed attempt to discuss the incident with the abusive crew leader, the CIW organized a nighttime march to the crew leader’s house, drawing the attention of approximately 30 Collier County Sheriff’s officers.

About 500 farm workers marched that night in solidarity with the beaten teenager, using his bloodied shirt as a symbolic flag. In the weeks following the protest, the crew leader couldn’t find workers to harvest his crops.

After that night, there was a marked change in the fight for the rights of migrant workers in the Southwest Florida town.

“The frequent beatings that characterized farm labor around Immokalee largely disappeared as the icy climate of fear that pervaded the worker community for so long melted away,” says Sean Sellers, a Food and Society Fellow who’s worked with the CIW and the Campaign for Fair Food for more than seven years and wrote his master’s thesis on the organization.

Raising Wages and Fighting Slavery

That shift in 1997 occurred just four years after the CIW formed. Since that time, the organization has struck deals through its Campaign for Fair Food with national megacorporations like Yum! Brands (the largest restaurant company in the world, Yum! owns Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s), Burger King, and McDonald’s.

Since 2005, these corporations have all agreed to pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes picked by farm workers in the fields, nearly doubling the percentage of the retail price that goes to the farm worker, and to put market pressure on suppliers to establish Codes of Conduct to prevent abuse and increase the standard of living for workers.

Florida tomatoes account for 95 percent of all U.S.-grown tomatoes eaten by Americans October through June and 45 percent of all those eaten year-round. The CIW started off trying to negotiate with the growers 15 years ago, but after meeting a brick wall, they shifted their focus to the consumers of the product—the retail corporations.

But retailers could only do so much if the producers refused to cooperate, which they did vehemently until a series of recent victories broke the stalemate.

Just in the last two months, the Coalition celebrated three of its most significant achievements yet, with two large producers, Pacific Tomato Growers and Six L’s, and then with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), an interest group representing 90 percent of Florida’s tomato industry.

The recent triumphs represent a “watershed moment,” as Lucas Benitez of the CIW says in a press release, because of the long and messy history the Coalition has with the corporations involved.

Both Pacific Tomato Growers and Six L’s were directly tied to a case of modern-day slavery in early 2008, when the Navarette family in Immokalee went to federal prison for enslaving 12 workers who were brought to and worked on the corporations’ fields. The CIW worked with the Department of Justice to shut down these farming operations in a series of long and heated battles in federal courts.

Even after the victory in 2008, the CIW refused to let up on the growers, bringing more and more retailers (the customer base of PTG and Six L’s) into negotiations. Eventually, with the pressure from their clientele, the giant tomato growers had no other choice but to cooperate.

At the end of 2007, FTGE announced that any of its member farms caught cooperating with the CIW and its allies on the Campaign for Fair Food would be fined $100,000 per worker benefiting from the agreement. This effectively made it impossible for any tomato grower in the state to improve pay or working conditions for farm workers, and with control over 90 percent of Florida growers, FTGE’s stern resistance to the CIW had a chilling effect. Even the corporations like Yum! Brands, who struck deals with the CIW years before in 2005, could only do so much if their growers had their hands tied.

At a Senate hearing in 2008 meant to discuss labor conditions for the farm workers of Florida, FTGE denied any mistreatment, “blatantly lying” in the face of a mountain of contradicting evidence, Sellers says.

For example, FTGE claimed Florida farm workers make an average of $12.46 per hour in the fields. But at 45 cents a bucket for 32-pound buckets, this means the farm worker would have to fill, transport and unload a bucket every two minutes in their 10-hour day. And this doesn’t include the unpaid time workers spend waiting to be picked up in the morning or for the dew to dry or for transport to the field.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who visited Immokalee in January 2008, explained that the Florida tomato industry needed immediate reform.

“We need to make sure that slavery, servitude and other abuses in the Florida tomato industry continue to receive the attention both in and outside Congress that they deserve so that it is stopped once and for all,” Sanders saidat the time. “In America today we are seeing a race to the bottom, the middle class is collapsing, poverty is increasing. What I saw in Immokalee is the bottom in the race to the bottom.”

But the CIW never gave up, even in the face of such intense backlash from FTGE, the most powerful people in the business. Instead, they kept fighting and eventually forced FTGE into cooperation by dismantling the fortress around them.

“Once there were three major producers and nine corporations, it created enough weight for the FTGE to reconsider,” says Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, 32, CIW member from Zacatecas, Mexico.

How the CIW Is Changing a Small Town And Getting Students Involved

Immokalee is a small town in Southwest Florida with stark contrasts from the cities most outsiders have heard of, like Naples or Fort Myers.

It lies within Collier County, which boasts the nation’s second highest per capita income. But in Immokalee, the 2005 per capita income hovered around $8,200—less than 25 percent of the national average, according to the Immokalee Inventory and Analysis Report.

The permanent population is around 14,000, but during the harvest season of October to June, the population doubles to 30,000 with the migration of farm workers (most of whom are undocumented) to the area for work. This constant state of transition transforms the community every six months, leaving little stability for any permanent institution.

For most of the migrant workers who come to Immokalee, English isn’t the only language barrier. With immigrants coming to work from the Caribbean and all over Central America, the town’s streets are filled with Spanish, Haitian Creole, Mixtec, Kanjobal, Quiche, Tztotzil and more, says Sellers, who lived in Immokalee for a time working with the CIW.

“No one thought Immokalee could ever be organized,” Sellers says. “From a traditional organizing standpoint, it’s a nightmare. But the CIW builds a community where none exists.”

The first step to building this stable community, as any CIW member will tell you, is consciousness-raising.

“Because there has been so much turnover in the agricultural industry up to this point, we basically have to start the process of education and ‘conscientization’ all over again, every season,” says Reyes-Chavez.

This process of consciousness-raising finds its roots in Latin American concepts of popular education, using things like music and art to make workers aware of their reality and what they can do to positively change it.

In Immokalee, this process starts at the beginning of the season when more permanent CIW members distribute fliers with drawings conveying a message about the bosses, the working conditions or something else immediately recognizable to the farm workers. At the bottom, there is information about the CIW weekly meeting on Wednesdays with an invitation to all.

Regardless of the level of formal education or native language, all farm workers can understand the drawing and dwell on its significance. Often times, they’ll end up at the meeting.

“The point of the meetings is to get people to metaphorically take off the blindfold covering their eyes and the gag covering their mouths and start to make the connection between the problems in their lives and out in the fields with their larger root causes and then, of course, with the solutions,” Reyes-Chavez says.

Another tool of consciousness-raising for the CIW is its FM radio station “Radio Conciencia,” where the CIW “creates a space to share the diversity of cultures, languages and experiences that make up Immokalee,” says Reyes-Chavez, who helps run the station.

“The radio is a powerful tool because it allows us to instantly enter into any of the trailers and homes that workers live in, in Immokalee, without physically having to be there,” he says.

None of the DJs or producers of the station (which broadcasts in Haitian, Spanish and indigenous Mayan languages) are paid, and all are members of the CIW. The content is split between traditional and popular music from Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti, and information about workers’ rights and CIW actions.

All of this occurs in Immokalee, directly influencing the farm worker’s way of life in the short term. But for the Coalition to maximize its national impact and really change the food system for the long term, it also has to raise the consciousness of the public.

In doing so, the CIW built strong alliances with organizations like the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA), Interfaith Action and thousands of others, allowing the fight for farm worker justice to spread to college campuses, churches and other institutions around the country.

In the case of SFA, a national network of students and youth organizing with farm workers to eliminate sweatshop conditions in the fields, its creation came as a direct result of work with the CIW.

After a large march in 2000, college students from all over the country decided to use their privilege and influence to work with the CIW, forming the SFA.

“SFA is dedicated to working with farm workers for change, but we will not act on their behalf, instead taking our lead from the workers themselves,” read its organizing philosophy.

When SFA is organizing a large action with the CIW outside of Immokalee, a member will move to the city in order to form relationships with local people, do presentations in schools and churches, and work on general logistics.

“When we do presentations, it’s always a worker from the CIW who is leading the presentation and then us as allies providing interpretation when necessary,” says Marc Rodriguez, a long-time SFA organizer. “We feel it’s important for the voice of the worker and the worker’s reality to be front and center, to be the basic truth and voice of the campaign.”

Earlier this year, the SFA worked at the University of Florida (UF) to convince Aramark, one of the largest food service providers in the country that provides the food for many college campuses and prisons, to listen to the CIW’s requests. The campaign started when a CIW member spoke on campus, says Richard Blake, a UF student and a member of the national SFA steering committee.

After hearing the farm worker’s story, SFA members at UF printed up pamphlets on Aramark for distribution at freshman orientation to incoming students, one of the largest sources of profit for the corporation.

“Once we did that, they really took us seriously,” Blake says. “We were just trying to get a meeting with the local Aramark people, and they ended up sending down all these national executives and vice presidents to sit down and discuss the CIW’s demands.”

Similar consciousness-raising actions were happening at Georgetown University and the University of Texas- Houston to bring Aramark to the bargaining table with the CIW.

In April of this year, the corporation signed an agreement with the Coalition agreeing to help them improve working conditions in the fields.

“[The CIW was] very trusting in what we could do and our abilities,” Blake says. “It is a very good relationship.”

What’s Next

More than a decade has passed since the CIW organized its night march on the abusive crew leader’s house. In that time, the Coalition has struck agreements with nine different national and international corporations in what Sellers calls the “domino effect.”

“More and more people are becoming aware of conditions of where our food comes from,” says Oscar Otzoy, a member of the CIW, in a translated interview. “This doesn’t just affect the farm workers. We all eat food.”

But while the recent victories set the stage for a dramatic change in Florida’s agricultural system, the fight is not over yet. Now the Coalition is turning its focus on the supermarket sector. The CIW is working with Just Harvest and other allies to put pressure on stores like Giant, Publix, Trader Joe’s and Kroger to cooperate with its request to pay one penny more per pound.

There are two major actions planned for the spring. One is scheduled for February in Boston, the headquarters of Ahold USA, owner of Giant, Martin’s and Stop & Shop; the other is scheduled for March in Tampa, right in Publix’s backyard.

“The truth of the situation raises awareness,” Otzoy says. “We don’t win because we have people’s pity or charity. We win because of a change in consciousness when we all realize we must unite.”

And while there’s no telling how long it will take for CIW to achieve its goals in the grocery sector, one thing is for sure: A fight is promised.

To see a timeline of the CIW’s work, click here.

*Editor’s notes: Jessica Newman is the founder and former editor of The Fine Print. She is now a staff writer for Campus Progress. This article was originally published on the Campus Progress website on Jan. 10, 2011. (To see the original article, click here.)

On March 4 and 5th, CIW and allies will march in Tampa calling on Publix to “Do the Right Thing.” For more information on the march and CIW’s “Do the Right Thing” campaign, click here.

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  1. [...] or to drink water?“, and launched into him, leaving him badly bruised and bloodied – and determined to find justice. The young worker walked back to Immokalee, headed straight to the CIW office, and sparked a [...]

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