By Henry Taksier
Above: Photos taken March 5, 2011 during a rally in Tampa organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, in which 1,500 farm workers and their allies took to the streets to protest inhumane working conditions throughout Florida’s fields.
A New Hope for Florida’s Farm Workers
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Gainesville Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice are celebrating a renewed sense of hope this week.
Publix Media and Community Relations Manager Dwaine Stevens assured a Gainesville pastor that he would encourage his company’s upper management to negotiate with the CIW during its Fast for Fair Food, which begins Monday.
The Interfaith Alliance characterized Stevens’ promise as a “complete reversal” of his former position: “We don’t have any plans to sit down with the CIW,” he told the Baldwin County News last year. “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business. Maybe the government should get involved.”
The “atrocities” he mentioned include the widespread exploitation of farm workers throughout Florida’s recent history—specifically, subminimum wages, questionable working conditions and at least nine cases of outright slavery since 1996—which the CIW has been struggling to eradicate. Publix, which allegedly provides a market for abusive growers, is one of their last remaining targets.
The Fields of Immokalee
Florida provides 45 percent of all tomatoes purchased in the United States, and from October to June, the rate skyrockets to over 90 percent. The fields surrounding Immokalee make up the epicenter of Florida’s tomato industry, and every growing season, Immokalee’s population temporarily doubles, flooded with migrant workers who rely on income from picking tomatoes.
In Immokalee, the systematic lack of legal protection leaves thousands of workers vulnerable to slavery, physical assault, child labor and sexual harassment. The CIW, which began as a handful of defiant farm workers, now represents the collective voice of about 4,500 migrant workers of mostly Hispanic, Haitian and Mayan descent.
Through its Fair Food Program, the CIW has struck deals with ten major food corporations—including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Aramark, Sodexo, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s—and over 90 percent of Florida’s tomato growers.
The program requires growers to follow a Code of Conduct designed to protect their workers from human rights violations, and it requires retailers to cut their purchases from growers who fail to enforce it.
Participating retailers have also agreed to pay one extra penny directly to farm workers for each pound of tomatoes they purchase. To a struggling farm worker, the extra penny could mark the difference between abject poverty and livable wages.
The Last Piece of the Puzzle
About two years ago, the CIW shifted its focus to supermarkets, which might be considered the “last piece of the puzzle,” according to Joe Parker, co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Any major supermarket that isn’t part of the Fair Food Program may provide an outlet for abusive growers, he said.
But Publix refuses to join the CIW’s Fair Food Program, claiming that any sort of abuse within its supply chain is a labor dispute between workers, growers and, if necessary, the government.
The CIW and its allies have pointed out that other supermarkets—like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s—have already joined its program, which would benefit workers in Florida through the same process that Publix’s Fair Trade coffee benefits workers in Latin America.
“Fair trade prices help farmers provide employees with livable wages and work conditions. Which fosters the same values we do: community, well-being, and a nicer world,” Publix says on its Fair Trade coffee label.
The late George Jenkins, Publix’s founder, received widespread admiration for granting his employees stock in the company: “Never let making a profit get in the way of doing the right thing,” he famously said.
On March 5—exactly one year ago—1,500 farm workers and sympathetic protesters marched through the streets of Tampa and picketed multiple Publix locations. Six months later, CIW members pedaled 200 miles from Immokalee to Publix’s corporate headquarters in Lakeland, seeking an audience with Ed Crenshaw, the current CEO.
The farm workers were greeted at the end of their Pilgrimage to Publix by about 50 allies, including students and religious leaders. Their goal was to invite Crenshaw out to the fields of Immokalee so he could see firsthand the conditions within his company’s supply chain. Crenshaw didn’t have time to step outside, so he sent public relations officers to collect petitions and other materials.
“We thought Crenshaw was going to do the right thing,” said Oscar Otzoy, one of the farm workers. “But he didn’t even show his face.”
A Transformative Exchange
On Feb. 29, the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce invited Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens to appear as a keynote speaker at their Annual Membership Breakfast, where he lectured 800 business and community leaders about “The Publix Culture.”
Stevens shared an anecdote about Publix’s founder, who had previously worked for a different grocery chain. Jenkins, a dedicated worker, drove one day from Florida to Atlanta so he could share an idea with the company’s management. The manager didn’t have time to grant him an audience. Jenkins’ frustration led him to leave the business and start Publix, vowing to prioritize the dignity of those underneath him.
Dr. Richard MacMaster, a member of the Emmanuel Mennonite Church and an organizer of the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice, woke up at 5 a.m. that morning and drove to the event from Gainesville just to hear Stevens speak. In a question-and-answer session, he asked Stevens why Publix has consistently refused to negotiate with the CIW.
“I appreciate your question,” Stevens replied. “We have several thousand suppliers and partners within our organization and if one of our suppliers had a labor issue, we couldn’t get involved because it is between the corporation and its workers. That is our position…”
What the Interfaith Alliance describes as a “transformative” moment may have occurred when Father Les Singleton, vicar at a Micanopy church and the son of an Immokalee farmer, asked Stevens if—in carrying out Publix’s tradition of dignity and respect—he would personally commit to encouraging his upper management to meet with the CIW next time they send representatives to the company’s headquarters.
“I will,” Stevens replied immediately. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
Keeping the Promise
In an interview Thursday, Singleton remained skeptical. “Based on his past behavior, I think I may be disappointed once again,” he said. “But I would be very excited if they actually talked to representatives from the CIW. Regardless of what they’ve done in the past, everyone is capable of making better decisions—including Dwaine Stevens and the CEO, Ed Crenshaw. They can say ‘Hey, we’re going to do the right thing.’”
“I think it depends on how much he hears from people,” said Kimberly Hunter, an Interfaith Alliance organizer. “And how much we’re willing to hold him accountable through calling his office, sending him emails, contacting his boss and informing his boss of the promise.”
Stevens did not return phone calls to his office Thursday or Friday.
On March 5, approximately 50 farm workers and allies from the Student/Farmworker and Interfaith Alliances will assemble in Lakeland under the shadow of Publix’s headquarters and fast for six days, consuming only liquids.
According to the CIW, fasting has always been a powerful form of resistance, dating back to the roots of the farm workers’ rights movement. All are welcome to attend the CIW’s Fast for Fair Food.
Update (4/26/2012): Despite recent efforts from the CIW, Publix refuses to address human rights violations within its supply chain. Includes details from the protest and more information about the conflict.