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We Are All Leaders: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Kate picks up some fresh tomatoesDown in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has been involved for 10 years in an active struggle against the tomato growers over, among others issues, a living wage. The pickers are the very definition of the working poor, a combination of migrant workers and American citizens who are experiencing homelessness. A lot of those tomato farms have not raised the pay rates in 30 years, and some say this industry is the closest thing we have to slavery in America today.

The tomato harvesters need better pay and better working conditions. There have been boycotts and federal investigations, and finally the workers hit on the effective combination of right target and right tactic. The Campaign for Fair Food began by focusing its efforts on the fast-food industry, then went after the food-service sector, announcing in August:

The foodservice industry — the companies that, operating largely behind the scenes, manage cafeterias in the nation’s grade schools and universities, hospitals and hotels, government agencies and institutions, and more — is comprised, almost in its entirety, of its three largest members, Compass, Aramark, and Sodexo. With today’s announcement, all three of those companies have now signed Fair Food agreements.

The CIW is into education, investigation, and agitation. Its members and supporters are vocal, articulate, persistent, and sincere organizers and activists who are great at demonstrating, and are very adept at winning the support and help of the general public. They go into stores and talk to the customers, and deliver letters to the managers, stating,

It is imperative that your company seize the opportunity to be part of the solution to Florida’s longstanding shame of farmworker exploitation.

They believe that those who hold great power in the world also have a great responsibility, a notion that used to be called noblesse oblige. The giant supermarket chains are their next target. To make sure that corporations meet their responsibilities, the CIW has a couple of major actions planned for this coming spring, one in Florida and one in Quincy, Massachusetts, at a corporate HQ.

If you are cheered and heartened by stories of how public shaming can affect a corporation, you will enjoy Richard R. Troxell’s tale of the actions aimed at Best Buy, in chapter two of his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Perez has covered real estate, home builders, cruise lines, and airlines, and now his beat is the Justice Department. Lately, he has been writing about the struggle in Florida, and brings us up to date on part of the movement’s history:

Taco Bell was the first target. After four years of protests and boycotts, Taco Bell corporate parent Yum! Brands Inc. in 2005 agreed to pay the surcharge to suppliers that would be passed along to workers. Next, the farm workers group went after McDonald’s, which signed a similar agreement in 2007, and then Burger King Holdings Inc. a year later.

Perez quotes Reggie Brown, who is executive VP of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. The indignant Brown has warned his fellow tycoons:

This type of tactic could be used against any company in corporate America. They’d be well advised to take note.

Exactly! That’s the whole idea! That’s what made the Pacific Tomato Growers, for example, agree to pass along the extra-penny-a-pound surcharge that McDonald’s is paying them.

Why, you may ask, should paying these workers even require a special surcharge, which will be passed on to the consumers who, after all, are also trying to stay solvent? Isn’t paying the employees a basic built-in cost of doing business? Why don’t McDonald’s and the other corporations take it out of their own profits, which are surely abundant? That is one of the mysteries of the Universe.

A raise of one cent per pound of tomatoes would result in something much closer to a living wage for the workers, but, although the CIW has put a lot of energy into trying to convince the growers, it was no use. They even got some of the huge corporate customers to pay the extra penny per pound, but the growers were forbidden by their trade association from passing it on to the tomato pickers. Outfits like Taco Bell have been keeping it in escrow.

Labor Notes reporter Mischa Gaus, formerly a writer for In These Times, knows all about workers — in communications, the postal system, the steel industry, the health care field, and the tomato fields. He quotes CIW leader Lucas Benitez, who says,

We are not today claiming that we have achieved the changes sought by the Campaign for Fair Food. Rather, we are announcing that we have forged a plan of action that gives us a realistic chance to bring about those changes.

In other words, there is still plenty to do. But things are looking better. Along with better pay, the workers want some other kinds of social justice too. They have convinced some companies to agree to the CIW’s code of conduct, which includes third-party monitors to make sure that the wage increase actually makes it to the workers’ pockets. There is also a health and safety program, a complaint-resolution system, and a guarantee that CIW representatives are allowed to talk with workers in the fields.

Source: “Ready to take action now?,” Coalition of Immokalee Workers, 10/11/10
Source: “Major Grower to Join Wage Plan,” The Wall Street Journal, 10/13/10
Source: “Tomato Pickers Secure Path-Breaking Deal with Florida Grower,” SouthernStudies.org, 10/13/10
Image by Dion Hinchcliffe, used under its Creative Commons license.