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The Struggle for Fair and Just Food
For the past 15 years the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based worker organization consisting of Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian immigrants who work low-wage agricultural jobs in the state of Florida, has been fighting for fair and just working conditions and an end to indentured servitude in the fields of Southwest Florida.
Immokalee is the states largest farm working community, made up of over 2,500 workers, 50 percent of whom are Mexican, 30 percent Guatemalan, and 10 percent Haitian and other nationalities. The majority of these workers are employed as day laborers for large agricultural corporations in the tomato and citrus harvests.
CIW began its work in 1993 as a small group of workers meeting weekly to discuss how to better [their] community and [their] lives. Migrant workers are unable to join any of the North American trade unions. As a result, the CIW does not have the ability to bargain collectively or leverage deals through labor talks. Direct action has been the only way for workers to get the goods in the Florida fields. In a decade and a half the CIW has put heat on the agricultural industry by organizing community-wide work stoppages, general strikes, a month-long hunger strike, and a 230 mile march from Fort Myers to Orlando.
These inexhaustible organizing efforts won industry-wide wage increases of 13 to 25 percent in 1998. The raises were the first of their kind in over 30 years and brought the tomato picking piece rate back to pre-1980 levels. These wage increases, 28 years behind the rate of inflation, were not enough. Farm- workers still live in deep poverty.
Today Florida tomato pickers earn between 40-45 cents per pound for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. A picker must pick 2 tons of tomatoes a day to earn $56.00. The grueling task takes them between 10 and 12 hours. Workers receive no overtime pay, no benefits, and have repeatedly been denied the right to organize a union.
In November 2002 a five-year campaign by the CIW against slavery and indentured servitude led to the indictments of three crew leaders from Lake Placid, Florida. The Lake Placid Three pled guilty to forcing 700 workers into slave labor in Floridas citrus groves. In May 2004 they were sentenced to a total of 31 years and 9 months in federal prison and were ordered to pay $3 million in restitution for their immigrant smuggling operation.
The CIW gained national attention when they launched the first ever farmworkers boycott of the fast food corporation Taco Bell. The boycott called upon Yum! Brands Inc., to take responsibility for human rights abuses in the fields where its produce is grown and picked. Included under the banner of Yum! operations are Taco Bell, Long John Silvers, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The Boot the Bell boycott gained support from student activist, labor, and religious communities. In 2005, after three years of national pressure from the CIW and allied supporters, Taco Bell and the Yum! Brands agreed to meet Coalition demands to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers in its supply chain.
It was a huge victory for the farmworkers. However, control over one buyer wouldnt be enough. Taco Bell and Yum! buy only 1 percent of the tomatoes grown in the fields of Immokalee.
In 2005, following the deal with Yum!, the CIW released a statement saying, This precedent-setting victory now gives us a strong foundation for pursuing deeper change throughout the entire fast-food industry and in turn the Florida agricultural industry.
Subsequently, the next link in the strand of chain restaurants the CIW sought to unshackle farmworkers from was McDonalds. After the deal with Taco Bell, McDonalds began working with a growers lobbying association called the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA) to undermine the agreement with Taco Bell and keep wages down in the fields.
Representatives from McDonalds met with the industries leading growers at a tomato packing house in Palmetto, Florida. It was reported in the Lakeland Ledger, Polk Countys daily newspaper, that, Members of the restaurant industry and the Florida agriculture industry met to discuss an escalating labor war. At the packing house meeting, the FFVA, in cooperation with some of the industries largest buyers and representatives from their PR firms, created an employer-controlled monitoring program called Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) as an alternative to the code of conduct agreement that the CIW had established with Taco Bell and Yum! Brands.
For two years McDonalds refused to talk with CIW organizers about improving labor conditions in the Florida fields. As a result, CIW, together with the Student Farm Workers Alliance (SFA), organized the 2007 Truth Tour aimed at making Fast Food Fair Food, confronting McDonalds and bringing to light their continued efforts to sweep issues of modern day slavery under the rug. Busloads of workers and their families spent ten days traveling from Immokalee to Chicago, stopping in cities along the way while raising awareness about unjust buying practices in the fast food industry and how they contribute to torturous labor conditions. Organizers planned for workers voices to come to a crescendo with solidarity activists outside McDonalds global headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois on April 13, where the CIW planned to announce a boycott.
The campaign came to an unexpected halt on April 9, when representatives from the McDonalds Corporation agreed to meet with CIW organizers and workers at the Jimmy Carter Peace Center in Atlanta, Georgia. At the meeting McDonalds USA and its produce suppliers announced they would work with the CIW to improve wages and working conditions in the fields by promising to pay pickers an extra penny per pound for their labor. Beginning with the 2007 season, Florida harvesters will earn 72 to 77 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick for McDonalds, a 70 percent wage increase. In addition, McDonalds agreed to work together with the CIW and produce suppliers to develop a new code of conduct for Florida tomato growers, and increase farmworker participation in monitoring supplier compliance, as well as to allow farmworkers to participate in investigating worker complaints. McDonalds and its produce suppliers also agreed to cooperate with CIW in developing and implementing a credible third-party verification system between pickers, suppliers, and buyers.
Today, with McDonalds, we have taken another major step toward a world where we as farmworkers can enjoy a fair wage and humane working conditions in exchange for the hard and essential work we do every day. We are not there yet, but we are getting there, and todays agreement should send a strong message to the rest of the restaurant and supermarket industry that it is now time to stand behind the food they sell from the field to the table, said Lucas Benetiz, co-founder of the CIW.
The agreement with McDonalds did not stop the Truth Tour caravan. CIW then announced it would shift the focus of the fair and just fast food campaign from McDonalds to Burger King. The contracts negotiated with Yum! Brands and McDonalds allow workers to earn about $96 for 12 hours of laborpicking 4,000 pounds of tomatoes. The current industry contracts with Burger King earn workers $56 per day for the same amount of work. Right now only McDonalds and Taco Bell are on the table, said Benetiz. We need to put pressure on others in fast food and we need to continue to disrupt. If Burger King does not change by the end of this year, we are going to create a lot of pressure and it is going to be a much stronger campaign, he added, hinting at CIW plans to stage a boycott against the restaurant chain.
The arrival of the truth tour in Chicago was marked by a celebration that kicked off with the Our World Our Rights Festival on April 13 at the College of Dupage in Glen Ellyn, just outside of Chicago. Organizers estimated that about 2,000 workers and supporters turned out for the event, which featured a number of speakers from the movement, a series of workshops on topics ranging from International Solidarity, Community Based Media, and the Burger King Campaign Strategy to Sustainable Food and Farming, and more.
Among the speakers on the stage was 13-year-old Eduardo Venegas, youngest of the companeros from Immokalee. Venegas told the audience what it was like to lose his childhood in the fields. Most of the workers, he explained, are between 15 and 30 years old. Venegas came to the United States when he was 11 years old. I have been living in Immo- kalee for two years now. I came to the U.S. for a better future, but I find myself struggling here as well. I live in a room with my entire family and I go to school, but on the days that I am free, I go to work, and help my parents. It is truly difficult; it is hard work that [we] do. [We] get paid so little. Sometimes [we] get sick from working so hard and [we] have hardly made any money. Through this struggle we hope to change that. I want to see that day when the workers have the power and the strength to speak, he said.
Founding voice of the struggle, Lucas Benitez, took the stage after Venegas, congratulating everyone in attendance for their contributions to the campaign against McDonalds. It is very interesting to see when all of the forces unite. The students, the churches, the unions, all following the same motives, because it is not just a victory for us, the workers, its a victory for everyone that has put in their little grain of sand, from sending a post card or taking a letter to a manager at a restaurantall of those things made this victory possible.
The day of celebration ended with a rally as activists converged on five Burger King restaurants in the area. The disruption came just in time to detour the days dinner rush. As the sun was setting, activists chanted, Down with the King, and raised banners reading, Fair Food Not Fast Food.
The festivities continued into the following day with the Concert for Fair Food at the House of Blues in downtown Chicago. Among the many performers were the Latino Hip Hop group Rebel Diaz and Tom Morello and Zac de La Rocha from Rage Against the Machine.
De La Rocha took the stage with Morello for their first public appearance together in over two years. Addressing the audience he said, It is a pleasure to be here this evening with the Coalition of Immokalee farm- workers and their supporters who are out there every single day, working, challenging apathy, and breaking the strong hold that this industry has had over their workers and their families forever. He then broke out a note- book and began rapping a fresh set of lyrics which hed finished writing just hours earlier:
Its the CIW why?
They walk the talk and their
work becomes a weapon
Its the CIW why?
Justice in the fields and the
clown gets a stepping
Its the CIW now
Justice in the fields and the
King is going Down
Chris Heneghan is a freelance journalist. For more information visit www.ciw- online.org.
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