Tags: agriculture, burger king, cesar chavez, ciw, fair food, farm workers, floriida labor, food industry, immokalee, justice, labor, labour, michelle chan, roger hollander, taco bell, tomato industry, trader joe's, ufw
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The hot summer has brought in a bumper crop of food activism from coast to coast. For the past few weeks, a group of Florida farm workers has embarked on a marketing coup that challenges the country’s food business giants by educating consumers about exploitation in the tomato industry.
(Image: Coalition of Immokalee Workers) The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has made a name for itself by using creative consumer-driven campaigns to promote fairer wages and working conditions for tomato harvesters, a workforce fueled by Latino migrant laborers. Though corporate resistance has been formidable, the group has scored a series of victories over the past few years over the likes of Taco Bell, Burger King and Subway. Partnering with consumer groups and fair-food activists, the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food seeks to educate people about the brutal labor that goes into each tomato.
Farmworkers’ backbreaking toil will be spotlighted on some of the trendiest sidewalks in Manhattan on Friday, with rallies at Trader Joe’s stores in the Village and Chelsea. The actions follow a similar campaign on the West Coast in which protesters in San Francisco and Berkeley wielded paper-bag picket signs and marched through the Mission District calling on drivers to “Honk for Farm Worker Justice.” The CIW now counts a number of religious leaders and gourmet food activist Barry Estabrook among its allies.
The Coalition says its multi-pronged struggle involves “all the elements of our country’s food industry,” from the folks hauling baskets all the way up to the florescent-lit supermarket aisle. Most importantly, the organization banks on the political leverage of consumers to push stores and suppliers to abide by ethical standards. With an active membership of several thousand, the workers themselves participate as well through organizing and educating people on “humanizing our farm labor system.”
The workers’ key demand, an additional penny per pound of tomatoes picked, seems a tiny cost for consumers and producers to absorb, given the workers’ long hours, arduous working conditions and their vulnerability to maltreatment and even slave labor. The pennies do add up for laborers, potentially boosting yearly earnings by several thousand dollars. (Typical wages amount to less than $12,000 annually, according to the Coalition, and after years of virtually stagnant wages, “a worker today must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage in a typical 10-hour workday.”)
CIW’s summer Truth Tour demonstrations, which focus on big-name grocers, have been decried by the right-wing blogosphere as a “Prototypical Example of Alinsky Tactics and Smug Self-Immortalization.” Translation: an effective protest action.
The campaign puts Trader Joe’s hip, liberal brand in a bind: the company complained publicly in May that while it was willing to comply with CIW’s demands in general, specific provisions of the draft agreement were “overreaching” and “improper.” CIW responded with lengthy point-by-point rebuttals and declared, ‘It seems that the longer Trader Joe’s resists the Fair Food movement, the more its leadership — from the CEO to the public relations department — is determined to tarnish the company’s reputation as an ethical, progressive grocer.”
The organizing model evokes interesting historical comparisons with another wave of farm labor activist in the 1960s and 1970s led by United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez, which pioneered union organizing in agriculture. Yet the UFW has lost political salience over the years, as working conditions have deteriorated.
The younger, nimbler CIW is not a union, but in many ways neither needs nor desires the conventional union structure. The fluid, precarious nature of migrant labor is a barrier to movement building, yet at the same time, the tomato industry’s severe consolidation across the supply chain provide fertile ground for focused, visible campaigns that mobilize consumers and workers in tandem.
Last fall, Kari Lydersen reported that faced with pressure from consumers and workers, some of Florida’s big growers had finally agreed to the penny-per-pound wage subsidy. Soon after, the Coalition clinched a groundbreaking deal with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which bound major growers to a contract that includes “a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process.” The agreement, estimated to cover more than 90 percent of Florida’s tomato industry, helps close a crucial gap in the chain, since retailers and restaurants agreeing to the penny raise could guarantee that the benefit would trickle down to workers.
The enforcement mechanism within the binding agreement is designed to keep growers and suppliers in check, using an outside nonprofit group to monitor compliance, so that, at least in theory, any grower that violates the code won’t be able to sell to retailers also bound to the agreement. CIW organizer Lucas Benitez told Naples Daily News that employers have to answer to both their buyers and their workers:
With this agreement, we will be working with growers to identify and eliminate abuses through a cooperative complaint investigation and resolution system, with real consequences for violations, including zero tolerance for forced labor.
In the absence of strong government regulation, the Coalition’s strategy aims not just to force employers to obey labor laws but also strive for decent working standards overall, in order to turn Florida’s tomato industry from a bastion of poverty into, in Benitez’s words, “a model of social accountability for the 21st century.”
Whether such industrial change can be wrought by a motley alliance of some of the country’s poorest workers, the biggest food brands, and the savviest customers, has yet to be seen. But if a bunch of migrant farm workers can get Manhattan hipsters to think seriously about who picked their salad this summer, they’re on the road to victory.
Governor Crist: It’s Time to End Slavery in Florida March 22, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Immigration, Labor.
Tags: bernie sanders, burger king, cheap labor, farm workers, florida, florida agribusiness, florida slavery, florida tomatoes, food justice, governor crist, human rights, immokalee, jeb bush, jim goodman, mcdonalds, roger hollander, slavery, subway, taco bell, taco bell boycott, tomato growers, whole foods, worker rights
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Published on Sunday, March 22, 2009 by CommonDreams.org
“The extreme is slavery, the norm is disaster.”
–Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as he described the conditions in Immokalee Florida last year.
As a farmer and part of a Food Justice delegation to Immokalee earlier this month I would say that Senator Sanders was spot on. Poverty wages, abusive labor conditions, overpriced dilapidated housing; collectively humiliating the workers and stripping them of their basic human rights. Immokalee, little more than a labor reserve of immigrant farm workers from Mexico, Haiti and Guatemala supplying cheap labor to keep the winter vegetables flowing to northern markets.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was formed in 1992 to organize the workers, help them defend their rights and rise above the daily abuse. Their community organizing eventually led them to, as Senator Sanders put it, the extreme, slavery, over 1,000 men and women held under conditions of modern day slavery since CIW was formed.
Initially the fight for worker rights was more a struggle for human rights, a struggle for the worker to be recognized as something other than merely a cog in the machinery of Florida agribusiness. CIW started with a general work strike, then in 1997 a hunger strike asking for dialog with the growers, but as one grower put it “a tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm”. While the power of the growers seemed insurmountable there were other avenues to pursue.
Starting at the top of the food industry seemed like a David vs. Goliath task, yet the CIW saw promise, for indeed David had defeated Goliath. Their Campaign for Fair Food targeted the corporate buyers of Florida tomatoes, Taco Bell (part of YUM Brands) and later McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods.
Initially there was silence, no response from Taco Bell. A year later with still no response, a successful four year national boycott was launched with the cooperation of organized labor, religious, student and non-profit groups. The demands: worker rights, zero tolerance for slavery and a penny more per pound of tomatoes passed directly to the workers. It was a ground breaking victory.
While the ensuing campaigns were still met with resistance, the corporate targets reached agreement faster and with what appeared to be genuine support for worker justice. Yet the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange remains united in their rejection of worker justice.
The growers said (in 2007) they wanted to develop “more impactful, comprehensive” ways of improving the lives of the farm workers and their families. Still the workers wait. The growers claimed the penny per pound deals violated racketeering laws, laws I am sure they understand.
Clearly, the penny a pound campaign was a success with vast popular appeal nationwide. The agreements would nearly double the wages of the workers and cost the Florida Tomato Growers nothing, yet would allow the corporate buyers to develop a business model based on social consciousness and worker participation that could go a long way to ending slavery in South Florida.
The growers, by their refusal to participate in the program, deny the workers what would be their first wage increase in nearly thirty years. By denying the workers a fair wage they also deny them fair working and living conditions, thereby endorsing the ongoing human rights abuses that allow slavery to exist.
One final question needs yet to be answered, what role will Governor Crist play in all of this? Something finally got through to the Governor, whether it was the CIW’s action in Tallahassee on March 9, their two years of repeated requests for a meeting with the Governor, or as Abraham Lincoln might have put it, the guidance of the better angels of his nature. When Governor Crist meets with the CIW this week, will he listen to those better angels?
To his credit Governor Crist held out against any sort of dialog for only two years, his predecessor Jeb Bush remained resolute for eight years. Still, this sudden willingness of Crist to meet with the CIW will mean little without executive action. Agreeing to a meeting is a start, but the true measure of the Governor’s moral compass will be seen in what actions he takes after the meeting.
“This Agreement Has Incredible Importance for Our Movement”–Immokalee Workers Win Agreement with Subway over Tomato Prices in Florida December 10, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
Tags: aramark, benefits, burger king, corporations, farmworker, fast food, florida, gerald reyes, immokalee, labor, labour, marc rodrigues, mcdonalds, minimum wage, overtime, poverty, slavery, sodexo, subway, supermarket, taco bell, tallahasee, tomatoes, unions, wages, workers, workers rights, working conditions
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December 10, 2008
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers reached an agreement last week with Subway, the third largest fast-food chain in the world and the biggest fast-food buyer of Florida tomatoes. Subway now joins other fast-food giants, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King, that have all agreed to pay farm workers at least another penny per pound of tomatoes they harvest and improve working conditions.
Marc Rodrigues, Co-coordinator of Student/Farmworker Alliance. That’s the national network of students in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Gerardo Reyes, Farmworker and member of Coalition of Immokalee Workers
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In our final segment, we turn to an important victory for one of the most impoverished group of workers in this country, the migrant farm workers who harvest tomatoes in Florida. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers reached an agreement last week with Subway, the third largest fast-food chain in the world and the biggest fast-food buyer of Florida tomatoes. Subway now joins other fast-food giants—McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King—that have all agreed to pay farm workers at least another penny per pound of tomatoes they harvest and improve working conditions.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders hailed the agreement with Subway, describing it as “yet another blow to the scourge of slavery that continues to exist in the tomato fields of Florida.”
Coalition members are in New York this week for their Northeast Fair Food tour and will be honored tonight by the Small Planet Fund on the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
We’re joined in the studio by Gerardo Reyes from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Marc Rodrigues from the Student/Farmworker Alliance, that’s in partnership with the coalition.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
MARC RODRIGUES: Thanks. Thanks for having us.
GERARDO REYES: Thanks.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Gerardo, let’s begin with you. Talk about the significance of this new deal with Subway.
GERARDO REYES: Well, this agreement has an incredible importance for our movement, because it started as an idea to bring the biggest fast-food corporations to the table in order to improve the conditions that we face in the fields every day, conditions that go from stagnant wages to slavery, in the most extreme conditions. And right now, with this agreement with Subway, we could say that the most important representatives of the fast-food industry have already given their position on the situation, and they are in favor of a change. So now the question is for the supermarket industry and the providers of food to schools, like Aramark and Sodexo, that continue to benefit from the misery of communities like ours.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you spoke about these conditions. Can you describe them a little more in more detail for our audience?
GERARDO REYES: Basically, today, a farm worker has to pick two-and-a-half tons of tomatoes in order to make only the equivalent to the minimum wage of Florida. But that’s picking by piece. The tomato bucket of thirty-two pounds gets paid from forty to forty-five cents. That’s without any type of benefits nor protections. We work from ten to fourteen hours in a normal day, seven days a week, if there’s work, without receiving overtime pay.
Workers—farm workers in most of the states of this country are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act that gives workers a right to organize. That’s why the agricultural industry have not paid attention to the demands that we had in the past. And that’s why we’re asking, like, who’s benefiting the most from our poverty? How could we change the way that the agricultural industry, the corporate agricultural industrial, exists today in the United States? And it was by focusing on the big buyers, that are the ones who get more profit than anybody else.
ANJALI KAMAT: I want to bring Marc Rodrigues into the conversation, and I want to ask you about the role of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. They seemed to be a stumbling block in this process. Can you explain who they are and what their position is on this deal that the Coalition has won with all of these fast-food chains?
MARC RODRIGUES: Yeah. Basically, the Tomato Growers Exchange is an entity that represents about 90 percent of the growers in Florida and goes to Tallahassee or D.C. to lobby on their behalf.
And what has happened ever since, more or less, we reached the agreement with McDonald’s is that the Growers Exchange has come out strongly opposing these agreements, first saying that they were un-American or saying that they’re possibly illegal, just saying that they didn’t want their members to participate in them. And so, they actually implemented a $100,000 fine against any of their own member growers who would be willing to fully participate in these agreements and allow the extra penny per pound to get through to the workers.
We know that there are growers who are willing to do that, because for a couple of years after we reached our agreement with Taco Bell in 2005, the penny per pound passed through was working completely fine. It wasn’t until the growers put up this resistance that that was halted.
Today, one of the major corporations that we have agreements with remain fully committed to carrying out those agreements. They’re still paying the extra penny per pound, but it’s going into a sort of neutral escrow account instead of getting to the workers. And we hope that the money from that account will be disbursed to the workers very soon, possibly starting with this season.
What we know is that this resistance on the part of the growers is a sign that our campaign is having an effect and that we are starting to make the change that we want to make, because, you know, just as the civil rights movement had its Bull Connors, we have the Growers Exchange. And they say that a candle burns the brightest when it’s about to go out, and it appears that that’s what’s happening now.
The important thing here is that, ironically, the resistance on the part of the growers has also attracted new allies to our cause, which might help us more in the long run. For example, we have four prominent US senators—
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We just have ten seconds.
MARC RODRIGUES: —who are supporting us. And so, we’re going to see if we can work out the situation soon.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, that’s all we have time for. I want to thank you very much for being with us. Marc Rodrigues is a co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. And Gerardo Reyes is a farm worker and member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.