March 21, 2007
Picking produce in the Florida town of Immokalee — a city whose name ironically translates in Seminole to “our home” — is far from easy for Mexican immigrant Roberto. His day begins at 4:30 a.m., when he starts to search for an interested contractor. If he is successful, he usually works 10-hour shifts without water or bathroom breaks, first picking tomatoes hunched over, then running to the loading truck with the 32-pound load on his shoulder. “Running with the tomatoes is so difficult,” he says through a translator. “Then, with the ride back, we don’t get home until 7 or 8 o’clock at night.” Although life is tough, Roberto’s active membership in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) provides needed social support and economic relief.
CIW is a worker’s organization comprised chiefly of Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrants who work in Immokalee. Created 14 years ago by a small group of discontented fruit pickers, CIW’s organizing strategy is simple: Consciousness plus Commitment equals Change. Its 2,000 members and organizers analyze their own economic and political condition while developing internal leadership skills essential to the organization’s sustainability, a difficult task in a labor sector where workers remain grounded for only short periods of time. Members develop awareness of their community’s pressing concerns through weekly meetings and popular education methods like theater, videos, and flyers. They then act to eliminate the injustices they identify, participating in actions as diverse as work stoppages, marches, education tours and hunger strikes.
Since its humble beginnings, the organization has won serious victories and achieved international notoriety. Its initial organizing campaign coalesced in 2000 when CIW was able to raise the tomato-picking piece rate in Immokalee back to pre-1980 levels, a price that had dropped for two successive decades. This limited triumph came at no small cost; workers in Immokalee struck on three separate occasions, six daring pickers endured a one month-long hunger strike and members marched 230 miles to raise awareness about their plight. CIW has also stood on the front line of the fight to end involuntary servitude in the fields. Working closely with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, CIW exposed and helped to prosecute six modern-day slavery cases, the most recent of which brought three Lake Placid, Fla., growers to justice after they forced over 600 workers to work unwillingly, extorted company money and used firearms to instill discipline.
CIW’s most notable triumph, however, came in the spring of 2005 when Yum! Brands — the corporation behind such fast food giants as Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s — decided to address sweatshop conditions in Florida farms. After a four-year boycott that included a 10-day hunger strike and two cross-country “Taco Bell Truth Tours,” the company agreed to all of CIW’s demands, most importantly a one penny per pound increase in the wages of tomato pickers and worker collaboration on the drafting and enforcement of a code of conduct.