Protest by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers outside a Wendy’s restaurant in New York. (Credit: Aaron Cantú)
I was thrilled to see the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) honored at the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedom Awards on Wednesday night. Having followed the organization’s work for seven years, I believe their effectiveness is unmatched, and their achievements constantly offer a reason for hope.
The CIW way is non-hierarchal, led from the grassroots, fearless and savvy—and they have defeated Goliath so many times that they can no longer be considered a David. I think many community-based and national anti-poverty organizations can learn a lot from them.
The Four Freedom Awards honor those who exemplify Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision of democracy—“a world founded upon four essential human freedoms”—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Past recipients include President Jimmy Carter, Senator Ted Kennedy, Studs Terkel, Barbara Ehrenreich, Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi and Carlos Fuentes. The farmworkers were introduced by Roosevelt Fellow Dorian Warren, who outlined some of CIW’s key campaigns and victories.
In 1993, the CIW was a small group of tomato industry farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, whose unflinching organizing efforts would eventually end a twenty-year decline in their poverty wages. How did they do it? Over a five-year period, they engaged in work stoppages and demonstrations, a thirty-day hunger strike and a 234-mile march from Fort Myers to Orlando, Florida.
Although they won raises of 13 to 25 percent—resulting in an increase of several million dollars annually for the community—they still earned well below the poverty line. The group realized that the real power was with the corporate buyers whose constant demand for lower tomato prices exerted significant downward pressure on farmworker wages. In 2001, the CIW launched its Campaign for Fair Food—forging an alliance between consumers and farmworkers—and initiated the first-ever national boycott of a major fast food chain: Taco Bell.
Students, people of faith, workers and community members demanded that Taco Bell pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes, which would go directly towards workers’ wages. They also called on the corporation to take responsibility for its supply chain and only purchase from growers who signed an enforceable code of conduct that addressed human rights violations in the fields—violations such as involuntary servitude and sexual harassment.
After four years of struggle, Taco Bell agreed to the demands and called on other fast-food chains to do the same. Over the next three years, McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway all followed suit. Today, Wendy’s remains the only holdout. The CIW turned its attention to the supermarket industry and won similar agreements with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s (Publix, Giant, Kroger and Stop & Shop still aren’t on board); in the food service provider industry, Bon Appétit Management Co., Compass Group, Aramark and Sodexo all signed fair food agreements in 2009–10.