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Sweet Victory: Coalition for Immokalee Workers Wins | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Sweet Victory: Coalition for Immokalee Workers Wins

In March 2005, I started a weekly feature called "Sweet Victories." Theidea was to chronicle progressive victories --electoral wins, protestsand boycotts, the launching of new ideas, fresh organizations andinitiatives, and successful organizing efforts. I hoped that thesestories would serve not only as a source of information, butinspiration. The victories might be small, but they were always sweet.

On May 23, we celebrate a sweet victory for social justice. Sen. BernieSanders (I-VT.) will join representatives of the Coalition for ImmokaleeWorkers (CIW) and the Burger King Corporation at a press conference inthe U.S. Capitol to announce that the corporation has agreed to workwith CIW to improve wages and working conditions for the farm workerswho harvest tomatoes for Burger King.

This victory is testament to the tenacity and discipline of theCoalition,a community-based worker organization, which has exposed ahalf-dozen slavery cases that helped trigger the freeing of more than1000 workers. It has also advocated for better wages, living conditions,respect from the industry, and an end to indentured servitude. In thislast year, CIW scored victories in negotiating a penny-per-poundsurcharge--so workers would receive about 77 cents per 32-poundbucket--with McDonald's and Yum! Brands (owner of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell,KFC). (The corporations also agreed to work with the Coalition toeliminate slavery from the fields.) And the corporations --not thetomato growers--agreed to pay the 40 percent salary increase.Astonishingly, Burger King, until today, refused to go along with a dealthat will cost them less than $300,000 annually; last year, thecorporation raked in $2.23 billion in revenues.

The Coalition won this agreement because it had the facts on its side;it never exaggerated or distorted the truth. As a result, none of thelies told by Burger King or the growers could stick. In patiently hewingto the high road, its members were finally rewarded.

In April, Sanders chaired a Senate Labor Committee hearing devoted toexposing the low wages and harsh working conditions faced for decades byfarm workers in South Florida. (The hearing came on the heels ofSanders' fact-finding trip to meet with the workers--a trip in which hesaw first hand the grueling and brutal conditions of their lives.) Atthe April hearing, investigative reporter and author of Fast Food NationEric Schlosser, who traveled with Sanders to visit the Coalitionworkers, laid down a marker: "The exploitation of farm workers shouldnot be tolerated in Florida. It should not be tolerated anywhere in theUnited States. There are many social problems that are extremelydifficult to solve. This is not one of them."

This victory is the result of years of struggle and highly disciplinedorganizing work by the courageous members of CIW. (It is a struggle Ihave reported) As such, it is a marker of real progress in exposing andaddressing the injustices and abuses suffered by workers in ourimperfect union. It is also an agreement that is good not only forFlorida farm workers, but also for Florida farmers; it increases wageswithout taking money out of the pocket of farmers.

One historic measure of the Coalition's victory comes from LucasBenitez, its indomitable co-founder and former tomato worker. At theCongressional hearing in April, he recalled how during a 1997 workerhunger strike a grower said that they would never meet the workers'single demand for dialogue. "Let me put it to you like this," the growersaid. "The tractor doesn't tell the farmer how to run a farm." Benitezcontinued, "That's how they've always seen us, just another tool andnothing more. But we aren't alone anymore. Today there are millions ofconsumers with us willing to use their buying power to eliminate theexploitation behind the food they buy. And a new dawn for socialresponsibility in the agriculture industry is on its way. With the helpof Congress and with the faith that the complicated will be made clearunder the purifying light of human rights, today, just as was it 200years ago, we will witness the dawn of that new day."

Eric Schlosser also sees enormous significance in this win. On the eveof the settlement's announcement, he told me"This may be the most important victory for American farmworkers sincepassage of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975. Thatbill heralded a golden age for farm workers. But the state governmentapparatus it created, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, got takenover by the growers in the 1980s and watered down the reforms. InFlorida, the Coalition has chosen a different path, avoiding governmentand putting pressure on the corporations at the top of nation's foodchain. The strategy clearly works and can be emulated by other workersin other states. In the absence of a government that cares about thepeople at the bottom, here's a way to achieve change."

Yet the CIW's organizing victory is also a marker of how much more needsto be done. The settlement of the dispute over wages and workingconditions does not relieve Burger king of the obligation to come cleanabout the corporate spying which has been exposed. What exactly did Burger King do, and to whom, and who knewabout it? Those questions still have to be answered; and if Burger Kingdoesn't provide the answers, Congress should investigate.

This is no time for complacency. Conditions in the field are stillappalling. And now that the deal with Burger King has been signed, it'sa moment to leverage that agreement to go after WalMart, Whole Foods andthe other big supermarket chains. If McDonalds and Burger King can agreeto take care of farm workers, there is no reason other companiesshouldn't spend a few extra pennies for their tomatoes.

In the statement announcing the agreement, the Coalition's Benitezeloquently laid out what is at stake in the fight ahead: "Today we areone step closer to building a world where we, as farmworkers, can enjoya fair wage and humane working conditions in exchange for the hard andessential work we do everyday. We are not there yet, but we are gettingthere, and this agreement should send a strong message to the rest ofthe restaurant and supermarket industry: Now is the time to join Yum!Brands, McDonalds and Burger King in righting the wrongs that have beenallowed to linger in Florida's fields for far too long."

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