Over the years, The Nation and I have closely tracked the heroic work ofthe Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) as they have fought to protect agriculture workers in the fields of Florida from exploitation. CIW has exposed cases of slavery and worked with the Department of Justice to successfully prosecute them. It has carried out a Campaign for Fair Food to raise wages and improve working conditions. In short, it has led a movement that recognizes the dignity of the people who harvest the food we eat, and rewards and protects their labor.

In recent years, the organization has focused on obtaining "penny perpound" pay raises for tomato workers from major food retailers that purchase the produce. It doesn’t sound like much, but it would result in about a 75 percent wage increase–from $10,000 annually to $17,000–significantly improving workers’ living and working conditions, and making them less vulnerable to unscrupulous employers and traffickers. CIW struck penny per pound deals with McDonalds, Burger King, and Yum! Brands (whose subsidiaries include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s and A&W) after long, hard fought campaigns.

But the community-based farmworker organization has reached a new milestone with its latest victory.

On Friday in Capitol Hill, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis attended a press conference along with representatives of CIW and the world’s largest food service company, Compass Group, to announce that the company will pay an extra 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes that it purchases annually, with one cent per pound going directly to the farmworkers. Compass Group purchases over 10 million pounds of tomatoes every year, and serves 6 million meals at over 10,000 locations every day.

But the key difference between this agreement and previous ones is that Compass Group will only purchase tomatoes from Florida if there is a grower or growers willing to implement the pay raise and a "code of conduct" which includes: a system of clocking in and out to accurately record working hours; the ability of workers to voice labor and safety concerns without fear of retribution; freedom for CIW to educate workers on their rights on company time and at the worksite; and third party auditing for full transparency. If no Florida grower were to step up to these Fair Food standards, Compass Group would remove tomatoes from its menus and use the absence to educate customers about the working conditions that led the company to make this decision.

In the previous agreements brokered by CIW, the food retailers didn’ttake this extra step of mandating that they would only purchase fromsocially responsible growers. That’s significant because the FloridaTomato Growers Exchange (FTGE)–a trade association representing over90 percent of the state’s growers–has threatened to fine any grower$100,000 for every worker that receives a penny per pound raise. Theresult? Growers refused to pass along the monies owed to thefarmworkers so approximately $1.5 million is now held in escrow by thefood retailers.

This time, however, Florida’s third largest grower–East Coast Growersand Packers–broke ranks, dropping out of the FTGE in order toparticipate in the new agreement between Compass Group and CIW. Thiswas a courageous decision. The Madonia family which founded the farm 53years ago (to the day of the press conference) will be ostracized by arather tight-knit group of growers and lose the services of the tradeassociation that represents them. But it will also gain the business ofCompass Group and the corporations that signed onto the previousagreements–because all of the CIW-brokered contracts require thecompanies to preferentially purchase from any grower who is willing tomeet the specified Fair Food standards.

"The contracts are designed to move the demand of the largest tomatobuyers in such a way as to reward those growers who are paying andtreating their workers better and take business away from those whodon’t," explained CIW staff member Greg Asbed.

At the press conference, Lucas Benitez, co-founder of CIW and recipientof the 2003 RFK Human Rights Award, said: "The future of Florida agriculture is contained in this agreement. And that future is founded on mutual respect and mutual benefit. It’s a future based on common purpose in which farmworkers,growers, and leaders in the retail food industry, and consumers, willcreate together a true social responsibility…. It’s a future thatguarantees that both businesses and workers can receive benefits from amore fair industry."

"This is a great victory for the farmworkers," said Secretary Solis. "When my father came to this country as an immigrant, he also came as afarmworker…. My mother toiled in an assembly line for almost twentyyears…. What I remember most importantly about what they instilled inthe family is that you respect work, honor the worker. To know thatwherever you work there should always be dignity and respect…. I feelvery, very honored to be here today to be able to see that such progresshas been made at this local level. And I hope to be a part of thispartnership so that we can extend this kind of progress throughout thecountry."

Indeed the vision that CIW has pursued and is beginning to see come tofruition is an inspiring one, and a model for the nation.

"I want to see more of this happen, way beyond just the agriculturearena, but also in the service sector fields where you see a lot ofpeople of similar backgrounds being taken advantage of," Secretary Solissaid after the press conference. She indicated that the newAdministration was providing "more incentive for these kinds ofcooperative agreements to come about."

"In the previous administration, we didn’t have much enforcement orvisibility by the Department of Labor, and Wage and Hour, and OSHA," shesaid. "Now you will see a difference."

There is still work to be done in Florida–the FTGE still stands inthe way of growers who might not possess the same kind of courage asEast Coast Growers. Will the Department of Labor get involved to helpgrowers who want to do the right thing?"We’ll look at ways," said Secretary Solis. "…This is a moral issue–one about fairness in the workplace and dignity and respect for thoseworkers that bring the food items that…[are] served to the consumer."

CIW now has the four largest restaurant companies in the world, thelargest foodservice company in the world, and the largest organic grocersigned on to its Fair Food contracts, with more undoubtedly to come. Amajor grower has now quit the draconian FTGE and will soon be rewardedby the market for doing so.

"The flood wall can’t hold forever," Asbed said. "This would seem to bethe start of the ‘mighty stream’ that we have been waiting for."