In New York, Farmworkers Rally for 1 Cent of Dignity

In New York, Farmworkers Rally for 1 Cent of Dignity

In New York, Farmworkers Rally for 1 Cent of Dignity

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has won battles with McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle, and Taco Bell. Is Wendy’s next?


Nelson Peltz takes his morning coffee in a mug marked “Cash Is King.” He’s worth a hair under $2 billion—he spent a quarter-million of them on VIP treatment at the second inauguration of George W. Bush. He calls himself an “activist investor,” and his firm, Trian Partners, is known for its deep involvement with the companies it buys. “I don’t know if just making money,” he once remarked, “is a great achievement.”

He doesn’t want to pay another cent for his tomatoes.

Since 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker-based movement, has struggled for workers’ rights and dignity in Florida’s tomato fields. In the last 10 years, they’ve racked up a remarkable string of successes with big buyers in the food industry, from fast-food conglomerates to national retail fronts. They rallied Monday outside Trian’s corporate headquarters to ask its boss for a different kind of activism: support for a one-cent surcharge on each pound of tomatoes bought by Wendy’s, where Peltz—its former CEO—chairs the Board of Directors.

Through the Coalition’s Fair Food Program (FFP), the additional penny paid per pound goes directly to tomato pickers; according to the CIW, the program has paid $20 million to workers since its establishment in 2011. The FFP has also established a binding code of conduct with participating retailers, which requires them to buy from tomato growers in good standing with the coalition. Labor practices are monitored by a third-party council.

“If they had any smarts at all, they’d sign on to the Fair Food Program like anyone else. The costs are negligible,” says Bruce Nissen, director of research at Florida International University’s Center for Labor Research and Studies. “One by one by one, all the major food purveyors, these fast-food chains, and now institutional food service, are joining the program. Most CEOs, most leadership in these organizations, they’ll express opposition at the beginning, but by the time the campaign has been going on for a certain while, they just start to make a rational calculation: What are the costs, what are the benefits?”

For the workers of Immokalee, the benefits beggar belief. Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a farmworker and 16-year member of the coalition, estimates that more than 90 percent of Florida pickers now benefit from its efforts. In other industries, those improvements might have come from a collective-bargaining drive—but farmworkers are legally ineligible for conventional union protections, thanks to the farm lobby’s political clout.

Through CIW’s alternative tactics, including consumer boycotts of companies who refuse to sign on to the FFP, Florida pickers now work more humane hours, with access to shade and clean water in the fields. Above all, they can file grievances against crew bosses and employers responsible for abusive work conditions, including sexual harassment, once a standard feature of the job. In the past, says Reyes Chavez, complainants would be fired on the spot.

Wendy’s is the fifth-largest fast-food chain in the country; numbers one through four signed on to the compact years ago. The coalition has won workers’-rights battles with, among others, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle, and Taco Bell—the latter agreement was struck with the whole of Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s behemoth parent company. Even Walmart, the famously intractable provider of always-low wages, readily signed on to the FFP in April of last year.

As the world’s largest retailer, Walmart’s agreement helped take the CIW past Florida for the first time in its history. This year, the Coalition is expanding into five states where agricultural laborers still encounter the brand of brutality they once did throughout Florida: Georgia, New Jersey, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. This is organizing at its best: making a straightforward premise—basic dignities for farmworkers—inseparable from a demand as simple as fractionally higher costs for tomatoes.

The CIW turned its attention to Wendy’s three years ago, and its leadership has been as unresponsive throughout as it was at Monday’s event. Wendy’s claims it already pays higher prices for better tomatoes, but the CIW maintains that higher-quality fruit doesn’t necessarily mean better treatment of pickers.

“The status quo has been to always push prices down and maximize profit in the supply chain,” says Reyes Chavez. “When that’s the only interest that you’re pursuing, the way to do it is to pressure your suppliers for lower costs. Trian Partners has played key roles in the development of the image of Wendy’s. They’re driving improvements in how Wendy’s does in the public eye. I think they can do exactly the same thing to improve the brand—to add the value of social responsibility.”

That’s what brought Reyes Chavez and about 100 others to Park Avenue on Monday night.

Rallying for Change

On a skyscraping Midtown block thick with corporate logos, this building is unmarked. The only lettering is its address: 280 Park Avenue. Nelson Peltz’s offices are here in the Trian Partners headquarters, a faceless, nameless fourteen-story slab. The lobby is all white marble: marble flooring, marble walls, and a marble mezzanine where black-suited men—all men, during the hour the Coalition is there—ride the escalators silently in twos and threes.

“This is the time to show them,” Reyes Chavez tells the crowd through a megaphone. “You, in this moment, are letting them know that we are watching them, too.”

The CIW has partnered with students and clergy since its early days. At this rally, its delegates march with allies from T’ruah, a rabbinic human-rights organization, and longtime supporters from the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Both have played key roles in the Wendy’s campaign. Their action, which sets off from a Wendy’s franchise near Grand Central Station, takes the marchers past outlets of fast-food chains that have signed the CIW’s agreements in past years. By now, for the coalition, almost any commercial corridor looks something like a workers’ rights hall of fame.

Now they’re standing in the shadow of the Waldorf Astoria, an icon of the luxury that shapes this swath of New York. In front of these buildings, it seems irrelevant that burgers are the engine of Trian Partners’ investment income. In fact, there’s something crass about the idea of burgers in front of its steel-marble-glass panorama. But food is passing in and out nonetheless, as helmeted deliverymen vault off mopeds and cross by suited security to drop takeaway bags at the building’s front desk.

Outside, the gathered marchers rotate through a half-dozen chants in Spanish and English. Prominent cardboard tomato-shaped signs read UNIDOS and DIGNIDAD. Many of the protesters wear Wendy’s iconic red pigtails, including one rabbi in a prayer shawl and a Fair Food Campaign T-shirt; on him they’re reminiscent of Orthodox Jews’ biblically mandated earlocks. He punctuates the chants with blasts of the shofar, a ram’s-horn trumpet used in Jewish prayer. T’ruah (its full name includes “The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights”) is named for one call of the shofar, the nine staccato pulses that signify redemption and forgiveness in the jubilee year.

The Fair Food supporters draw honks of support from the street when they unfurl an oversize banner on the sidewalk. They span generations: the youngest are babies, some in strollers. The oldest include a white-haired man who has spent the better part of his life in Florida’s tomato fields. They are circling beside the banner with handmade signs, most in the shape of tomatoes, and chanting under the close eye of four armed New York City cops.

Three men stand indoors on the mezzanine, watching expressionlessly.

“We’re going to share a story,” Reyes Chavez calls out. “This story is intended to show where we are coming from.” Before he can get far, the NYPD cuts him off—the Fair Food supporters are being ordered off the steps outside the building, and down to the street below. Passers-by are taking pictures, and the cop thinks marchers are complying too slowly: “Is there a problem with the order?”

There isn’t. Reyes Chavez and others regroup on the sidewalk. “One day,” he says, “the workers had an idea.” Spread out in a line, the marchers stretch along half the block. “The year was 1993. One company of tomato growers wanted to pay less than the minimum wage.” Each sign bobbing in the crowd is distinct: One penny more; Dignity; Freedom; Fair Food now.

“The workers said, no. We’re not gonna take that. We’re gonna fight back. That was the first time. Today, workers have rights. Rights like shade and clean water.”

What’s Next for Wendy’s?

If the Coalition’s track record is any indication, Peltz had better get to the negotiating table. The Fair Food Program started with the fast-food sector’s biggest tomato buyers, and it hasn’t shied from challenges since. It has succeeded with larger enterprises than Wendy’s and deeper opposition than Wendy’s is likely to mount.

“They have never wavered from their commitment to building worker organization in the Immokalee community and in the fields,” says Nissen. “They’re in it for the long haul. There aren’t any flashy organizers being parachuted in. These are people who live there in Immokalee and have stayed there for decades continuing to build that organization.”

Fourteen corporations are already operating within the Fair Food Program, and the CIW owes much of that success to the market savvy of the approach it’s now leveling at Wendy’s. By going directly to large buyers, and by levying allies in the religious community and on university campuses, the Coalition has put highly public pressure on corporations like Wendy’s and its predecessors in the FFP—which, on top of Walmart, recently added Chipotle to its list of signatories.

That its demand of one penny per pound of tomatoes yields such radical improvement in fields highlights the poverty of workers’ pre-CIW treatment. “We wouldn’t have permission to go to the bathroom, or to take a break or a sip of water,” says Nely Rodriguez, a Coalition staff member and organizer who helped lead Monday’s rally. “We were in the fields from 7 am to 8 pm, working long hours in the sun without any access to shade or to bathrooms. What we’re asking for is for Wendy’s to use its market power not just to demand tomatoes at low prices and high quality, but to require non-participating farms to respect the human rights of farmworkers…. so that we can have higher wages, better working protections, and basic respect in the fields.”

Public pressure is the CIW’s best route to that respect. Immokalee workers can organize in a limited sense, but they will never be eligible for full protection under the National Labor Relations Act. The Fair Food Program, as a result, represents an innovative end-run on regressive state and federal labor laws.

“Like most farm workers, those around Immokalee face low wages and difficult working conditions,” says Jack Fiorito, professor of labor studies at Florida State University. “Florida has no agricultural labor relations law framework, and agricultural workers are largely on their own in their efforts to improve pay and conditions.”

In light of that isolation, the coalition’s victories are remarkable. It’s not a union in the legal sense, but its dedicated members often refer to themselves as organizers. Reyes Chavez has been present at every Immokalee Workers action since he joined in 1999, a different era for Florida’s farmworkers. Among the striking changes of the years since, one stands out to his colleague Nely Rodriguez: Today, there’s a far greater proportion of female pickers in Immokalee. Their conditions have been, if possible, even harder than the men’s to bear.

Women in the Tomato Fields

The coalition sees the institution of grievance procedures, particularly sexual harassment protections, as among its most important achievements. Despite crushing hours and low pay, Rodriguez recalls, “What was worst was the environment that we had to work in. It was an environment where we as women were constantly humiliated. Harassment on the part of bosses, crew leaders, and even our coworkers was very common.” The Fair Food Program has funded and enforced transformational change in that regard.

Throughout the 1990s, before winning major successes, its campaigners engaged in marches and hunger strikes against abuse in the fields. Many among the coalition’s longtime organizers, men and women, remain fully employed as pickers. “The thing that’s really changed thanks to the Fair Food Program is the education that we give,” she says. “We as workers conduct worker-to-worker education sessions on the field and in the workplace. Things that we cover face-to-face with women are how to report sexual harassment and how to identify sexual harassment.”

But Rodriguez is clear that the primary benefits of CIW-led reforms for women and families come from economic justice and humane treatment on the job. “This program, and these changes, have really changed the lives not just of women workers but workers in general on the fields. For example, we no longer have to start going to work at four. [Company buses] bring us to the fields about 30 minutes before we start picking. This is time for moms to be with their kids—to make breakfast for them, to take them to school—and these are things that really didn’t happen before.”

Rodriguez, who has now been with the coalition for seven years, is a leader at Monday’s event. She is speaking to demand una vida digna—a decent life—from Peltz and the board he chairs. “We’re going to the offices of those men, up there, who won’t look at us,” she tells the marchers. “We’re here after three years of knocking on the door of Wendy’s. What does he do? He hides in his office. That’s their common response: to hide behind their doors and ignore their social responsibility.”

“We’re going to keep fighting,” Rodriguez continues, “so that one day, he comes to Immokalee and says, alright, we’ll work with you.”

The Tomato Rabbis

Peltz just might. In recent years, Immokalee has become a major destination for corporate representatives and activists alike. T’ruah, the organization partnering with the CIW, has sent so many delegates to meet Southern Florida’s pickers that they’ve earned a nickname: the tomato rabbis.

“The longer we’ve been working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the more I learn from them,” says Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of programs at T’ruah and another key leader at the rally. “It’s taught us to ask questions in different ways, to say, how do we make sure that our human rights campaigns are led by the people who are affected by them as experts?”

Kahn-Troster herself is deeply knowledgeable about the human-rights issues—particularly the abusive labor practices—entailed by tomato growers’ demands on their workers. Wendy’s, she informs me, has substantial control over how those growers go about meeting their bottom line.

Peltz “is an incredibly important businessman. The way he’s able to shape corporations that he’s a shareholder of is remarkable,” she says. She’s thinking in particular of his time at Pepsi and DuPont, corporate interventions where Peltz, as investor, mobilized to retool the companies’ inner workings. “We know that he is powerful enough that if he wants the change to happen, it does, in the corporation. That’s why our messaging to Wendy’s asks, If not now, when? It’s important for Mr. Peltz and for Trian to see the coalition of supporters who are demanding change.”

“I don’t think they know what they’re up against,” Nissen says of Wendy’s. “The CIW just does not give up. It’s not one of those flash-in-the-pan things where if they ride it out for six months, it’ll go away. They’re some of the most impressive social-justice fighters and activists that I’ve ever seen in my life. I think they prove that David can beat Goliath.”

Before CIW delegates rise to speak, Rabbi Kahn-Troster leads the assembly in an opening prayer. After Rodriguez and Reyes Chavez, Jaime, a Walmart associate, stands up to express solidarity and invite participants to a Black Friday rally on Walmart’s own labor practices. Several supporters had marched as families; two hours in, as the action comes to a close, a mother tells her daughter, “Someday, when they do the right thing, you’re gonna be able to say you went to the protest.”


(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that farmworkers were “legally enjoined” from establishing unions. While they are ineligible for protections from retaliation under the National Labor Relations Act, they are legally able to form unions.)

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