Adam Doster

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.

Recognizing that Taco Bell concentrates its heaviest marketing efforts on young people, CIW effectively collaborated with the burgeoning Student/Farmworker Alliance through its “Boot the Bell” campaign, an effort that blocked or removed 22 Taco Bell stores from college campuses and challenged young people’s perceptions of the branded corporation’s practices. “With very little experience but a commitment to humanity, [CIW] showed how easy it is to communicate a message of justice when farmworkers were standing hand-in-hand with students, people of faith and community members,” says Pete Woiwode, a University of Michigan alum who participated in the 2005 Truth Tour.

Connections and challenges

While their economic achievements are impressive, CIW’s ability to foster community among the oftentimes desperate workers is perhaps its most valuable attribute. “[Working in Florida] was not what I thought it was going to be, and I thought that I wanted to get back home,” said CIW member and Mexican immigrant Francesca through a translator at a recent workshop in Chicago. “But CIW became another family for me. It made it easier for me not to think of the things I left.”

Dreaming of home is all too common for the 2 million migrant farmworkers that tend to American farms each year, given the brutal working and living conditions that they tolerate. In Florida, most workers earn somewhere between 40 and 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, a rate that hasn’t increased since 1978. Working 10-12 hours a day, each person must pick between 4,000 and 5,000 pounds of tomatoes to earn Florida’s minimum wage. A 2004 study conducted by the Institute for Food and Development found that “Three out of four U.S. farmworkers earn less than $10,000 annually, and three out of five families live below the federal poverty line.”

Organizing migrant workers to fight for wage increases is generally challenging, despite CIW’s apparent success. For one, two-thirds of farmworkers working in America are immigrants, of which the majority migrate from different regions in Mexico. Because they originate from diverse areas that do not share a common language or culture, communication between members presents an obstacle. The population is intensely transitory as well; 90 percent of South Florida’s laborers are new to the region each season, meaning that engaged workers might only be in the same location for one picking season. “Every year, there are new people in the Immokalee community,” says Julia Perkins, a staff member with CIW. “And that means that the process to consciousness always starts over again.”

Migrant workers from Latin America must also be wary of immigration challenges. Since the inception of the North American Free Trade Agreement, undocumented farmworkers have grown from seven percent of the working population to 50 percent, according to demographer Philip Martin. Fearful of seizure or job loss, farmworkers regularly avoid discussing conditions in the fields or at home. These factors leave American pickers particularly susceptible to employer exploitation, especially considering that the farming industry has consolidated into a handful of enormous private firms since the 1980s. Aside from low wages, benefits are usually out of question for most farmworkers, who remain largely unprotected by American labor laws. The National Labor Relations Act of 1938 explicitly excluded agricultural and service workers from its definition of employee, setting the tone for 70 years of employer cost cutting at the expense of the laborer. Farmworkers seldom have health insurance, the option of sick leave, workers compensation or access to primary healthcare. They are also denied overtime pay and the right to organize, among other fundamental rights.

Big Mac attack

Members of the CIW believe that forcing fast food corporations like Yum! Brands to purchase their produce responsibly can be a revolutionary step towards improving the lives of migrant farmworkers. That’s why they have focused their current energy on McDonald’s. Immediately following the 2005 triumph, CIW organizers drafted a letter asking McDonald’s to fulfill the same promises to which Taco Bell’s parent company adhered. Instead of cooperating, the folks underneath the Golden Arches rolled out an elaborate public relations campaign that skirted the issues at hand. Besides deflecting responsibility solely to tomato suppliers, McDonald’s issued a code of conduct entitled the “Socially Accountable Farm Employees” without consulting any farmworkers, one that critics derided for its lack of teeth. The burger chain responded by commissioning a study carried out by the Center for Reflection, Education and Action that argued farmworkers actually make a damn good living, some over $18 an hour. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, along with 30 other labor, law and social science scholars, lambasted the report for misrepresenting data and “preempting a fair process of engagement with CIW.”

McDonald’s choice to avoid CIW’s moderate requests appears not only immoral but also economically questionable. According to The Palm Beach Post Yum! Brands — which now spends only $100,000 more per year on tomatoes — saw its stock rise 25 percent after the boycott ended. For a company as brand conscious as McDonald’s, it seems that the small tomato price-jump would be a small fee to pay in order to protect its image among young patrons. “In some ways, I think [McDonald’s] is just prideful,” says Perkins. “They don’t want to follow anyone. They want to come up with the solution themselves, so that’s what they’ve been trying to do. But it’s a solution on the cheap.”

Next month, CIW will escalate its campaign against the fast-food behemoth. On April 13, CIW members and allies, including former Rage Against the Machine members Tom Morello and Zach de la Rocha, will descend upon McDonald’s international headquarters in Chicago’s western suburb of Oak Brook for a massive rally. The next day, CIW will host a Carnival and Parade for Fair Food, Real Rights and Dignity through the streets of downtown Chicago. “It’s important for us to come together and to show McDonald’s … that this is a movement,” says Perkins.

For students that can’t travel to Illinois, CIW suggests organizing local solidarity efforts in conjunction with the eighth annual Student Labor week of Action, scheduled for the week of March 28. Interested individuals can also hand out letters to McDonald’s customers or send faxes to executives. With these actions in place, many feel that the momentum to reform McDonald’s is growing. “We will need to reach a broader swath of the public, but [beating McDonald’] is absolutely possible,” says Woiwode. “I know for damn sure that the folks of the CIW will develop innovative and interesting ways to bring about consciousness.”

Call to action:

–Join CIW, Student Farmworker Alliance, Tom Morello and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, Dolores Huerta, Eliseo Medina (SEIU) and many more for the actions on April 13-14 in Chicago, Ill. Get on the bus to Chicago.

–Learn more about the work of Student-Farmworker Alliance and join their email list.

Adam Doster is a student at the University of Michigan and the managing editor of the Michigan Independent. All photos by Shiho Fukada.