This summer in California, as legions of migrants culled America’s bounty from sun-scorched fields, Governor Jerry Brown put the right to unionize even further out of their reach. Brown’s decision to veto a controversial bill to provide streamlined card-check voting for farmworkers trying to form unions reflected Brown’s drift to the right since his first term as governor, when he signed the landmark 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act giving farmworkers unprecedented collective-bargaining rights.
Activists expressed outrage, and Brown later proposed more moderate reforms for farm labor rules. But the failure of the campaign for card-check, a voting system that could help union organizers overcome resistance from employers, reflected deeper setbacks in the farmworkers’ movement since César Chávez led grape boycotts that drew thousands into the United Farm Workers union. Forty years later, card-check advocates sought to build public support by linking weak union protections to the tragedy of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant teen who had died in the sweltering grape fields—a case that echoed what the media and public condemned as America’s “Harvest of Shame” during the Civil Rights Era. Policymakers’ tepid response today suggests that the industry’s abuses have become even more entrenched in an increasingly corporatized food system, fueled by a ruthlessly exploited migrant labor force.
But while the traditional farm labor movement may have lost ground, other groups have surfaced on the horizon to push beyond the bounds of traditional unions, on and off the farm.
By approaching farmwork as a critical link in the food industry machine, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has put a national spotlight on brutal conditions on Florida’s tomato farms. Led primarily by Latino migrant workers, the organization has enlisted organic consumer advocates, student activists, and religious leaders in seeking accountability at every point in the food supply chain, from seed to sandwich. The CIW’s campaigns have pressured major restaurant chains like Taco Bell and McDonald’s to raise workers’ pay by an extra penny per pound of tomatoes harvested (potentially adding thousands of dollars to a workers’ yearly income). The group recently overcame the opposition of several major growers’ associations and is now targeting supermarkets. This summer, the group’s Campaign for Fair Food went after Publix and “Traitor Joe’s,” staging street rallies in cities across the country to expose their complicity in tomato wage slavery.
In contrast to traditional shopfloor mobilization, CIW’s project revolves around a fusion of consumer and worker activism. “It’s been the consumer voice and consumer power that has really made this campaign a success,” said CIW co-director Lucas Benitez, “especially now, when consumers want fair food. They want to know that what they’re buying has been produced fairly; they want to know where it comes from. And so when their consumers are making demands, companies work to meet those demands.”