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.