“We must ensure that all life is treated with the dignity it deserves,” President Bush declared during his final State of the Union address. He then segued into a call to ban human cloning. He didn’t talk about dignity in terms of ravaged pensions, working longer hours for lower wages, and the loss of healthcare and other benefits. He didn’t talk about dignity in terms of the rise in poverty – 37 million Americans, one in eight citizens now living below the poverty line in the wealthiest nation in the world. And he certainly didn’t talk about dignity when it comes to migrant workers in Immokalee, Florida where – as Senator Bernie Sanders told me just days before Bush’s SOTU – “the norm is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery.”
These farmworkers pick the tomatoes many Americans eat at McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and other fast food chains. They are paid 45 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. It’s grueling work, as Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser noted recently in a New York Times op-ed: “During a typical day each migrant picks, carries and unloads two tons of tomatoes.” For that two tons the worker can expect about $50, and annual wages of $10,000-$14,000. Wages have been stagnant for more than two decades. Two weeks ago, six people were indicted on slavery charges for beating workers, chaining and locking them inside U-haul trucks, and threatening physical harm if the workers left their jobs. This is far from a rare occurrence, as the Miami Herald wrote, “… farm crew slavery stories and the brutal exploitation of undocumented workers have long since lost their shock value in Florida.”
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) – a community-based worker organization – has “exposed a half-dozen slavery cases” that helped trigger the freeing of more than 1,000 workers, and also advocated for better wages, living conditions, respect from the industry, and an end to indentured servitude. CIW recently scored critical victories in negotiating a penny-per-pound surcharge – so workers would now receive about 77 cents per 32-pound bucket – with McDonald’s and Yum! Brands (owner of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC). The corporations – not the tomato growers – would pay the 40 percent salary increase. Astonishingly, Burger King has refused to go along with the deal (tell Burger King to pony up)– it would cost them less than $300,000 annually and the corporation took in $2.23 billion in revenues in 2007. Not to mention three private equity firms control most of Burger King’s stock, including Goldman Sachs. In 2006 Goldman Sachs’ top 12 execs took home bonuses exceeding $200 million – “more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year,” according to Schlosser.) Even more outrageous is the response of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing 90 percent of the state’s growers. The group has said it will fine any member $100,000 for accepting the extra penny per pound for worker wages.