A little over a year ago, Lucas Benitez, Greg Asbed, and I committed an act that would surely have gotten us arrested if we had attempted it six months earlier. Traveling in a tired and faded Toyota sedan, we cruised through the chain-link fence and guarded gatepost meant to keep trespassers away from the packing facilities of a major Florida tomato-producing corporation. “The last time we came, the gates were locked and we were turned back by sheriff’s deputies,” Asbed said.
But thanks to nearly two decades of efforts by Benitez, Asbed, and their associates -- founding members of a community-based social justice organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, named after a south-Florida migrant community -- we were greeted by a quick wave and nod of recognition from the security guard on duty. The Toyota stopped in a sandy parking area beside a building with a sign that read TRAINING. We piled out and were greeted by the head of human resources for the company. In the early 1990s, Benitez was a migrant Mexican farmworker, who, on a good day, might have made minimum wage picking tomatoes in the fields that spread out to the horizon behind the packing house. On that morning, he and the HR chief were going to address newly hired members of a picking crew.
A few months earlier, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an organization representing agribusinesses that grow the vast majority of Florida tomatoes, had agreed to cooperate with the terms of CIW’s Fair Food Agreement -- an arrangement that has already been accepted by major fast-food chains, food service corporations, and other major tomato buyers. The Fair Food Agreement has ushered in a new era of labor relations in the Florida tomato fields, elevating the industry almost overnight from one of the most repressive places for a farmworker to toil to one of the most progressive.
The CIW agreement gave every worker a penny-a-pound wage increase, the difference between making $50 and $80 on a good day. It also introduced policies that almost all other American laborers take for granted: punch clocks or similar devices became mandatory, to ensure that workers were not shorted on the time they put in. Every work crew had to have access to a bit of shade provided by pop-up tents. A clear-cut grievance procedure was established. There was to be zero tolerance for sexual harassment and forced labor of any kind -- the former being particularly common in Florida agriculture. The new policies also addressed long-standing abuses specific to the fields, eliminating “el copete” (the mandatory overfilling of picking buckets that effectively stole workers’ pay on up to 10 percent of their labor) and guaranteeing workers the right to stop work if they feel threatened by conditions in the fields, such as lightning or pesticides.
After Benitez addressed the crew, the corporate HR executive stood and handed out business cards bearing his personal telephone number and a 24-hour hotline. “Call us if you need help,” he said. “If you see something, say something.” Next to me at the back of the room, a CIW member shook her head in amazement and said: “I can’t believe this. It’s like leaping through a century of labor history almost overnight.”
NRDC, which publishes OnEarth, will honor Asbed and Benitez for their success tonight by presenting them with a Growing Green Award alongside other leaders in sustainable food production.
The transformation in the Florida tomato industry was nearly two decades in the making. It began in 1993 when Asbed, Benitez, and a couple of dozen other workers and activists began meeting each Wednesday night in a room they borrowed from an Immokalee church. The two men, whom I met while researching the stories that would become my book Tomatoland, were a study in contrasts. Asbed, the grandson of Armenian genocide survivors, was college-educated, with several years of working with peasant groups in Haiti and farmworkers in the mid-Atlantic United States under his belt. Benitez was 17 years old and had recently arrived from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero hoping to make a little money for his parents and five siblings by picking oranges and tomatoes. They were brought together by the common realization that farmworkers in Florida labored under conditions of abysmal wages and outright brutality, and that those conditions were getting worse as big tomato buyers led by Wal-Mart, fast-food conglomerates, and supermarket chains pushed for ever lower produce prices at the expense of pickers’ wages.
In the early years the CIW was a rag-tag group, and its efforts modest. A worker would come to a meeting and complain that his crew leader was holding back his check, and a dozen or so CIW members would walk over to the boss’s house and as a group to demand that he pay up. Motivated by a dozen or so faces at the door, employers produced checks. In another case, a sixteen-year-old Guatemalan boy was beaten by a boss until his shirt was soaked with blood. His offense? Stopping work for a drink of water. That night, 400 workers joined with CIW to march to the boss’s house brandishing the injured worker’s bloody shirt and chanting “When you beat one of us, you beat us all.” The next morning, every member of the boss’s crew quit, and even workers without jobs that day refused to replace them. The lesson: Alone, one worker could do nothing, but by banding together, change was possible.
The Campaign for Fair Food and the CIW in its current form began to take shape in the late 1990s, when the CIW’s analysis efforts expanded to include the food industry as a whole, and the growth of the internet allowed them to reach a national audience. Their focus turned to the end buyers of tomatoes, the fast-food chains and supermarkets, and their first target was Taco Bell. Their request: Give us a penny-a-pound extra and agree to buy tomatoes picked under a system without abuses. Adding a new layer of consumer education and creative actions in cities from Naples, Florida, to Los Angeles, California, to their longstanding community organizing efforts in Immokalee, they brought workers and consumers together to pressure the chain. For four years, Taco Bell refused. But after petitions, demonstrations, student protests, shareholder actions from religious groups, and a ten-day hunger strike in front of its headquarters, Taco Bell came aboard. Since then, nine other multi-billion-dollar food corporations have joined with the CIW.
The loosely-knit band that once met in a borrowed room in back of a church has now won honors from the State Department, Anti-Slavery International, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. But more importantly, the CIW has radically changed the $600-million-dollar-a-year Florida tomato industry, and in so doing forged a unique worker-driven code of labor conduct and created a system for making sure that growers adhere to that code. It’s a template that can be applied to every sector of food production in this country.
Sadly, there is still a huge gap in participation in the Fair Food Agreements. With the exception of Whole Foods Market and, earlier this year, Trader Joe’s, not a single supermarket chain has agreed to join. The last time I saw Benitez and Asbed was in March. They were sitting on the shoulder of a highway in Lakeland, Florida, near the head offices of Publix Super Markets, a major chain in five southeastern states. More than 60 CIW members were midway through a six-day-long fast to convince Publix to sign an agreement. Benitez, who looked tired, wore a hand-lettered sign saying: “I go hungry today so my children won’t have to tomorrow.”
The sign did not exaggerate. It’s a tragic irony that throughout this country, the people who pick our food and their children rank as the most food-insecure segment of society. We still have a long way to go, but when workers, growers, corporations, and consumers come together, the CIW has shown that change is possible.
Image: Chad Sawyer