Farmworkers of the World — Unite!

This article was originally published in our The Public Good: Reports from the Front Lines (October 26, 2017), available here.

Florida produces 90 percent of our winter tomatoes. The Immokalee region in southwestern Florida grows one-third of all U.S. tomatoes.

The plight of farmworkers in the Immokalee area has been publicly known for decades. That plight was featured in Edward R. Murrow’s searing and widely watched 1960 TV documentary, Harvest of Shame.  In the 1980s, says Janice Fine, an associate professor of labor relations at Rutgers University told Tracie McMillan of Modern Farmer, “it was the closest thing possible to hell on earth.”

Eve Turow Paul, writing in the Huffington Post in early 2015, brought the story into the 21st century, “More than 1,200 people have been freed from agricultural slavery rings in Florida during the last 10 to 15 years. Workers tell stories of brutal beatings, being shackled in chains at night, no regular pay for work, housing where 20 pickers share one mobile home and are each charged upwards of $200 per month in rent. Yes, per person. No shade in the fields, no breaks for meals, 10 to 12 hour workdays, seven days a week.”

Founded in 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) first targeted tomato growers, but years of marches and strikes convinced them the growers were not going to raise wages or improve working conditions unless buyers of their tomatoes would help cover the cost. The CIW began targeting buyers of tomatoes: grocery stores, restaurants, institutional food service companies.

The workers demand was easy to communicate to the general public: an additional penny a pound for the tomatoes they picked. At the time pickers were earning about 1.5 cents per pound, not much more than they had collected 25 years before. To put that penny in context, we pay $1 to $4 per pound in the grocery store for those tomatoes. An extra penny a pound would cost the average family a paltry 40 cents a year but as McMillan observes, if “the premium went toward wages, workers would, in effect, receive a nearly 80 percent raise.”

The Campaign for Fair Food’s chose as its first target Taco Bell. Student customers immensely aided the campaign. At more than 300 college campuses and 50 high schools they urged people to “Boot the Bell” until the chain responded to the workers demands.  At one point 22 colleges banned Taco Bell from operating.

In 2005, after 4 years of picketing, organizing, and demonstrating, the workers finally convinced Taco Bell and its parent company, Yum! Brands, to agree to their a-penny-more demand. Two years later, McDonald’s signed up. In 2008, Burger King, Subway, and Whole Foods Market followed suit.  In 2010, the campaign added Aramark and Sodexo, two of the country’s largest institutional food service companies, to its list of partners. In 2012 Chipotle and Trader Joes agreed. In 2014 and 2015 Walmart and Ahold, respectively, agreed to work on behalf of the 30,000 workers in their combined supply chains.

Gaining the buyers’ participation was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for success. Workers still had to win the active partnership of the growers to achieve their demand for dignity and better working conditions. In 2010, the various campaigns, abundant adverse publicity and the increasing numbers of buyers participating, persuaded Florida’s tomato growers to sign on to the Fair Food Program (FFP).

Companies that comply with the Fair Food Program are committed to buy tomatoes only from growers who agree with the CIW Code of Conduct. The code ensures:

  • Workers hired directly instead of through contractors.
  • Growers pay pickers for time spent waiting for work to begin, and provide clean drinking water and shaded areas.
  • Zero tolerance for forced labor, child labor and sexual assault;
  • Worker-to-worker education sessions conducted by the CIW on the farms and on company time
  • Health and safety committees on every farm to give workers a structured voice in the shape of their work environment;
  • Provision of shade in the fields, and the use of time clocks to record and count all compensable hours accurately; and
  • Ongoing auditing of the farms by the Fair Food Standards Council to insure compliance with each element of the program.
  • A 24/7 complaint hotline, where the Fair Food Standards Council will investigate complaints within 2 days, initiate corrective action plans, and, if necessary, suspend a farm’s Participating Grower status. Among other powers, the FFSC can require growers to fire abusive supervisors

In late 2014 the organization introduced a Fair Food label to inform shoppers in the stores whether their tomatoes have been picked under fair conditions.

The Fair Food Program currently boasts 14 buyer/partners and the Code of Conduct now covers 90 percent of the tomatoes grown in Florida.

There are still holdouts. Wendy’s initial response to the workers successes was to shift its purchase of tomatoes from Florida to Mexico, a country whose abuse of farmworkers was well-documented by the Los Angeles Times. In 2016 the Campaign called for a boycott of Wendy’s. In early 2017 Wendy’s responded by announcing its own “enhanced” supplier code of conduct but refused to pay a penny a pound more or embrace CIW’s worker-supervised code of conduct.

“The Wendy’s code falls squarely within the tradition of corporate social responsibility,” Susan L. Marquis of the RAND corporation observes, “its reasonable set of standards has little chance of being effective since it relies on occasional third-party audits without active monitoring by those in the fields or factories. Also missing are strong penalties for suppliers who do not comply.”

The Fair Food Program spread to cover tomato growers in North Carolina, New Jersey, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, as well as bell pepper and strawberry pickers in Florida.

In 2017 the campaign broke through into another region and another industry: New England dairy farms.

Vermont’s dairy industry employs about 1,500. A 2014 survey of 170 Vermont dairy workers by Migrant Justice, a non profit organization based in Burlington that provided assistance to dairy workers, found that 40 percent received less than the Vermont minimum wage, 40 percent didn’t have a day off, many didn’t have access to a bathroom or clean water and the frequent changes in their schedules kept them from sleeping more than a few hours at a time. These workers tend to be undocumented, making it difficult for them to speak out.

In late 2014 Migrant Justice launched its Milk with Dignity campaign, patterned on CIW’s strategy.

Courtesy of Food Tank.

In June 2015 the group’s effort received a boost when Ben & Jerry’s formally agreed in principle to support the Milk With Dignity program. But negotiations dragged on for two more years.

In October, after more protests and marches Jostein Solheim, the CEO of Ben and Jerry’s, now a subsidiary of Unilever, formally signed the agreement.

“This is the first expansion that we’ve seen from the model of worker-driven social responsibility that was pioneered by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the Florida tomato fields,” Enrique Balcazar of Migrant Justice told Vermont Public Radio.

The agreement covers nearly 90 farms that typically employ up to 10 workers each. Workers at dairy farms that supply Ben & Jerry’s will have the right to one day off a week as well as paid sick days. They will earn at least the state minimum wage, currently $10 an hour. Workers will be guaranteed at least eight consecutive hours of rest between shifts. Their housing accommodations will include a bed and access to electricity and clean running water.

As was the case with tomato picker agreements, compliance will be monitored by the Milk with Dignity Standards Council headed up by a former staff lawyer at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. The Council will conduct audits.

The key to the effectiveness of these agreements is whether the workers are informed about their rights, participate in the monitoring and have a vehicle to defend them. This agreement, like those with the tomato pickers, includes those elements. “It’s an agreement that puts the worker in charge of workers’ rights,” Solheim told the New York Times.

The program will be adopted in stages, with some standards, like prohibitions on sexual assault, forced labor and violence toward workers, taking effect immediately. Others, like raising pay to the minimum wage, will come more gradually. Farms must first go through an orientation, and workers must complete education sessions before Ben & Jerry’s begins making the larger payments that will finance some of the benefits.

The salutary impact of the CIW on Florida tomato pickers has been extraordinary. Some 90 percent of Florida’s tomato farms with a workforce of 30,000 have formally embraced the Code of Conduct. The spread of worker-managed agreements to other crops and other regions and most recently, to milk, provides evidence that the concept may have very broad application. The success of the CIW and its partners is a model and a beacon in these dark times.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.