Features » May 14, 2007
Doing It For Themselves
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers turns ‘corporate social responsibility’ from oxymoron into reality
The Florida tomato pickers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) rolled into Chicago in blustery April, ready to stand before McDonald’s corporate headquarters and press their demands that the fast-food behemoth take responsibility for the miserable way its tomatoes are farmed.
It proved unnecessary. As more than 1,000 tomato pickers and their allies wound their way to Chicago, McDonald’s unexpectedly agreed to all of the coalition’s demands. The groundbreaking settlement will almost double salaries for farm workers, reveal where the company buys its tomatoes and create a monitoring plan expandable to other corporate buyers. McDonald’s capitulated two years into the campaign, and on the eve of the coalition’s call to boycott the company. It followed a similar deal the coalition signed in 2005 with Taco Bell’s corporate parent after a four-year boycott.
The 3,500 members of CIW are mostly Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants, many of whom left indigenous communities to work the fields of swampy southwest Florida. They have become a force far beyond their numbers. (And their agreements are good news for the roughly 6,000 transient tomato pickers of Immokalee, all of whom receive the higher wage if they pick fast-food tomatoes, regardless of whether they’re CIW members). In expanding its agreements to another fast-food giant, CIW proved the durability of its strategy–the creation of private regulations to remedy the ills of a neoliberal economic order that is unwilling or unable to negotiate political settlements.
In achieving those agreements, CIW has crafted a new pattern for civil society’s tango with corporations, this time with activists in the lead. Two interlocking dynamics made possible CIW’s détente with the largest fast-food chain on the globe. McDonald’s is seeking to burnish its brand image after absorbing decades of assaults on every segment of its business. The tally of sins is long: aggressive marketing to children, monoculture cropping, horrendous factory-farming, systematic violation of labor laws, clearing rainforests, enabling obesity and attempting to gag critics who point out such things.
The CIW, on the other hand, found in McDonald’s a fulcrum to shift the fast-food industry by creating a code of conduct authored by farm workers and watched over by independent monitors. The idea is borrowed from the anti-sweatshop movement that eight years ago launched a similar strategy in establishing the Worker Rights Consortium, which tracks and investigates overseas garment factories producing university apparel.
This approach combines a monitoring plan outside corporate control, with the necessary transparency to verify progress, and a wage boost for the people at the point of production. Immokalee’s farm workers are testing just how much leverage activists can have over companies that claim to champion social responsibility, and whether corporate image vulnerability can be exploited to spread the tomato pickers’ remarkable advances.
Exacting concessions from corporations used to be harder. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which unionizes farm workers by forcing individual growers to respect the right to organize, led a boycott and strike of Campbell’s soup for eight years in the ’70s and ’80s before the company finally relented.
And McDonald’s has a record of outmaneuvering its opponents. Lois Marie Gibbs, head of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, an anti-toxics group, remembers tense meetings with the company’s executives during the late ’80s. The Center was spearheading a campaign against the fast-food giant’s Styrofoam clamshell burger containers, and the company was finally bending after three years of pressure. McDonald’s offered Gibbs a compromise: Call off the campaign, and they’d build small incinerators at flagship stores. They had a prototype mocked up, and it even had a name: “Archie McPuff.”
From that tone-deaf beginning a more sophisticated response soon developed. Gibbs says McDonald’s trolled the major environmental groups and found the Environmental Defense Fund (now called Environmental Defense) willing to join in a formal partnership to “green” the company. Environmental Defense studied the company’s packaging, and produced a “Waste Reduction Plan.” Critics argued that the study’s results showed nothing that would not have been known to McDonald’s before. Nonetheless, McDonald’s announced the end of the styrofoam era and accepted plaudits for its august sense of responsibility, thus neatly deflating a consumers’ revolt. “The citizens’ campaign dropped off almost immediately,” Gibbs says.
The CIW avoids that fate by emphasizing that its campaign doesn’t finish with the corporate target of the moment, but when the fast-food industry is restructured to treat the people at the bottom of the production ladder fairly. It’s no small order, says John VanSickle, an economist who studies the tomato industry at the University of Florida.
The long-term contracts and rigid uniformity demanded by big institutional buyers like Taco Bell and McDonald’s make them easy targets, VanSickle says. Submitting to the demands of the CIW will cost the company less than $1 million, a spokesman told the Chicago Tribune, not a huge sum for a firm that made a $3.5 billon profit last year.
McDonald’s says it purchases 1.5 percent of Florida’s tomatoes. But overall, according to VanSickle, fast food represents less than 10 percent of the overall tomato market, and three-quarters of the nation’s tomatoes are grown outside of Florida. Other major tomato buyers, supermarkets and restaurant chains will prove harder to contend with because they spread their purchasing among many suppliers.
“Once you go to these smaller producers,” VanSickle says, “to get them to monitor and audit, to get the premium back to harvesters, is difficult.”
The CIW began in 1993 by targeting individual tomato growers, who refused to budge after years of pressure. It’s a lesson not soon forgotten, says Julia Perkins, a CIW staff member. The proven way to change conditions in the fields, she says, is focusing on the only force individual growers respond to–the brand straddling the top of a supply chain. With the grocery market consolidating, the CIW won’t lack for easily identifiable targets.
“We know Whole Foods buys these tomatoes, says Sean Sellers, co-coordinator of the Student Farmworker Alliance, a CIW sister group. “We know Wal-Mart and Costco do, too.”
Papering over the market
The wave of social movements washing over the corporate bow does not please everyone. “Managers, acting in their professional capacity, ought not to concern themselves with the public good. … [T]hey lack the democratic credentials for it,” sniffed The Economist in a 2005 story on the dangers of corporate social responsibility. And that raises the question: If legislatures fail to respond to public pressure, is engaging with corporations the best way left to advance social change?
Dean Baker, an economist and director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, says that while activists always risk co-optation, they can use corporate campaigns to mitigate business’ worst behaviors. “It’s not the only tool by any means,” he says, “but when you look at what tools are available, you get ‘em where you can get ‘em.”
Despite the honeyed words of “social compliance” officers, the literature of the business-school set is clear: Ultimately, the diktat of corporate social responsibility is to protect the brand’s reputation and control threats to sales and supplier relationships. In Europe, for instance, McDonald’s has introduced organic milk and banned genetically modified food. Without effective state regulation or strong NGOs driving public antagonism here, corporations like McDonald’s haven’t taken such ethical considerations across the Atlantic. “Global brands, whether it’s McDonald’s or Adidas, view labor rights issues not as a moral question but as a risk management question,” says Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “They will make change to the extent that risk to their brand reputation justifies making change.”
Unless corporate social responsibility programs surrender power to affected communities and workers, the new regime of monitoring and codes of conduct will prove ineffective. “The result is at best managerial paternalism,” writes Pun Ngai, a Hong Kong academic who studies Chinese factories’ adaptations to corporate social responsibility. At some level, activists have themselves to blame for the failings of social compliance. The initial voluntary standards and certifications arose largely from governmental and NGO initiative, not from corporations sensing a market opportunity or acting to protect reputation, says Tim Bartley, an Indiana University sociologist who researches corporate social responsibility. These voluntary measures tied in neatly with neoliberalism, which champions self-regulation over public standard-setting. What’s more, corporations quickly learned that self-regulation was a model over which they could exert control.
The result has been a jumbled map of certification schemes and PR blitzes, leaving consumers to wade through information about corporate behavior without any way to separate the disingenuous or delusional from the decent. The CIW fought off an attempt last year by McDonald’s to defuse its campaign through such a Potemkin-village maneuver. Working with a Florida agricultural trade group, McDonald’s created an industry front called Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) that issued a competing monitoring plan–without bothering to consult the tomato pickers. “SAFE isn’t going to stand up because it lacks worker input in design and implementation,” Perkins says. “You can’t do social responsibility on the cheap.”
The raft of corporate good-news propaganda has at least one advantage, activists say. It opens new points of leverage against their targets. “Less than a decade ago, farm animal concerns were considered far outside the mainstream,” says Paul Shapiro, who leads the Humane Society of the United States’ farm animal campaigns. “Now it’s within the mainstream. No company wants to be in the position of defending abusive practices and being seen as out-of-step.”
Becoming an irresistible force
Tomato pickers aren’t exactly a class of workers used to a sense of entitlement. Because they receive less than 1.5 pennies per pound picked–a rate that’s stayed constant for 30 years–workers must hoist on average two tons of tomatoes a day to make $60. Federal surveys of Florida farm workers put their annual incomes at about $10,000.”If you can get a job in construction, landscaping, you take it,” says Sellers. “Picking tomatoes is one of the lowest rungs of the employment ladder in the United States.”
Legislation stretching back to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act has created two-tier systems of work (as would the current Gutierrez-Flake immigration bill) and excluded farm workers from the right to union representation. Benefits like overtime pay, health care and sick leave don’t exist for farm workers.
Against those odds, the CIW demanded a transformation of work life–and began within its own organization. Staff members keep their salaries on par with what tomato pickers earn. Since its inception, the CIW has run a food co-op providing basic necessities in an area where grocery stores ran up prices because few workers had transportation to seek out cheaper goods. And in an industry with pandemic turnover, the coalition found ways to keep leaders in the community. Every summer, a watermelon pickers’ co-operative of 15 coalition staffers and full-time pickers slowly works its way north, dividing work and wages equitably. By cutting out the traditional crew leader, the co-operative doubles each picker’s wage–to around $150 a day–and embarks on an exercise in practical political education.
“This is a workers’ co-operative in the context of Southern agriculture,” says Sellers, who has picked watermelons the last two summers and plans to again this year. “When does that happen?”
The farm workers also have side-stepped the limitations of their progenitors, the anti-sweatshop and fair-trade movements. Efforts to end sweatshops have been overwhelmed by the constant pressure apparel brands exert on suppliers to reduce prices, Nova says. The WRC, like the farm workers, is pursuing a strategy that would assure workers receive a livable wage by giving well-behaving factories better-paying contracts. The idea of funneling higher wages to people who bring goods to consumers in rich countries is borrowed, of course, from the fair-trade movement. But unlike fair trade, the CIW and anti-sweat campaigners are attempting to force corporations to pay more to production workers across entire industries, instead of carving out a niche through certification schemes that allow companies to slap a label on products.
The coalition has the ear of those astride the market. When asked in February whether they would support the coalition’s demands, Burger King declined, offering the tomato pickers work in its restaurants instead. Irritated, the coalition pointed out their members already had jobs. The country’s second-largest burger chain shrugged, dispatching its spokesmen to say they simply couldn’t dictate terms to their suppliers.
After McDonald’s folded, however, the directives from fast-food corner offices became more measured. In mid-April, a Burger King spokesman said the company was “always ready to talk … and see what we can work out.”
Mischa Gaus is an editor of Labor Notes magazine, the largest independent union publication in the United States.
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