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Gerardo Reyes-Chavez warms up the crowd at a CIW demonstration outside a Burger King in the Chicago suburbs. (Credit: Jacques-Jean Tiziou)

Doing It For Themselves

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers turns ‘corporate social responsibility’ from oxymoron into reality

BY Mischa Gaus

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.

Lessons learned

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.

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Mischa Gaus is an editor of Labor Notes magazine, the largest independent union publication in the United States.

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