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Working In These Times

Monday, Oct 18, 2010, 6:37 am

Immokalee Workers Win Over Major Tomato Grower, Boost Wages

BY Kari Lydersen

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Lucas Benitez, left, of the CIW shakes hands with Jon Esformes of Pacific Tomato Growers following yesterday's press conference at Pacific's Immokalee farm. Rev. Russell Meyer, Executive Director of Florida Council of Churches, looks on.   (Photo by Andrew West, Ft. Myers News-Press.)

Penny by penny, some migrant farm workers move toward living wage

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) won a major victory last week with the signing of its first agreement with a tomato growers association—the Pacific Tomato Growers. 

The fourth-generation family company is the same one that ran the farm where the CIW helped the Justice Department bust a slavery ring, resulting in felony charges for two brothers in 2008. Over the past decade the coalition has almost single-handedly catapulted awareness of modern-day slavery into the public consciousness.

A CIW press release describes the details of the new agreement:

The new accord establishes several practical systems designed to implement...the Code of Conduct at the heart of the Campaign for Fair Food. Those principles include a joint—and, when need be, external—complaint resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a worker-to-worker education process aimed at insuring that farmworkers themselves are active participants in the social responsibility efforts. The agreement also provides for third-party auditing of both the systems needed to implement the Code and payment of the "penny-per-pound."

This comes five years after the CIW’s landmark success convincing Taco Bell to agree to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes and demand a workers rights agreement be respected by its suppliers. And it comes seven months after the coalition’s three-day march in Florida culminating at the headquarters of Publix, the supermarket chain that the coalition says should sign a similar agreement.

The commitment from Pacific Tomato Growers is crucial to the realization of promises made by Taco Bell parent company Yum Brands, Burger King, McDonald’s, Sodexo, Whole Foods and other food retailers to pay a penny more per pound more and respect workers’ rights. Without enough tomato suppliers willing to respect such agreements, the food companies would be unable to keep their promises even if they wanted to. Pacific Tomato Growers is one of the country’s largest tomato producers, and its owners have stated their commitment to the CIW should be part of an industry-wide shift.

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange had earlier forbade its members from paying the penny more per pound or cooperating with the coalition. Now the exchange has started its own “social responsibility” program, similar to a tactic taken by McDonald’s before it signed on with the coalition.

Coalition leader Lucas Benitez stresses that inking the deal with Pacific Tomato Growers is only the first step in the important process of making sure the agreement is respected, and also leveraging it for future successes with other growers.

The coalition’s larger goal is to change the whole culture of the Florida tomato industry, and by extension other southern produce industries, so that workers associations are given a seat at the table and growers and buyers of tomatoes consider respecting workers’ rights mandatory. 

Benitez said in a statement:

We are not today claiming that we have achieved the changes sought by the Campaign for Fair Food.  Rather, we are announcing that we have forged a plan of action that gives us a realistic chance to bring about those changes.

This plan is designed precisely to address those unsustainable workplace conditions that have plagued Florida agriculture for so long, so that we can eliminate them and build a stronger foundation for the industry in the future.  In other words, today, Pacific and the CIW are embarking together on a road toward real social responsibility. And if that road leads us where we think it will, it will be a model for generations of farmworkers—and farmers—to come.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism professor at Medill at Northwestern University, where she is fellowship director of the Social Justice News Nexus. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent., Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.

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