During Florida’s prime tomato-picking season from November to May, Norberto Jimenez rises at 4 a.m. six or seven days a week to pack his lunch. He needs to be at the central parking lot in Immokalee, Fla., early if he wants to be selected by a crew leader and catch an early bus to whatever field is being picked that day. By the end of the working day – either “five or six or seven” at night, he says – Jimenez has picked around 125 buckets of tomatoes, each weighing 32 pounds, for which he’ll earn $.40 to $.50 a bucket. When the night bus returns to the parking lot, Jimenez will have earned somewhere between $50 and $60 for lifting two tons of tomatoes.
Jimenez came to Immokalee from Oaxaca, Mexico, two and half years ago to seek out a living doing agricultural work. Like most of the 2,500 farm workers who make up the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), he works in Florida during the winter growing season and then as the season progresses works his way up the East coast picking tomatoes. Jimenez, through a translator, says, “You know that the work will be hard, but you don’t expect to suffer the abuses that you do. I came to Immokalee knowing that I wanted to take care of my family and get ahead. You have to think about how impossible it is to make it ahead on these kinds of wages.”
The CIW formed in 1993 when a handful of workers started meeting in a room at a local church. Hoping to improve conditions for farm workers like Jimenez, the group quickly gained national recognition when, in 1998, it worked with the Justice Department to break up several slavery rings run by crew leaders who work for the tomato growers and packers. One case resulted in the sentencing of three men to a total of 31 years in federal prison and the forfeiture of $3 million in profits.
In 2001, the CIW, protesting wages that hadn’t risen since 1980, targeted the top of the supply chain and launched a boycott against Taco Bell. Demanding a “penny more per pound” the CIW won their raise after four years of public pressure. A coalition of activists participated in the campaign, including college students who kicked the franchise off of 21 campuses. The victory resulted in a 71 percent raise for each 32-pound bucket picked for Taco Bell. Taco Bell’s parent company Yum Brands, the largest fast-food chain in the world, also owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s. According to Taco Bell the raise given to farm workers cost the company $150,000 in 2006. The agreement also created a system for farm workers to report mistreatment, with claims jointly investigated by CIW and Yum Brands.
On April 9, just days before the CIW’s “McDonald’s Truth Tour” was scheduled to hit the Chicago area (where McDonald’s corporate headquarters are located), the company agreed to the same terms that Yum Brands operates under with the CIW. Julia Perkins, a staff member at the CIW, estimates that the agreed upon raises will cost McDonald’s $250,000 a year.
Lucas Benitez a member of Coalition of Immokalee Workers, said in a press release, “Today, with McDonald’s, we have taken another major step toward a world where we as farm workers can enjoy a fair wage and humane working conditions in exchange for the hard and essential work we do every day. We are not there yet, but we are getting there …”
Perkins is hopeful that by agreeing to the CIW’s demands corporations are fighting against farm worker abuse. “There’s a lot that the corporate buyers can do,” Perkins says. “They dictate the way the tomatoes are produced: the size and quantity and how they are packed. They can also dictate a higher standard for workers’ rights.”
McDonald’s, like Taco Bell, didn’t accept the CIW’s demands without a struggle. Prior to agreeing to the wage increase, they sought to show that farm workers weren’t experiencing the abject poverty that they claimed to live under. A study sponsored by McDonald’s found that tomato pickers in Florida earned $14 per hour, with some workers making up to $18.27 per hour. The study was quickly discredited by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich as well as Bruce Nissen, director of the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University, who wrote, “Unfortunately, the work is so riddled with errors both large and small that it cannot be accepted as factually accurate on virtually any measure.”
A 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Labor found that farm workers face “low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, [and] significant periods of un- and underemployment.” The National Agricultural Worker Survey taken in 2005 showed that tomato pickers in Florida make an average of $10,000 to $12,500 a year. Farm workers are systematically denied rights granted to virtually all other workers; they are not eligible for overtime pay, and almost never receive benefits such as health care or paid sick leave. The National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935 specifically excludes farm workers the right to unionize.
On April 13, the CIW will gather in Oak Brook, Ill., for what has turned into a celebration rally. Attendees will include: Tom Morello and Zack de la Rocha, both former members of the rock group Rage Against the Machine; John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO; and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). The next day, people will gather in at Federal Plaza in Chicago’s Loop for what the CIW is calling a “Parade and Carnaval for Fair Food, Real Rights, and Dignity.” The event will feature a full day of live music and speakers. Due to the last minute agreement with McDonald’s, the schedule of events is changing rapidly, so visit www.ciw-online.org to get the most up to date information.
“We just want to be recognized as human beings, we want to be recognized as people who work hard and have the same rights as anyone else,” says Jimenez. Before coming to the United States, Jimenez worked a small coffee farm in Oaxaca. He was able to support his family for most of his life, but dropping prices over the last decade forced him to immigrate. He says he was able to hold out longer than a lot of farmers around him, but that ultimately NAFTA has driven many small farmers like him to the seek work in the United States.
“It shouldn’t matter if we’re from another country or that we’re just tomato pickers,” he says. “We are human beings and we should be treated with dignity.”