The Story Behind the Immigrant Workers in Bernie Sanders’ Stirring New Ad Lauding Worker Organizing

Michelle Chen March 9, 2016

A scene from Bernie Sanders' "Tenemos Familias" ad.

Bernie Sanders’ newest cam­paign video, which will air tomor­row night on the Span­ish-lan­guage chan­nel Uni­vi­sion, fea­tures the can­di­date ced­ing the spot­light to a rep­re­sen­ta­tive group that doesn’t get a lot of play in most polit­i­cal ads: a migrant moth­er, speak­ing entire­ly in Span­ish, who works in Flori­da’s farm fields. The sto­ry behind the work­ers fea­tured in the ad is one of qui­et and pas­sion­ate orga­niz­ing far out­side the Beltway.

Eight years ago, the Sen­a­tor from Ver­mont came to Capi­tol Hill with a mes­sage from Flori­da. Bernie Sanders had just seen hell on earth, and he want­ed every­one in Wash­ing­ton to know. He helped coor­di­nate a Sen­ate health, edu­ca­tion and labor com­mit­tee hear­ing on the toma­to pick­ers of Flori­da. The Coali­tion of Immokalee Work­ers (CIW) were a fair­ly obscure group back in 2008 — pre-Occu­py, pre-Fight for 15, two years after the immi­gra­tion reform move­ment had just suf­fered a defeat in Congress.

At the time, the econ­o­my was hurtling into the Great Reces­sion, and the Lati­no migrants of Florida’s toma­to fields seemed a far cry from the finan­cial pan­ic on Wall Street. But the work­ers had a sto­ry to tell, after strug­gling since the ear­ly 1990s for fair wages and rights at work: they had long suf­fered dai­ly abus­es, wage theft and often­times lit­er­al enslave­ment.

So the Senate’s lone social­ist paid a vis­it to Immokalee. He spent days tour­ing their work sites, walk­ing along­side the work­ers as they lined up to grab work shifts at the edge of dawn, accom­pa­ny­ing them to sun-scorched fields where they hauled buck­et after buck­et of green­ish unripened toma­toes that even­tu­al­ly made their way into burg­ers and gro­cery aisles nation­wide, to con­sumers obliv­i­ous to the drudgery and abuse behind their cheap meals.

Sanders dis­cussed the work­ers’ plight in an inter­view with the Coalition’s home­grown low-pow­er FM sta­tion. And back on Capi­tol Hill, he ampli­fied the work­ers’ mes­sage of cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. The unrest that would explode after the 2007 – 2008 finan­cial cri­sis was still on the hori­zon, but Sanders struck a chord with the dis­af­fect­ed when he announced an ini­tia­tive he was spear­head­ing with Sen­a­tors Ted Kennedy, Richard Durbin and Sher­rod Brown to pres­sure Burg­er King and the pro­duc­er-car­tel Flori­da Toma­to Grow­ers Exchange to agree to CIW’s reform pro­gram: an addi­tion­al pen­ny paid to work­ers per pound picked.

The fair wages scheme, the core of a nation­al Cam­paign for Fair Food, lever­aged con­sumer and work­er pres­sure out­side of a for­mal col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing struc­ture or leg­isla­tive man­date. CIW orga­niz­ers rec­og­nized the glob­al and hor­i­zon­tal nature of the agribusi­ness sys­tem and sought to restruc­ture the farm-to-table” sup­ply chain by form­ing a broad-based social con­tract, pop­u­lar­ized through col­or­ful protest and out­reach cam­paigns. Work­ers had been mobi­liz­ing well before Sanders lent his sup­port, but his vis­it helped raised the nation­al pro­file of the migrant work­ers’ ini­tia­tive as a human rights campaign.

Announc­ing the sen­a­tors’ back­ing of the fair wage pro­gram, Sanders said, the strug­gles of the Immokalee work­ers res­onat­ed well beyond the local fields. He warned:

In the Unit­ed States today the truth is that mil­lions of Amer­i­can work­ers are being forced into a race to the bot­tom. … As pover­ty increas­es and as the mid­dle class shrinks, these work­ers are see­ing their stan­dard of liv­ing in rapid decline. They’re work­ing longer hours for low­er wages…What we have on the toma­to fields here in Flori­da are work­ers who in fact exist at the low­est eco­nom­ic rung of that race to the bottom.

Evok­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty across sec­tors and com­mu­ni­ties, Sanders urged the pub­lic to deal with this issue from the under­stand­ing that if we look the oth­er way, and accept the ter­ri­ble exploita­tion that is tak­ing place here, every Amer­i­can is endan­gered as the race to the bot­tom accelerates.”

His words antic­i­pat­ed a grass­roots surge that would lat­er fuel oth­er move­ments gal­va­nized by the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, includ­ing the Fight for 15 and the mush­room­ing of grass­roots work­er cen­ters for non-union, low-wage, immi­grant workforces.

The CIW’s cam­paign also helped illus­trate the con­nec­tion between the food sys­tem and the finan­cial sys­tem that fore­shad­owed today’s food jus­tice move­ments, focus­ing on sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion and humane work­ing con­di­tions across the sup­ply chain: The Amer­i­can peo­ple need to know why finan­cial insti­tu­tions like Gold­man Sachs and oth­ers …who are pre­pared to come up with hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in bonus­es for their top exec­u­tives, are not putting pres­sure on com­pa­nies like Burg­er King to do the moral­ly right thing.”

Today, the Fair Food cam­paign has secured agree­ments with an esti­mat­ed 90 per­cent of toma­to grow­ers and four major fast food brands, includ­ing McDonald’s and Burg­er King. The orga­niz­ers are now try­ing to lock down the main­stream super­mar­ket sec­tor after scor­ing agree­ments from Wal­mart, Whole Foods and Trad­er Joe’s. Lack­ing the full force of a labor union, the CIW hasn’t resolved all the prob­lems in the indus­try. But it has pro­vid­ed sig­nif­i­cant wage increas­es and insti­tut­ed com­pre­hen­sive safe­ty stan­dards. Under a com­pre­hen­sive Code of Con­duct, work­ers have sought recourse for more than 1000 dis­putes over issues like wage theft and sex­u­al and ver­bal abuse.

The new Sanders cam­paign video cap­tures the tenor of 2008, when eco­nom­ic col­lapse was upturn­ing the sta­tus quo and forced some once-divid­ed groups to adopt a com­mon lan­guage of class strug­gle. The five-minute video is more of a minia­ture doc­u­men­tary about a work­er-led cam­paign that forged a tem­plate for labor orga­niz­ing in a glob­al­ized econ­o­my—per­haps a metaphor for the Sanders’ cam­paign, but also an exam­ple of how Sanders and his back­ers see his cam­paign as big­ger than this elec­tion cycle. The video does not high­light Sander­s’s pres­i­den­tial plat­form, but speaks to a deep­er grass­roots ethos of social change from which his pol­i­tics emerged.

One of CIW’s mem­ber-activists, Udelia, reflects on the group’s progress over the past sev­er­al years. Politi­cians nev­er came to Immokalee” before Sanders’s made his vis­it, she recalls. He didn’t keep silent about what he wit­nessed here in Immokalee. … There are now more rights and work­er sup­port. We start­ed to see changes in our wages. It real­ly improved our lives. I could buy small things for my chil­dren. This changes a person.”

The Coali­tion is now embark­ing on a mul­ti-state protest march, while their old ally Bernie is bar­rel­ing ahead on the cam­paign trail. Their two inter­sect­ing paths, which will cross soon in the Flori­da pri­ma­ry, con­tin­ue the momen­tum that start­ed eight years ago. The sense of col­lec­tive out­rage they artic­u­lat­ed then has only grown loud­er, inspir­ing oth­er grass­roots move­ments and stok­ing fierce reac­tion from the right. Nei­ther the work­ers nor the Sen­a­tor expects imme­di­ate vic­to­ry to be on the hori­zon, but they’ve nev­er doubt­ed they’re head­ed in the right direc­tion. So far, nei­ther have been proven wrong.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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