The Coalition of Immokalee Workers Takes Aim at Wendy’s

Geoff Gilbert March 2, 2015

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has forced some of the nation's largest corporations to protect farmworkers.

This post first appeared at Wag­ing Nonviolence.

Hav­ing received a Pres­i­den­tial Medal in Jan­u­ary for its efforts to com­bat mod­ern-day slav­ery, the Coali­tion of Immokalee Work­ers, or CIW, and its Cam­paign For Fair Food hit the road this month as part of its Boot the Braids” cam­paign against Wendy’s. The tour spanned col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties through­out the North­east and Mid­west to edu­cate stu­dents, as well as cre­ate and solid­i­fy cam­pus cam­paigns aimed at pres­sur­ing Wendy’s to join the CIW’s Fair Food Pro­gram, the only indus­try-wide social respon­si­bil­i­ty pro­gram in U.S. agriculture.

Wendy’s is the last hold­out of the big five fast food cor­po­ra­tions — McDonald’s, Burg­er King, Yum Brands! and Sub­way — from the pro­gram, which has extend­ed the Fair Food Code of Con­duct to more than 30,000 work­ers, who make up over 90 per­cent of the Flori­da toma­to indus­try. The many improb­a­ble suc­cess­es of the CIW offer impor­tant lessons for count­less oth­er cam­paigns, espe­cial­ly those by low-wage work­ers in oth­er industries.

The strength of the CIW, and per­haps the rea­son why cor­po­ra­tions are treat­ing it dif­fer­ent­ly than the fast food work­ers, comes down to the organization’s sophis­ti­cat­ed orga­niz­ing strategy. 

At its heart is an equa­tion: Con­scious­ness + Com­mit­ment = Change. The CIW and its allies under­stand con­scious­ness as edu­ca­tion, and com­mit­ment as the desire and capac­i­ty to act. In order to imple­ment this vision, the CIW has made two key strate­gic deci­sions: first, it iden­ti­fied the fast food and super­mar­ket retail cor­po­ra­tions as the source of mar­ket pow­er deter­min­ing their pay and work­ing con­di­tions; sec­ond, it sought out part­ners and has devel­oped three key alliances:the Student/​Farmworker Alliance, a nation­al net­work of stu­dents and young peo­ple orga­niz­ing to build a food sys­tem based on jus­tice and dig­ni­ty for farm­work­ers; Inter­faith Action, a net­work of peo­ple of faith and reli­gious insti­tu­tions; and Just Har­vest USA, a group involved in activism for sus­tain­able food sys­tems — who have recent­ly con­sol­i­dat­ed into the Alliance for Fair Food.

Sound strat­e­gy

Iden­ti­fy­ing the fast food and super­mar­ket retail cor­po­ra­tions as the source of pow­er in the toma­to indus­try, the CIW shift­ed the focus of its cam­paign away from the toma­to grow­ers in 2001, when it set its sights on Taco Bell. Dur­ing the Boot the Bell” cam­paign, the Student/​Farmworker Alliance pres­sured 25 high schools, col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties to remove exist­ing Taco Bells or pre­vent the devel­op­ment of new restau­rants and spon­sor­ships. In 2005, after a four-year cam­paign that includ­ed a nation­al farm­work­er boy­cott of Taco Bell, a 10-day hunger strike in 2003, a 44-mile march in 2004, and four nation­al Taco Bell Truth Tours” that cul­mi­nat­ed with protests out­side Taco Bell’s nation­al head­quar­ters in Irvine, Calif., Yum Brands!, Taco Bell’s par­ent cor­po­ra­tion, became the CIW’s first cor­po­rate part­ner in the Fair Food Program.

By 2010, the pro­gram par­tic­i­pants had expand­ed beyond the fast food indus­try to both the super­mar­ket and food ser­vices indus­tries, and the pro­gram had grown to cov­er 90 per­cent of Florida’s toma­to indus­try. In Jan­u­ary, Wal­mart, which accounts for 20 per­cent of toma­toes sold nation­al­ly each year, agreed to join the pro­gram and to extend it beyond both Flori­da and the toma­to indus­try for the first time. Wal­mart will apply the agree­ment to its toma­to grow­ers in Geor­gia, South Car­oli­na, Vir­ginia and oth­er parts of the East Coast, and also plans to extend the agree­ment to some of its apple and straw­ber­ry sup­pli­ers. In Jan­u­ary, the CIW came to an agree­ment with Fresh Mar­ket, its 13th cor­po­rate partner.

Iso­lat­ing these cor­po­ra­tions as the source of pow­er with­in their indus­try allowed the work­ers to devel­op, imple­ment and man­age the Fair Food Pro­gram that now holds the cor­po­ra­tions account­able to pay and work­ing con­di­tions through­out the sup­ply chain from which they pur­chase tomatoes.

The Fair Food Pro­gram works by tar­get­ing cor­po­rate buy­ing pow­er to pro­vide increased wages and humane work­ing con­di­tions for toma­to farm­work­ers. Since 2011, the pro­gram has added $15 mil­lion to Flori­da toma­to farm pay­rolls through a pen­ny per pound” pre­mi­um the cor­po­ra­tions pay to the grow­ers that is passed on to the work­ers through bonus­es admin­is­tered by the Fair Food Stan­dards Coun­cil, the third-par­ty over­sight enti­ty that over­sees pro­gram compliance.

The Fair Food Code of Con­duct estab­lished the work­ing con­di­tions required for a grow­er to remain part of the pro­gram. If a grow­er is found to be in vio­la­tion of the stan­dards, the par­tic­i­pat­ing cor­po­ra­tions must cease doing busi­ness with them. The code of con­duct reg­u­lates access to shade, water, break time and train­ing; estab­lish­es a safe­ty and com­plaint report­ing sys­tem; out­laws forced labor, child labor and all forms of sex­u­al harass­ment; stan­dard­izes pay­roll meth­ods and har­vest mea­sure­ments; and puts in place a work­er-to-work­er edu­ca­tion pro­gram that occurs on com­pa­ny time at the farms and pro­vides know your rights” book­lets and an edu­ca­tion­al video pre­pared by the CIW for each new hire at par­tic­i­pat­ing farms.

The Fair Food Pro­gram is found­ed on the prin­ci­ple that cor­po­ra­tions are respon­si­ble for the impact of their pur­chas­ing pow­er, a prin­ci­ple that is espe­cial­ly per­ti­nent to the ongo­ing SEIU-backed Fast Food For­ward cam­paign and the UFCW-backed OUR Wal­mart cam­paign. These two cam­paigns also hap­pen to be direct­ed against cor­po­ra­tions that par­tic­i­pate in the CIW’s Fair Food Program.

Just as the pur­chas­ing pow­er of retail cor­po­ra­tions in the agri­cul­tur­al indus­try effec­tive­ly deter­mines pay and work­ing con­di­tions through­out the sup­ply chain, fast food cor­po­ra­tions effec­tive­ly deter­mine pay and work­ing con­di­tions for fast food restau­rant work­ers, whether they work at a fran­chised or com­pa­ny-owned restau­rant. The fast food cor­po­ra­tions, led by McDonald’s, con­tin­ue to argue that they do not employ work­ers at fran­chised restau­rants and that the work­ers should nego­ti­ate with the franchisors.

The same prob­lem that once exist­ed for the CIW now exists for the fast food work­ers: They can­not bar­gain with the fran­chise own­ers because the fran­chise own­ers do not have much lee­way giv­en the strict oper­at­ing con­straints imposed on them by cor­po­rate mar­ket pow­er. In this case, cor­po­rate mar­ket pow­er is man­i­fest­ed through fran­chis­ing con­tracts that, by stan­dard­iz­ing essen­tial­ly all fran­chisee oper­a­tions and estab­lish­ing roy­al­ty fees based on rev­enue, allow for only small prof­it mar­gins for fran­chise own­ers. In the case of the CIW, the fast food cor­po­ra­tions have acknowl­edged their mar­ket pow­er and have agreed that this pow­er is accom­pa­nied by a cer­tain social respon­si­bil­i­ty; in the case of the fast food work­ers, they have not.

By sign­ing Fair Food Agree­ments, fast food cor­po­ra­tions and Wal­mart also acknowl­edge the via­bil­i­ty of orga­nized work­ers as a nego­ti­at­ing part­ner, a prin­ci­ple they deny with regard to the Fast Food For­ward and OUR Wal­mart cam­paigns. Accord­ing to McDonald’s and Wal­mart work­ers, the two cor­po­ra­tions sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly obstruct labor orga­niz­ing and union cam­paigns while they argue in pub­lic that work­er strike cam­paigns are staged demon­stra­tions that do not rep­re­sent their work­force. Again, the CIW farm­work­ers and the fast food work­ers find them­selves in essen­tial­ly sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions, yet the same cor­po­ra­tions treat them differently.

Strength in numbers

The CIW’s alliance with stu­dents began in 2000 at the tail end of its cam­paign­ing against the toma­to grow­ers, accord­ing to Joe Park­er, a mem­ber of the Student/​Farmworker Alliance’s nation­al staff. Dur­ing the CIW’s 234-mile March for Dig­ni­ty, Dia­logue and a Liv­ing Wage from Fort Myers, Fla., to the Flori­da Fruit and Veg­etable Association’s head­quar­ters in Orlan­do, Fla., stu­dents, large­ly based in Flori­da near Immokalee, marched with the work­ers and helped arrange for hous­ing, food and oth­er logis­ti­cal plan­ning. As CIW rec­og­nized the strate­gic val­ue of stu­dent allies who could con­stant­ly spread their mes­sage and devel­op new lead­er­ship, the for­mal part­ner­ship with the Student/​Farmworker Alliance was born.

The net­work expand­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly dur­ing the Boot the Bell” cam­paign, which includ­ed farm­work­ers trav­el­ing to cam­pus­es to share their expe­ri­ences direct­ly with stu­dents. The Student/​Farmworker Alliance is now anchored by two paid nation­al staff mem­bers, who work out of the same build­ing as the CIW in Immokalee, and a nation­al steer­ing com­mit­tee, which meets in Immokalee each Jan­u­ary and typ­i­cal­ly is com­prised of 15 to 18 active mem­bers with­in the net­work from around the coun­try. The nation­al lead­er­ship helps to facil­i­tate work that is con­stant­ly being done in local chap­ters through­out the coun­try. After an appli­ca­tion process, the out­go­ing staff and steer­ing com­mit­tee choose the next year’s group, accord­ing to Park­er. Terms last from Jan­u­ary to Decem­ber, and nei­ther staff nor steer­ing com­mit­tee mem­bers par­tic­i­pate for more than three years. Dur­ing the selec­tion process, the nation­al staff fur­ther empha­sizes devel­op­ing new lead­er­ship by seek­ing a mix of new and expe­ri­enced members.

The Student/​Farmworker Alliance also helps to orga­nize mul­ti­ple annu­al events that bring farm­work­ers in direct con­tact with stu­dents and act as a nat­ur­al means of recruit­ing new mem­ber­ship. Peri­od­i­cal­ly farm­work­ers will trav­el the coun­try for truth and out­reach tours, while each Sep­tem­ber the stu­dents orga­nize what they call an encuen­tro” in Immokalee, which serves as a nation­al stu­dent con­fer­ence where stu­dents dis­cuss strat­e­gy and build rela­tion­ships with the work­ers and each oth­er. Atten­dance typ­i­cal­ly varies from 60 to 120 peo­ple, and stu­dents who have expressed inter­est around the coun­try are invit­ed to attend. The CIW also typ­i­cal­ly orga­nizes a spring mass mobi­liza­tion, which unites the farm­work­ers with their var­i­ous allies. This year, the CIW will host a Fair Food Parade and Con­cert on March 21 in St. Peters­burg, Fla.

As for mobi­liz­ing the farm­work­ers them­selves, the work­er-to-work­er edu­ca­tion pro­gram, a key pro­vi­sion in the Fair Food Code of Con­duct, is essen­tial to the CIW’s abil­i­ty to both mobi­lize the toma­to farm­work­ers in protest and to self-enforce the rights they have earned. Since the program’s incep­tion, the CIW has edu­cat­ed over 22,000 work­ers face-to-face on com­pa­ny time and prop­er­ty, where they dis­cuss their rights as work­ers as well as safe­ty stan­dards. They have also dis­trib­uted know your rights” mate­ri­als to over 100,000 work­ers, which, along with the com­plaint res­o­lu­tion sys­tem cod­i­fied in the Code of Con­duct, empow­ers work­ers to act as the first line of defense against employ­er vio­la­tion of the program.

This is how the pro­gram sur­vives,” said Sylvia Perez, a CIW staff mem­ber. Work­ers are empow­ered to com­plain and to act as a first round of detection.”

The cre­ation of an edu­cat­ed, cohe­sive work­force also enhances the CIW’s cam­paign­ing capa­bil­i­ties. The CIW con­tin­ues to wage protest cam­paigns that, in addi­tion to tours of col­lege cam­pus­es and march­es, have includ­ed work­er boy­cotts, hunger strikes and pick­et­ing of restau­rants and stores to edu­cate con­sumers. They also fre­quent­ly par­tic­i­pate in oth­er work­er and activist cam­paigns, offer­ing sup­port that is often rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed. In 2013, the CIW joined fast food work­ers pick­et­ing Wendy’s restau­rants. And more recent­ly, the orga­ni­za­tion has vis­it­ed Migrant Jus­tice, an orga­ni­za­tion of migrant dairy farm work­ers in Ver­mont, and col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Dream Defend­ers, a racial jus­tice youth activist group, by vis­it­ing a mul­ti­cul­tur­al fes­ti­val they orga­nized in Mia­mi in June and their statewide con­gress in December.

Through their strong grass­roots orga­niz­ing the CIW has demon­strat­ed to them­selves, the pub­lic and the cor­po­ra­tions deter­min­ing their work­ing con­di­tions that they are pow­er­ful. In the words of for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, whose Clin­ton Foun­da­tion hon­ored the CIW last year with its Clin­ton Glob­al Cit­i­zen Award: “[The CIW is] the most aston­ish­ing thing polit­i­cal­ly in the world we’re liv­ing in today.”

Geoff Gilbert writes about the low-wage econ­o­my, social jus­tice activism and the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy. His work has been pub­lished by Salon, Truthout, The Brook­lyn Rail, Wag­ing Non­vi­o­lence and The Indypen­dent. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @geoff_gilbert1
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