Picking Tomatoes, Picking Fights

Scott Sink

In Immokalee,
Florida, when the bus came to a stop, several workers had already crowded around
the door. Their eyes revealed a tense urgency, anxiously scanning the seven-foot
rows of tomato plants in the dark, misty pre-dawn. As soon as the door opened,
they stampeded towards a pile of plastic crates, the first ones there being able
to grab three or four. Just as suddenly, the workers ran out to the field,
disappearing in the maze of grape tomato plants strung together. The incessant
“thud” of grape tomatoes landing in the bins began.

Tomato pickers
work at such a frenzied pace because they don’t know when they’ll be working
next. Paid by how many buckets they pick, contractors often leave them on the
bus for hours before the workday begins. After carefully filling up the 20 pound
bin, making sure not to pick the green ones, the workers carry it to the truck
to be loaded where the contractors give them a ticket for every 20 pound crate.
These tickets are turned in at the end of the day, worth $2.50 each.

Before long, the
truck filled up and went off to the packing plant. Meanwhile, workers with
filled crates waited for another truck before they could start picking again. It
could be hours, hours they’re not paid for. In this way workers who beat others
to the crates, taking more than one, are at an advantage.

calculating the yield of the crop and the work- force, benefit from this set-up.
An excess of pickers tends to work more frantically when they have to compete
against each other as well as race against the clock. Also, workers are
compelled to go back over picked plants and pick tomatoes off the ground.

In Orange County,
California, an ominous skyscraper bears the Taco Bell logo. Taco Bell’s world
headquarters—located in Irvine, CA—is the staging ground for a recent protest
for farm- workers’ rights, organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers
(CIW). Taco Bell, owned by Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc. is a major buyer of
Florida tomatoes.

One of Taco
Bell’s principal tomato buyers, Six L’s, pays tomato pickers 40 cents for every
32- pound bucket of tomatoes, the same rate paid in 1978. The CIW who represent
approximately 3,000 farm workers in Immokalee, Florida, has organized several
protests, as well as a national boycott of Taco Bell. The CIW is proposing that
Taco Bell pay one cent more per pound of tomatoes, passing the extra penny on to
the pickers, which would nearly double their pay. But the company has refused to
meet with them, saying it’s not their “position” to become “involved” in the
affairs of other companies.

Finally, last
March the CIW organized a two-week long national Taco Bell Truth Tour—a caravan
of Immokalee migrant farm workers. After stops in several major cities across
the U.S., the caravan arrived at Taco Bell Headquarters in Irvine, California
for a March 11 protest and demanded to meet with the company. Facing pressure,
the company finally agreed to meet with the farm workers and the CIW.

(pronounced im- MAH-kuh-lee) is an unincorporated Florida town of 70,000, about
half of whom are migrant laborers. About 50 percent are from Mexico,
approximately 30 percent are from Guatemala and Central American countries, and
about 20 percent are from Haiti.

Every morning,
the parking lot in front of the Mexicana #5 Market in the center of town fills
up with contractors’ buses. To the sound of roosters crowing, workers head down
the dark streets and fill up the buses. Although the availability of work can
change on a daily basis, most workers tend to stay with one contractor in one
industry, often determined by ethnicity. For example, grape tomatoes are picked
primarily by Guatemalans and southern Mexicans, whereas Haitians and Mexicans
prefer to pick oranges.

Unfortunately, it
is harder for indigenous people from Mexico and Guatemala to find work in the
U.S. than for mestizos (also called criollos, meaning of mixed race), because of
language barriers and anti-indigenous racism. So the indigenous wind up being
the most vulnerable and marginalized sector of workers. What’s more, the
immigration status (either documented or undocumented) of most farm workers
serves as a hindrance to fair labor practices.

Unfair labor
practices addressed by the CIW have included beatings by contractors, refusal to
pay workers, pay cuts and exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup, a highly toxic
pesticide, as well as other controversial pesticides.

Many migrant
workers in Florida’s fields are from Oaxaca, such as Sabino, a 29-year-old
tomato picker from a Mixtec Community. He explains that he can earn “$50 to $60,
or maybe $20 to $30” a day, “depending on how many hours” the contractors allow
him to work. Often “they only let us work two hours and then they send us home.”

Antonio, a
41-year-old orange-picker from Central Mexico, tells of picking oranges “in the
dark at 6:30 AM. You go out there and you don’t even earn enough to do the
laundry. It’s not right.”

Antonio has
worked in Immokalee for 15 years, sending money to his family in Mexico. He
remembers the time a contractor savagely beat a farm worker, which the CIW
responded to with a general strike and a march from the Mexicana #5 parking lot
to the contractor’s house. “The bosses don’t act like they used to.”

He shows me his
green card, which is actually pink nowadays. Antonio explains that the
contractors “prefer the undocumented worker, because they have him in their
hands. They don’t give him a check stub.”

Nicolas, a
51-year-old orange picker from Mexico City is supportive of the CIW strikes, but
 concerned that many workers won’t be able to afford missing work. For example,
many “Guatemalans earn $10 to $15 a day picking tomatoes.”

Both Antonio and
Nicolas say they aren’t able to pick as many oranges as when they were young.
Before, Nicolas says he could pick 15 to 20 bags of oranges a day, each bag
weighing about 63 kilograms (approximately his body weight). But lately he can
only pick about 10 bags a day. “It really concerns me that I’m not going to be
able to retire.”

The average farm
worker is 21 years old and retirement in this industry is unheard of. Nicolas
remarks that he makes about $8,000 a year before taxes. “The government is on my
back, and the big-bellied contractors won’t give me anything.” Having worked in
Immokalee since 1990, after applying for papers in 1988, Nicolas estimates that
“not even half of us have papers.”

Another orange
picker said that  he paid $300 in 1994 to be taken to Westminster, Orange
County, just miles away from Taco Bell’s headquarters, where he worked for
several years.

Due in part to
increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border, he paid $1,400 recently to
be taken to Georgia. He commented, “20 years paying the same rate…. Just look
at how much rent has gone up.” Pointing to a Taco Bell Truth Tour flyer taped to
the wall outside the store, the undocumented worker smiled: “I hope it brings
some results.”  Z

Scott Sink,
an activist from the Orange County, CA Boycott Taco Bell campaign, along with
activists Lee Siu Hin from ActionLA and Elizabeth Gotez of LA IMC, worked with
migrant farm workers in Immokalee, FL in support of the workers’ demands.