The Struggle for Fair and Just Food

or the past 15 years the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a community-based
worker organization consisting of Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian immigrants
who work low-wage agricultural jobs in the state of Florida, has been fighting
for fair and just working conditions and an end to “indentured servitude
in the fields of Southwest Florida.” 

Immokalee is the state’s largest farm working community, made up of over
2,500 workers, 50 percent of whom are Mexican, 30 percent Guatemalan, and
10 percent Haitian and other nationalities. The majority of these workers
are employed as day laborers for large agricultural corporations in the
tomato and citrus harvests. 

CIW began its work in 1993 as a small group of workers meeting weekly to
discuss “how to better [their] community and [their] lives.” Migrant workers
are unable to join any of the North American trade unions. As a result,
the CIW does not have the ability to bargain collectively or leverage deals
through labor talks. Direct action has been the only way for workers to
get the goods in the Florida fields. In a decade and a half the CIW has
put heat on the agricultural industry by organizing community-wide work
stoppages, general strikes, a month-long hunger strike, and a 230 mile
march from Fort Myers to Orlando. 

These inexhaustible organizing efforts won industry-wide wage increases
of 13 to 25 percent in 1998. The raises were the first of their kind in
over 30 years and brought the tomato picking piece rate back to pre-1980
levels. These wage increases, 28 years behind the rate of inflation, were
not enough. Farm- workers still live in deep poverty. 

Today Florida tomato pickers earn between 40-45 cents per pound for every
32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. A picker must pick 2 tons of tomatoes
a day to earn $56.00. The grueling task takes them between 10 and 12 hours.
Workers receive no overtime pay, no benefits, and have repeatedly been
denied the right to organize a union.      

In November 2002 a five-year campaign by the CIW against slavery and indentured
servitude led to the indictments of three crew leaders from Lake Placid,
Florida. The Lake Placid Three pled guilty to forcing 700 workers into
slave labor in Florida’s citrus groves. In May 2004 they were sentenced
to a total of 31 years and 9 months in federal prison and were ordered
to pay $3 million in restitution for their immigrant smuggling operation. 

The CIW gained national attention when they launched the first ever farmworkers
boycott of the fast food corporation Taco Bell. The boycott called upon
Yum! Brands Inc., “to take responsibility for human rights abuses in the
fields where its produce is grown and picked.” Included under the banner
of Yum! operations are Taco Bell, Long John Silvers, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky
Fried Chicken. 

The “Boot the Bell” boycott gained support from student activist, labor,
and religious communities. In 2005, after three years of national pressure
from the CIW and allied supporters, Taco Bell and the Yum! Brands agreed
to meet Coalition demands “to improve wages and working conditions for
Florida tomato pickers in its supply chain.” 

It was a huge victory for the farmworkers. However, control over one buyer
wouldn’t be enough. Taco Bell and Yum! buy only 1 percent of the tomatoes
grown in the fields of Immokalee. 

In 2005, following the deal with Yum!, the CIW released a statement saying,
“This precedent-setting victory now gives us a strong foundation for pursuing
deeper change throughout the entire fast-food industry and in turn the
Florida agricultural industry.” 

Subsequently, the next link in the strand of chain restaurants the CIW
sought to unshackle farmworkers from was McDonald’s. After the deal with
Taco Bell, McDonald’s began working with a growers lobbying association
called the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA) to undermine
the agreement with Taco Bell and keep wages down in the fields. 

Representatives from McDonald’s met with the industries leading growers
at a tomato packing house in Palmetto, Florida. It was reported in the
Lakeland Ledger, Polk County’s daily newspaper, that, “Members of the restaurant
industry and the Florida agriculture industry met to discuss an escalating
labor war.” At the packing house meeting, the FFVA, in cooperation with
some of the industries’ largest buyers and representatives from their PR
firms, created an employer-controlled monitoring program called Socially
Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) as an alternative to the code of conduct
agreement that the CIW had established with Taco Bell and Yum!     Brands.

For two years McDonald’s refused to talk with CIW organizers about improving
labor conditions in the Florida fields. As a result, CIW, together with
the Student Farm Workers Alliance (SFA), organized the 2007 Truth Tour
aimed at making “Fast Food Fair Food,” confronting McDonald’s and bringing
to light their continued efforts to sweep issues of modern day slavery
under the rug. Busloads of workers and their families spent ten days traveling
from Immokalee to Chicago, stopping in cities along the way while raising
awareness about unjust buying practices in the fast food industry and how
they contribute to torturous labor conditions. Organizers planned for workers’
voices to come to a crescendo with solidarity activists outside McDonald’s
global headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois on April 13, where the CIW planned
to announce a boycott. 

The campaign came to an unexpected halt on April 9, when representatives
from the McDonald’s Corporation agreed to meet with CIW organizers and
workers at the Jimmy Carter Peace Center in Atlanta, Georgia. At the meeting
McDonald’s USA and its produce suppliers announced they would work with
the CIW to improve wages and working conditions in the fields by promising
to pay pickers an extra penny per pound for their labor. Beginning with
the 2007 season, Florida harvesters will earn 72 to 77 cents for every
32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick for McDonald’s, a 70 percent wage
increase. In addition, McDonald’s agreed to “work together with the CIW
and produce suppliers to develop a new code of conduct for Florida tomato
growers, and increase farmworker participation in monitoring supplier compliance,”
as well as to allow “farmworkers to participate in investigating worker
complaints.” McDonald’s and its produce suppliers also agreed to cooperate
with CIW in developing and implementing a credible third-party verification
system between pickers, suppliers, and buyers. 

“Today, with McDonald’s, we have taken another major step toward a world
where we as farmworkers 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, and today’s agreement should send
a strong message to the rest of the restaurant and supermarket industry
that it is now time to stand behind the food they sell from the field to
the table,” said Lucas Benetiz, co-founder of the CIW. 

The agreement with McDonald’s did not stop the Truth Tour caravan. CIW
then announced it would shift the focus of the fair and just fast food
campaign from McDonald’s to Burger King. The contracts negotiated with
Yum! Brands and McDonald’s allow workers to earn about $96 for 12 hours
of labor—picking 4,000 pounds of tomatoes. The current industry contracts
with Burger King earn workers $56 per day for the same amount of work.
“Right now only McDonald’s and Taco Bell are on the table,” said Benetiz.
“We need to put pressure on others in fast food and we need to continue
to disrupt. If Burger King does not change by the end of this year, we
are going to create a lot of pressure and it is going to be a much stronger
campaign,” he added, hinting at CIW plans to stage a boycott against the
restaurant chain. 

The arrival of the truth tour in Chicago was marked by a celebration that
kicked off with the Our World Our Rights Festival on April 13 at the College
of Dupage in Glen Ellyn, just outside of Chicago. Organizers estimated
that about 2,000 workers and supporters turned out for the event, which
featured a number of speakers from the movement, a series of workshops
on topics ranging from International Solidarity, Community Based Media,
and the Burger King Campaign Strategy to Sustainable Food and Farming,
and more. 

Among the speakers on the stage was 13-year-old Eduardo Venegas, youngest
of the companeros from Immokalee. Venegas told the audience what it was
like to lose his childhood in the fields. Most of the workers, he explained,
are between 15 and 30 years old. Venegas came to the United States when
he was 11 years old. “I have been living in Immo- kalee for two years now.
I came to the U.S. for a better future, but I find myself struggling here
as well. I live in a room with my entire family and I go to school, but
on the days that I am free, I go to work, and help my parents. It is truly
difficult; it is hard work that [we] do. [We] get paid so little. Sometimes
[we] get sick from working so hard and [we] have hardly made any money.
Through this struggle we hope to change that. I want to see that day when
the workers have the power and the strength to speak,” he said. 

Founding voice of the struggle, Lucas Benitez, took the stage after Venegas,
congratulating everyone in attendance for their contributions to the campaign
against McDonald’s. “It is very interesting to see when all of the forces
unite. The students, the churches, the unions, all following the same motives,
because it is not just a victory for us, the workers, it’s a victory for
everyone that has put in their little grain of sand, from sending a post
card or taking a letter to a manager at a restaurant—all of those things
made this victory possible.” 

The day of celebration ended with a rally as activists  converged on five
Burger King restaurants in the area. The disruption came just in time to
detour the day’s dinner rush. As the sun was setting, activists chanted,
“Down with the King,” and raised banners reading, “Fair Food Not Fast Food.”

The festivities continued into the following day with the Concert for Fair
Food at the House of Blues in downtown Chicago. Among the many performers
were the Latino Hip Hop group Rebel Diaz and Tom Morello and Zac de La
Rocha from Rage Against the Machine. 

De La Rocha took the stage with Morello for their first public appearance
together in over two years. Addressing the audience he said, “It is a pleasure
to be here this evening with the Coalition of Immokalee farm- workers and
their supporters who are out there every single day, working, challenging
apathy, and breaking the strong hold that this industry has had over their
workers and their families forever.” He then broke out a note- book and
began rapping a fresh set of lyrics which he’d finished writing just hours

It’s the CIW why?

They walk the talk and their

  work becomes a weapon

the CIW why?

Justice in the fields and the

  clown gets a stepping

the CIW now

Justice in the fields and the

  King is going Down


Chris Heneghan is a freelance journalist. For more information visit www.ciw-