Why I’m walking 200 miles with the Immokalee Workers

Coalition of Immokalee Workers protest on March 10, 2012. (Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

Coalition of Immokalee Workers protest on March 10, 2012. (Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

Two hundred miles is a long way in a car. I imagine it takes about three hours of highway driving. So why on earth would I agree to walk it? Because I agree with George W. Jenkins, the founder of the Florida-based grocery chain Publix, when he said, “Never let making a profit stand in the way of doing the right thing.”

Though I live in Texas now, I am a Florida girl at heart. I grew up making sand castles at Fort Desoto Beach. At age 3, I peed my pants in the checkout line at our neighborhood Publix. I reportedly told my mother with a smirk afterward, “Publix, where shopping is a pleasure!” Which is why it was hard for me to swallow the souring of my childhood memories four years ago when Publix began to ignore, then flatly refused, the requests of their consumers to help end poverty and human rights abuses in its tomato supply chain.

By then, I knew something about the problem. While in college I encountered the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a migrant farm-worker organization working to advance human rights in the agricultural industry. I learned that the men and women who pick our nation’s tomatoes make a piece rate of about 45 to 50 cents for picking 32 pounds of tomatoes — a rate that hasn’t increased substantially since 1978. This means they have to pick approximately two tons of tomatoes to make $50 a day. They have no benefits, no sick days and, legally, no right to organize. Low wages, sexual harassment and violence in the fields have been, and in some sectors of the agricultural industry still are, the norm. Thanks to the Coalition, these conditions are slowly becoming obsolete in the tomato fields of Florida.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers was formed in 1992 by Mexican, Hatian, Guatamalan and Mayan indigenous workers, many of who were fleeing violence and political repression in their home countries. These workers brought with them a deep knowledge of civil resistance, and upon arrival in Immokalee, they began to apply the power analyses they had learned before to their new situation. In the early years of their organizing, the Coalition’s approach stopped at the farm gate. The group focused principally on the power imbalance between farmworkers and growers, targeting Florida’s tomato growers with marches and general strikes throughout the 1990s.

In 2000, the Immokalee Workers undertook a 230-mile march from Immokalee to Orlando. Their destination was the headquarters of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the powerful lobbying arm of Florida’s agricultural industry. People of faith, students and members of community organizations joined with the workers, and during this march an ally network was formed to support their struggle.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers protest on March 10, 2012. (Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

Coalition of Immokalee Workers protest on March 10, 2012. (Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

This direct access to consumer power became coupled with a new, hard-nosed market analysis: In order to secure changes for the workers at the bottom of the supply chain, there had to be market pressure applied at the top. In 2001, the Coalition shifted strategies, and instead of targeting tomato growers, it went after a massive corporate retailer, Taco Bell. Supported by the newly-minted Student/Farmworker Alliance and Interfaith Action, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers created what is now known as the Campaign for Fair Food.

Through the Campaign for Fair Food, corporations are asked to join in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers by signing agreements that create lasting change, using their purchasing power to uphold more humane labor standards for farm workers. With the support of these and other allies across the nation, the Coalition has created the most comprehensive, sustainable and verifiable system to ensure that the food on America’s tables is fairly picked.

To date, the group has signed Fair Food Agreements with 11 major corporations — McDonalds and Whole Foods among them — but Publix has been reticent to join the historic program. The agreements include a penny-per-pound premium sent down the supply chain to workers, stipulations on working conditions, and the establishment of a third-party monitoring system to ensure these changes last. Indeed, the Fair Food Program could prove to be a model for how to re-shape the rest of American agriculture.

The changes won thus far have been monumental. Workers now receive a “Fair Food Premium” in their pay. Sexual harassment is no longer tolerated, and growers provide bathrooms, water and shade structures under which workers can rest. Tomato pickers are educated on-site about their new rights under the program, and there is a hotline that workers can call to report violations. These changes are a direct result of people organizing in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and it is all held in place by one crucial force — consumer power.

Agreements are backed by market consequences, but as long as a low-bar market for tomatoes still exists, growers and retailers who don’t want to participate don’t have to. Coalition member Leonel Perez recently told me, “We are far from system-wide transformation. We need more corporate buyers to come on board, and we need consumer support to make that possible.”

William E. Crenshaw, the current CEO of Publix, is holding out as long as he can. After four years of being asked, he is still refusing to get with the program, sending PR reps out into the world saying things like, “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business.” Although it’s too bad that Crenshaw can’t follow Jenkins’ lead and “do the right thing,” we aren’t going to let him forget the founder’s powerful words.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers protest on March 10, 2012. (Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

Coalition of Immokalee Workers protest on March 10, 2012. (Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

On March 3, I will fly home to walk for 15 days alongside Publix consumers throughout the southeast, shoulder to shoulder with Florida’s tomato pickers — some of the poorest workers in the country. We will retrace some of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ original steps from the 2000 march for Dignity, Dialogue and a Fair Wage. On March 17, we will arrive at the doorstep of Publix, where we will call on the company to do the right thing and help end poverty and human rights abuses in Florida’s tomato fields.

When the opportunity to participate in this march arose, I knew I had to say yes. In my eyes, our work parallels the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s in which organizers relied heavily on cross-racial solidarity and massive acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Like them, we will go to great lengths because we believe we can live in a world where every individual — regardless of skin tone, country of origin or the nature of the work they do — will be treated with dignity and respect. From March 3 to March 17, we will march to expand a tangible, lasting example of how businesses in our society can honor the wishes of consumers and the rights of workers.

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