Florida farmworkers’ tour: ‘Now is the time’

 March 14, Lakeland, Fl.
Photo: Bryan Ellis 

On March 14, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' "Now Is the Time" tour culminated in Lakeland, Florida, with a 24-hour vigil outside Publix and a three-mile march to Lake Mirror Promenade downtown. The tour lasted for 10 days holding actions in 10 cities directed at the international fast food company Wendy's and the supermarket giant Publix. The CIW and its allies want Wendy's and Publix to join the Fair Food Program, which increases farmworkers' wages through a penny per pound premium paid by corporate buyers of Florida tomatoes and enhances working conditions through a human-rights-based Code of Conduct.

The vigil started early in the afternoon at Publix on S. Florida Avenue. For the next 24 hours, CIW and allies from the Student/Farmworker Alliance, InterFaith Action, Just Harvest and Alliance for Fair Food turned the permitted stretch of sidewalk in front of Publix into a militant celebration of worker power and immigrant pride.

About 150 people picketed, listened to the stories of Immokalee workers and danced to Latin American and electronic dance music. Children ran around excitedly and painted a large canvas with their vision of un nuevo día, a new day. At times, Immokalee workers and their allies played chess or talked while sitting on red buckets used to harvest tomatoes. CIW activist Pedro Lopez, emceeing from a stage powered by portable generators, captured the mood well when he said, "This ain't no protest, this is a celebration ... and Publix is late to the party!"

As usual, in the parking lot, Publix managers in their suits and green ties conducted damage control with customers while intimidating would-be demonstrators from joining the rally. Publix's cameraman, who had filmed each stop of the tour in order to intimidate activists, was also present. When the Coalition sent its delegation to speak with Publix managers, Publix summoned the police. Police cruisers rolled up to the meeting spot, making the conversation short and tense.

Despite the cold, demonstrators remained outside Publix all night with candles, while the Tampa and Orlando Light Brigades held up lights saying "NOW IS THE TIME." People from around Florida continued to arrive at the vigil throughout the night, joining other allies who had traveled from states as far as Texas, Tennessee and Indiana.

At 2pm on March 15, the Coalition and several hundred supporters poured into the streets of Lakeland chanting "El pueblo callado jamás será escuchado," "Up, up with Fair Food Nation, down, down with exploitation" and "¿Qué queremos? ¡Justicia! ¿Cuándo? ¡Ahora!" A seemingly endless procession of yellow and red flags, tomato-shaped signs saying "1¢/lb," "Fair Food" or "Fair Wage," and chanting activists of all ages marched behind a flatbed truck equipped with loudspeakers. Passing cars honked continuously in support of the march.

Local news stations, afraid to anger Publix and lose the Lakeland-based corporation's advertising dollars, did not cover the action.

Founded in 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is known internationally for its human rights accomplishments. So far, by raising awareness about the exploitation of migrant farmworkers, the Coalition has won victories against 11 major food retailers, such as Yum! Brands (Taco Bell), McDonald's and Burger King. They have also brought the Fair Food Agreement to the supermarket industry, securing agreements with Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's and, recently, even Walmart.

The Fair Food Agreement is legally binding between the CIW and tomato growers and retailers. It provides for increased wages, zero tolerance for forced labor and sexual assault, worker-to-worker education sessions on their new rights (on company time), a worker-triggered complaint resolution system, worker-led health and safety committees and ongoing auditing of participating growers.

The Fair Food Program's penny per pound price premium has helped to ease the downward pressure on wages exerted by the monopolistic, high volume purchasing practices in the food industry and the explosive growth of Mexican agribusiness exports since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since January 2011, Florida tomato pickers have earned over $11 million in FFP premiums from participating buyers. Though they still live in squalid conditions and receive poverty-level wages, workers can more readily purchase essentials with the increase in their paychecks.

The CIW's struggle is an exhilarating story of workers taking direct action and winning victories over the dehumanization process of capitalist wage slavery, as well as traditional slavery in some cases. It has not only improved working conditions for Immokalee workers, but it has also helped them to reclaim a sense of self-determination. As one worker said after reporting his crewleader for wage theft to the Fair Food Standards Council, “More important than the money, which I need, was the feeling of dignity when my labor—the buckets I harvested—was recognized."

The Fair Food Code of Conduct also monitors the direct hiring and payment of workers, time-keeping systems, bucket-filling standards and discipline policies. Since November 2011, the Fair Food Program has handled 247 complaints. Resolution was succesfully reached in 122 cases. Roughly 40 percent of complaints involved wage theft; health and safety violations made up about 10 percent; sexual harassment, violence or threat of violence, verbal harassment, and discrimination constituted some other frequent complaints.

Though much struggle still lies ahead, CIW's further consolidation of the Fair Foods Program in Florida could promote its expansion north of Florida and into other agricultural industries. As a massive banner at the rally, quoting Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King Jr., proclaimed: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

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