Part 3: The Campaign for Fair Food
Working to alleviate slave-labor conditions is very important, but “what the Coalition really wants to do is end the fact that slavery still exists in this country, and eliminate sweat-shop conditions,” said Marc Rodrigues of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. “That’s what we’re trying to do today: fundamentally changing and reforming the agricultural industry so that these abuses don’t happen in the first place.”
“Back in the 1990s, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers led a community-based campaign to get the growers to come to the table to have a dialogue about the wages and working conditions,” said Santiago Perez. They held several general farm worker strikes, and marched 235 miles from Fort Myers to Orlando, where the growers were having their annual meeting. Six CIW members went on a 30-day hunger strike. “All of that was to put pressure on the growers to have a dialogue with us.
“No matter what we did, the growers refused to come to the table,” Perez said. “Realizing that going after the growers was not the most strategic thing to do, we started to ask, ‘Who else is benefitting from this situation?'” The CIW began to look at the role that big corporations have in exploiting farm workers indirectly by using their power and market scale to maximize profits.
“Because they’re buying in such mass quantities, they can dictate the price to the growers, which puts the growers under a lot of pressure to provide a larger and larger quantity of tomatoes at a lower and lower price.” said Rodrigues. “The one piece in this puzzle where the growers could cut some corners to control their costs and still turn a profit—the one piece that historically has been the most powerless—has been the workers. These corporate purchasing practices have put a direct downward pressure on the workers’ wages and working conditions.”
The CIW began to put pressure on corporations by launching a national boycott of Taco Bell in 2001. “Our main demands were that we wanted Taco Bell to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes to directly increase workers’ wages, and we wanted them to agree to a code of conduct for growers, which the workers would be involved in designing and implementing, and which would give the workers a voice in the industry, so they could defend their own rights,” Perez said.
“After four years, Taco Bell gave in to our demands, and the boycott ended,” Perez said. “That didn’t happen because the CEO of Taco Bell woke up one morning and decided, ‘I’m going to support farm worker justice today.’ It happened because we were able to build a strong national movement with allies and consumers that took on this campaign as their own.”
Since then, the CIW has had similar agreements signed by McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, and other large corporate food retailers. So far 9 companies have signed fair wage and code of conduct agreements with the CIW. “The purchasing power that those nine that that we were able to get on our side has made the growers realize that unless things change, they’re going to lose their right to sell tomatoes to a lot of big companies,” Rodrigues said.
Further campaigns are currently under way with other retailers, such as Kroger and Trader Joe’s, which operate in central Ohio. “It’s very important too get supermarket chains to do the right thing, because until they agree to an extra penny per pound, the workers’ wages won’t get a chance to reach their full potential,” Rodrigues said. “And as long as we have the Krogers, the Trader Joes, and the Wal-Marts out there that the growers can sell tomatoes to with no questions asked, it threatens the advances we’ve been able to make so far.”
Part 1: Working conditions in Florida agriculture
Part 2: Worker abuse and modern-day slavery