Students at the University of Florida are working to help farmworkers battle for fair wages and basic human rights.

By Kristen Abdullah and Richard Blake
November 16, 2009

Migrant worker Jorge Rodriguez plays the “quijada,” in Immokalee, Fla. Farmworkers celebrated the recent decision by Taco Bell to accede to the demands of local tomato pickers, who led a four-year boycott against the restaurant chain, and pay a penny more for each pound of Florida tomatoes. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

As we made the four-hour journey south to tomato-town Immokalee, Fla., we ran through the itinerary for the long weekend to come and familiarized ourselves with the 40-plus pages of reading material that we were supposed to have completed three weeks before. The thick packet of literature included stories like “Immokalee family sentenced for slavery,” “Apartheid in America,” and “A more-complete definition of ‘sustainable.’” By the time we arrived in the desolate town, just after midnight, we felt confident in our school-child ability to recite the labor history of this town and felt briefed on the ultimate reason for our visit.

After becoming fed up with the impoverished condition that enslaved them, migrant workers started a grassroots organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in 1993. Consisting mostly of people from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti, these workers had already experienced both verbal and physical abuses since their arrival in the United States. Most of them could remember a time when, back in their own countries, they survived as subsistence farmers—selling crops and living off corn, squash, beans, and, most important, their own autonomy. They weren’t rich, but they were dignified.

But after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was established among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, these small-time farmers could not compete with subsidized crops from the States. Before, Mexico was a major wheat exporter. Now, Mexico only exports cheap labor.

“I think of myself as a son of NAFTA,” CIW staff member Lucas Benitez says. Poverty and exploitation forced these people north, where they hoped conditions would improve. But in Immokalee, the reality was much different.

As we pulled up to the CIW headquarters, a man who we had previously only known through e-mails warmly greeted us. He was Marc Rodriguez, the national coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA), and he directed us to our sleeping quarters—the Immokalee Non-Profit Housing children’s care center, about two miles away. Finally settling down among baby toys and children’s books in Spanish, it dawned on us that we had barely scratched the surface of this town.

ENCUENTRO

The next morning, about 150 people convened in an old church for the official start of the fifth annual CIW/SFA Encuentro, which means “the meeting.” These people gather to discuss campaign strategy for the upcoming year, bringing together students and activists from across the United States with the like-minded goal of working in solidarity to bring positive change to the lives of migrant farmworkers in Immokalee. After an introduction to the SFA, Benitez and several other members of the CIW filled in a few more gaps in our knowledge of the coalition’s history.

In 1995, the CIW held its first major action. After Pacific Tomato Growers threatened to cut workers’ pay from the minimum wage $4.25 an hour to $3.85 an hour, more than 3,000 farmworkers went on strike for one week without compensation, including nearby citrus workers acting in solidarity, and built alliances with local church groups, schools, and universities. The pressure was so great that the company announced it would instead increase the hourly wage to $5.25.

Unfortunately, not all growers were as responsive as Pacific Tomato Growers. In fact, after this first event, it became frustratingly difficult to convince growers to yield to the CIW’s demands of a wage increase of one penny more per pound of tomatoes and to follow a human rights code of conduct.

So the coalition began to research every link in the food supply chain and noticed a striking trend. No matter the players, the line of succession was always the same—the food suppliers pull all the strings from the top; the growers act as the strings being pulled; and the farmworkers dangle like marionettes at the bottom.

THE BATTLE WITH ARAMARK

This system is apparent within the makeup of UF’s own food supplier, Aramark Corporation.

“We strive to offer clients and customers fresh whole foods that are raised, grown, harvested, and produced locally and in a sustainable manner whenever possible. And we partner with suppliers to increase the availability of such foods,” Aramark states on its website.

However, Aramark is constantly being ridiculed for not living up to its self-mandated standards of ensuring a sustainable supply chain of workers at the ends of its own puppet cabaret: Workers like those in Florida who pick roughly 90 percent of the country’s tomato supply while reaping little, if any, of its profits.

On Martin Luther King Day in 2001, the CIW took a bold step to bring farmworkers a little closer to their suppliers. They officially threatened a nationwide Taco Bell boycott outside of the Mexican fast-food chain in Ft. Myers, Fla. Three months later, they presented a list of demands to Taco Bell: Meet with the CIW and tomato growers to discuss possible solutions to farmworkers’ problems, contribute to an immediate wage increase per pound of tomatoes picked, and join the CIW to draft wage and working conditions standards to be required of all Taco Bell tomato suppliers.

Three years and thousands of protest signs later, Taco Bell folded. The “Boot the Bell” campaign by students and farmworkers was so successful that the victory received Mother Jones’ “Campus Activism Victory of the Year” award.

Taco Bell set the bar, and the rest dropped like flies: McDonald’s, Burger King, and eventually all of Yum Brands (Burger King’s supplier). Whole Foods, Subway, and Bon Appétit also agreed to pay the people who pick their tomatoes one penny more per pound, as well as agreeing to follow a code of conduct for growers and suppliers.

These victories created an astounding precedent, proving that a group of farmworkers with few legal protections could organize, take on huge corporations, and actually see a response to their demands.

MODERN-DAY SLAVERY

Back at the Encuentro, everyone prepared for a walking tour, filling their water bottles and gathering big-brimmed hats and sunglasses. We trudged down the sad, steamy roads of the migrant housing neighborhood, stopping in the shaded areas in front of various points. The first site was a small trailer park stuffed with dinky green trailers with bright “for rent” signs shining through their dusty window panes. Our guides Silvia Perez and Melody Gonzalez explained that the dilapidated trailers—most of them lacking basic amenities like air conditioning and hot water—were owned by tomato growers in the area and rented out to migrants for a going rate of $60 per person per week. The growers have the ability to charge outlandish prices for several reasons, including proximity to pick-up points for work and the lack of a housing market demand by residents other than the workers.

A few blocks away, we stopped across the street of the next site—a house that looked like its inhabitants had been gone for several weeks. Our guides, apprehensive about getting any closer to the house, began to unfold the tale of its history.

Just one year ago, the owner of this house and several others were arrested and charged with modern-day slavery. Gonzalez, in her rustic Spanish accent, explained that about a year and a half ago a large U-haul was nestled in the driveway. The chain lock around the U-haul was not to keep people out, but to keep them in.

In a fashion similar to the years just after the American Civil War, tomato growers were holding immigrants hostage as indentured servants, working to pay off their “debt” to the growers for bringing them to the United States. In essence, the growers were smuggling people from Latin America into the States and then enslaving them—making them work long, stringent hours for little or no pay and charging outlandish prices like $5 to shower outside with a hose and bucket and even more obscene amounts for food and water.

In 2008, one enslaved worker escaped and informed the CIW of his condition. The coalition created uproar, attracting media outlets from across the country and bringing the growers to trial. The tomato farmers were sentenced to 50 years in prison by a federal court for practicing modern-day slavery.

STUDENTS ORGANIZE ON BEHALF OF WORKERS

Now, the CIW is turning its attention back to the penny-per-pound campaign. After the coalition forced so many corporations to come to the table, they were ready for something larger: The overarching food service providers, like Aramark, that organize and manage food courts and dining services on campuses, workplaces, tourist destinations, and even prisons nationwide. This newest campaign, aptly named “Dine with Dignity,” is in full swing across the country, focusing not only on Aramark, but also Sodexo and Compass food service providers, as well as corporate grocers like Publix and Kroger.

Compass has already come to the table.

The University of Florida just renewed a 10-year contract with Aramark in June of while many students were away for the summer, allowing it to pass without protest. But several groups, including the Students for a Democratic Society, The Fine Print, and the newly formed Gainesville SFA are not allowing it to go unnoticed.

Concerned students presented a resolution that strongly urges Aramark representatives at UF to enter into negotiations with the CIW. The resolution did not pass, but this hasn’t killed the campaign. In fact, “Dine with Dignity” is swiftly making its presence known on UF’s campus through fliers, petitions and collaboration with student groups on campus.

Students and community members looking to get involved are asked to send an e-mail to GainesvilleSFA@googlegroups.com, and sign the petition.

Kristen Abdullah and Richard Blake are students at the University of Florida. This article originally appeared in The Fine Print, a publication that is part of the Campus Progress Journalism Network.

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