Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Cleveland, will need your support in Columbus

Wendys

Did you know that 90% of tomatoes consumed in the US come from Florida? I didn’t until I started thinking about where my food comes from. After all, being a dietitian I am supposed help people “choose” (to purchase) foods that should be included in a healthy diet. Of course, one big problem is that we don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Encouraging intake of fruits and vegetables makes sense from a nutrition perspective, but if I am promoting these foods, shouldn’t I know where they come from and how they are produced?

In the past, I was surprised to learn that over 20% of fruits and vegetables were imported (as of 2007). This number has more than doubled since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. I want to support safe produce grown locally (or at least the same country!) as much as possible, so my first thought that most of tomatoes were grown in the US was that I could purchase them without having to worry too much (or just grow my own when possible, since supermarket tomatoes don’t even taste the same). Of course this was ingenuous. Unfortunately, we need to acknowledge that just because something is produced in the US does not mean that it is safe and humane. After all, the US may be the utmost symbol of freedom, but it is still a capitalist economy run by large, profit driven corporations… that is another story.

Getting back to tomatoes, when I started to learn about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), I knew that this was going to open a can of worms. See, I thought I was being COOL enough just looking at the Country of Origin Labeling, which has been a requirement for produce since 2009 and continued in the recent farm bill despite the hopes of the World Trade Organization and U.S. meat industry groups. Turns out I was wrong, because the farm workers who pick tomatoes are still getting paid the same amount that they did in 1978, right here in America. That is, about 50 cents per bucket of tomatoes, not to mention that each bucket may weigh over 30 pounds. At the end of a 10-12 hour day of hard labor, a worker may only get paid about 40 dollars! What would you do if you were paid these wages?

Oscar Otzoy, member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, spoke to a crowd of 30 people at the Catholic Worker Storefront in Cleveland.

Oscar Otzoy, member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, spoke to a crowd of 30 people at the Catholic Worker Storefront in Cleveland.

Well, Oscar Otzoy, member of the CIW, came to Cleveland last Sunday to tell you what they did. According to Otzoy, in the early-mid 90s, the farm workers in Immokalee, Florida decided to start to come together. They organized work strikes, hunger strikes, and marched 230 miles from Ft. Myers to Orlando. With all these efforts, the workers had seen small changes with each action, but not sufficient changes. The conditions faced daily by the Immokalee workers continued: sub-poverty annual earnings, denial of common workplace procedures such as overtime pay, verbal abuse, frequent sexual harassment, and being sprayed directly with pesticides while working (!).

US Senator Bernie Sanders has explained “The norm is a disaster and the extreme is slavery.” In fact, over the past 15 years, 9 major investigations and federal prosecutions, many led by CIW, have freed over 1,200 Florida farm-workers from captivity and forced labor.

This lead to Secretary of State Clinton presenting the CIW with the 2010 Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery award for “perseverance against slavery” and “determination to eliminate forced labor in supply chains.” So, this is not just as easy as buy from the United States and feel OK, this is buy from the United States and you could still be supporting modern-day slavery.

Thirteen years ago, the CIW launched the Campaign for Fair Food. First, they traveled to Irvine, California, to the headquarters of Taco Bell. In California, they asked people to take action about the poor working conditions through discussions with students and organizers. They asked that people take solidarity with the workers and boycott Taco Bell. The goal of the boycott was for Taco Bell to accept the demands of the CIW:

  • Pay an additional 1 cent per pound of tomatoes picked: the first-ever direct, ongoing payment by a fast-food industry leader to farm workers in its supply chain to address sub-standard farm labor wages.

  • Agree to terms of a Code of Conduct: The first-ever enforceable Code of Conduct for agricultural suppliers in the fast-food industry .

  • Market incentives for agricultural suppliers willing to respect their workers’ human rights, even when those rights are not guaranteed by law.

  • 100% transparency for Taco Bell’s tomato purchases in Florida.

Now a penny per pound of tomatoes picked may not sound like a lot, but remember that a bucket weighs 30 pounds, and workers get about 50 cents per bucket. So, if they get an additional 30 cents per bucket (1 cent/pound), wages would increase by 60 percent! That is the difference between making $47 per day, or $75 per day- that is huge for a farm worker!

At first the workers were ignored, then solidarity spread around the country and in 2005, Taco Bell accepted the terms of the Fair Food Program. With continued organizing, McDonalds (2007), Burger King (2008), Whole Foods Market (2008), Subway (2008), Bon Appetit (2009), Aramark (2010), Sodexo(2010), Trader Joe’s (2012), Chipotle (2012), and most recently Walmart (1/16/2014) have also joined the Fair Food Program.

Ten years ago, Otzoy would have thought it was crazy that some of the poorest people in the country could sit at the table with multi-billion dollar corporations and get them to agree to their terms, yet here we are… informed people can make a difference, it just takes time.
Otzoy spoke of an example just last week, where a woman had been fired for no reason. Because of the Code of Conduct, she was able to call a representative of CIW and speak about her concerns. The CIW then spoke with the supervisor and demanded an explanation to the woman and the creation of a process to warn workers if they were at risk of being fired. Low and behold, the company offered an apology, rehired her and now she is back working in the fields.

Another participant asked why the CIW was not considered a union. The CIW is not a union because of the history of cheap farm labor within the last century in this country. Specifically, agricultural employees were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935. The NLRA includes the basic rights of private sector employees to organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining, and take collective action (including striking). One participant stated that this was to appease politicians in the south and southwest who wanted a cheap labor pool of blacks and Hispanics, respectively. Hmm… what they don’t teach you in history class. Also, Happy Presidents’ Day! Let’s celebrate that more than 1 in 4 presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery, I’m sure they would be proud of the CIW’s efforts.

So, now that you can buy your tomatoes guilt-free from Whole Foods (or eat your chalupa from Taco Bell) and US presidents are no longer involved in human trafficking, that’s good enough right? NOPE! Wendy’s (and Publix, a supermarket in Florida) have not agreed to the Fair Food program. The CIW is doing a ten day, ten city tour to Columbus, Ohio (Wendy’s headquarters) and back to Lakeland, Florida (Publix’s headquarters). CIW will be in Columbus Saturday and Sunday, March 8-9. There will be a vigil and concert on Saturday, with the major event being a march to Wendy’s HQ (in Dublin, OH- right outside Columbus) on Sunday at 2pm.
Check out their website and facebook for more info.

2014-02-16 20.39.25

3 thoughts on “Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Cleveland, will need your support in Columbus

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