By Richard K. MacMaster
Thirty Gainesville religious leaders signed a letter to Publix supermarket executives urging them to meet with representatives of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and discuss the possibility of paying an additional penny per pound for tomatoes. They made the letter public in a press conference at City Hall on July 28 and on the day after Labor Day announced it to state-wide supporters in front of Publix’s corporate headquarters, at the prayer service culminating the CIW’s recent two hundred mile bicycle “Pilgrimage to Publix.” But local residents may not understand why these clergy are pressing their friends at Publix to do the right thing.
Immokalee farm workers pick tomatoes, which are grown to the specifications of fast-food and supermarket buyers and sold through wholesalers at a price essentially determined by these large-scale corporations. The workers generally work for a labor contractor rather than the farmer or grower and are paid on an agreed piece-rate basis, which has remained stagnant since the 1980s – thus decreasing in real value with inflation – and is considerably less than the legal minimum wage. The situation is the same for workers who harvest other farm products.
The Fair Labor Standards Act set both a minimum wage and maximum hours, and it eliminated child labor with a provision that workers had to be at least sixteen. Workers in agriculture were exempt from all this legislation. With the rise of corporate farming and agri-business, Congress amended the act in 1966 to cover workers in these vast operations, but the new law specifically exempted workers on smaller farms and hand harvest workers everywhere.
The migrant workers who harvest the food we eat every day are paid a fraction of the minimum wage, work ten to twelve hour days without earning overtime pay, and, if they have children, usually put them to work in the fields alongside other family members. There is no market incentive to improve this situation since consumers want quality produce at the lowest price.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers calculated that an additional penny a pound would bring harvest workers closer to minimum wage. They also drew up a model code of conduct that eliminated many of the worst abuses in the system: child labor, wage theft, sexual harassment, and requiring workers to put a third more tomatoes in the bucket than they would be paid for or to stand in the fields for unpaid hours waiting for the dew to dry enough to pick the crop. Individual growers could raise wages, shorten the working day, and banish children under sixteen from their harvest fields, but the wholesaler who markets their crops will pay the same price per pound as all other growers are paid. Farmers who did the right thing on their own would thus face certain ruin and probable loss of their farms. The wholesaler is in an equal bind. As long as the market price is set by the biggest buyers, only these large corporate buyers can bring about change.
So the Coalition of Immokalee Workers turned to Taco Bell. After a long campaign, Yum! Brands (owners of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC) agreed to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes. McDonald’s and Burger King subsequently came on board. Aramark signed on, too. Among supermarkets only Whole Foods agreed to pay a penny more.
Growers and wholesalers were at first reluctant to join the team. Growers argued it would be nearly impossible to keep track of which worker picked tomatoes sold to which buyer and calculate wages accordingly. They first agreed to put the extra pennies in an escrow fund, and finally last November – through the CIW’s landmark agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange – to pay the extra wages to the workers. Growers also agreed to implement the code of conduct. This fall, more than eighteen years after they first began to organize, Immokalee workers are finally seeing real change in the fields.
Wholesalers who sell to supermarkets did the right thing, too. The distributor of King’s Choice tomatoes was the first wholesaler to agree to the higher price and the code of conduct. He said it was not a question of competitive pricing, but of following the social justice teachings of his Catholic faith. Pacific, Six L’s, Alderman Farms and Lady Moon also chose to work with the Coalition to improve conditions for tomato pickers and their families.The immense purchasing power of major buyers like McDonald’s and Publix determines more than the price of tomatoes. They set specifications for the tomatoes that growers have to meet. That power can be used in the fields, too, as recently when a labor contractor refused to abide by the CIW code of conduct that the grower had adopted, and McDonald’s made it clear that he would implement it or never work for a grower under contract to McDonald’s.
Publix and other supermarkets have it in their power to make life better for the men, women, and children who bring Florida tomatoes to our tables. Growers and wholesalers can only pass on the extra penny a pound they’ve agreed to pay if the buyer pays it to them. As long as Publix refuses to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and negotiate a price deal, the workers go without the money that growers and wholesalers have agreed to pay them, while workers on a farm that sells to Burger King or Aramark are paid something like a living wage.
After being turned away by Publix, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is calling for a National Supermarket Action Week October 16-24. Gainesville’s Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice will be working in this next phase of the Fair Food campaign. To get involved, contact IAIJ at GainesvilleIAIJ@gmail.com or by phone at 352-371-6772 or 352-215-4255.