By Ben Felker-Quinn
For two weeks this March, Florida farmworkers and their allies from all over the country will be bringing the call for food justice straight to Publix. Led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization of over 4,000 farmworkers in southwest Florida’s tomato country, the March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food will set out from Fort Myers on March 3 and mark its arrival at Publix Headquarters in Lakeland with a celebratory rally on Sunday, March 17. On the road between lie a host of supportive churches, schools, community centers as well as many Publix stores to mobilize around.
As the CIW puts it, the purpose of the march is two-fold: to celebrate the real accomplishments of the past 13 years and to recall the struggles that must lie ahead for a fair food nation. One of the continuing struggles figures with Publix and other supermarket chains, which have refused to meet with members of the CIW in the face of great pressure from consumers and farmworkers. One year ago this March, 61 farmworkers and allies held a six-day fast at Publix Headquarters, and, in addition to almost regular protests at Publix stores through out the South, this year’s 200 miles back to Lakeland beg the ever-pressing question: why has Publix not responded? To which, in fact, there is an answer.
In a few sullen comments over the space of the past several years, Publix contends that the issue at stake is primarily a labor dispute, which should properly remain between farmworkers and growers. As the last 13 years of the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food bear out in flying colors, however, significant improvements in working conditions did not simply spring out of a relationship as limited as that between day-laborers and their higher-ups, the growers (see, for example, the CIW’s mobile Modern-Day Slavery Museum on its next trip to a place near you). In 2000, a 230-mile march—certainly reminiscent of today’s—from Fort Meyers to Orlando for “Dignity, Dialogue and a Fair Wage” raised public awareness and brought farmworkers together with students, people of faith, and other activists—those assigned the role of consumers in the food retail industry—as common partners in a dehumanizing corporate food retail industry. The immense pressure that has subsequently convinced 90 percent of Florida’s tomato growers as well as 11 multi-billion dollar corporations—from fast-food companies to supermarkets (so far, only Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) to food service providers (such as Aramark and Sodexo)—to adopt the CIW’s Fair Food Program has grown from the great resonance of food justice with American consumers. For the CIW, the years since that first march amply demonstrate that consumers and farmworkers alike must address the system that separates them to produce any change within it.
Why has Publix not responded? In a 2011 statement, Publix remarked: “The CIW’s campaign to boycott the purchase of Publix tomatoes ironically hurts Florida farmworkers and the citizens of Florida who will see a withering Florida produce industry.” Indeed, it is an awful brand of irony that hurts everyone but Publix. What’s more, the CIW never called for a boycott of Publix. As long as Publix pretends farmworkers are mistaken and Florida consumers tragically inconvenienced, it seeks to divide, to disunite. Yet from beginning to end, from vine to mouth, two separate hands hold something in common.
Take action! See ciw-online.org/march/index.html to register for the march or find out more about the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food. A caravan from Gainesville will be driving to the rally on Sunday, March 17, to join the last 6 miles of this historic 200-mile march. If you can’t be there, please visit the website to print out a letter for a Publix manager or contact a local CIW partnership organization.