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David in the Fields
Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and supporters protest in front of Publix supermarkets as part of CIW's Campaign for Fair Food.
One of the things that fascinated people about César Chávez was the “David and Goliath” aspect of the farm worker movement. Agricultural workers were, and still are, some of the most disadvantaged laborers in the United States. And they are notoriously difficult to organize. But during the 1960s, Chávez and a group of mostly Latino and Filipino farm laborers took on major growers and won—repeatedly.
Chávez didn’t do it by himself. His movement attracted support from beyond the fields, notably among Christian and Jewish organizations. But the gains didn’t last. By the 1980s, Chávez’ United Farm Workers (UFW) was in decline. It would be decades before farm workers again captured the public’s imagination.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was formed in 1993 in a tomato-producing region of southwestern Florida. During the 1990s, conditions for farm workers remained difficult; the CIW faced perhaps more obstacles in improving farm worker welfare than César Chávez and the UFW had.
In the mid-1990s, 56 percent of farm worker families lived in poverty. Unlike during the 1960s, much of the farm labor force was foreign-born. As of 1998, 54 percent of farm workers were unauthorized immigrants, often with little formal education or English-language skills.
This “community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian immigrants” began meeting in a church in 1993 to discuss how to improve conditions for tomato pickers. Starting in the mid-1990s, the CIW engaged in a series of work stoppages, hunger strikes, and marches to raise wages. They were also instrumental in uncovering cases of slavery among agricultural workers.
But it wasn’t until the 2000s that the CIW began to ascend in the public's consciousness. In 2001, the CIW launched the first-ever boycott of a fast food company – the Campaign for Fair Food against Taco Bell. The CIW approach was based on an analysis of the agricultural value chain that concluded that major buyers such as Taco Bell used their power to demand the lowest possible prices from producers. In turn, producers passed along to workers the downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Rather than the middleman, CIW targeted the apogee of the agricultural value chain.
The Taco Bell Boycott garnered support from faith-based, student, and labor groups who carried the CIW’s call for an increase of “a penny a pound” across the country. Tomato workers earned about $12 an hour during the picking season, based on the number of tomato buckets they filled. The jobs typically did not include overtime or benefits.
In March 2005 Taco Bell – part of the largest fast-food company in the world – agreed to all of CIW’s demands, including increasing pay for workers, instituting a Code of Conduct for suppliers of agricultural goods to fast-food chains, adopting market incentives for agricultural suppliers who respect worker rights, and improving the transparency of Taco Bell’s tomato purchases in Florida. The penny-a-pound campaigns against Taco Bell and other producers raised workers’ wages by an estimated 40 to 70 percent. This victory was hailed by celebrities ranging from former President Jimmy Carter to Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello.
Additional campaigns continued –many against giants or sacred cows in the food industry. In 2007, McDonald’s struck a similar deal with the CIW, and in 2008, Burger King, Whole Foods, and Subway followed suit. Agreements were also signed with food-service industry giants Bon Appétit, Aramark, and Sodexho. One of the latest Fair Food Agreements was reached with Trader Joe’s this year.
Today the CIW – which claims a membership of 4,400 – has itself become a celebrity of a sort. In 2010, the U.S. Department of State recognized CIW for its work on eliminating slavery. Foodie tastemakers such as Mark Bittman periodically mention them. And the Immokalee workers are a part of Barry Esterbrook’s 2011 exposé “Tomatoland”.
There are lots of asymmetrical struggles for social justice in America and around the world. What’s unique about the CIW is that they consistently win against some of the biggest Goliaths around.
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