By Tim Newman, Campaigns Assistant, International Labor Rights Forum
In all of the recent excitement surrounding worker victories at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago and Smithfield in North Carolina, we somehow overlooked the recent campaign win for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) organizes tomato workers in Florida, many of whom are immigrants, and has won campaigns targeting Yum Brands (which owns Taco Bell), McDonald's, Burger King, Whole Foods and other companies. On December 2nd, CIW signed an agreement with Subway, the third largest fast food chain in the world and the biggest fast-food buyer of Florida tomatoes, to improve workers' wages and conditions. The campaign victory came right as workers embarked on a tour up the East Coast to Subway headquarters. The tour quickly became a victory tour and a chance for CIW to rally supporters for the next stages in the campaign for fair food.
Throughout their tour of the Northeast, CIW delivered letters to many major supermarkets as well as food distribution companies like Aramark and Sodexho. On December 4th, the workers visited DC. ILRF, the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights and the Institute for Policy Studies co-sponsored a discussion with some of the campaign representatives at SEIU. It was a great opportunity to celebrate the Subway agreement, learn more about the struggle of agricultural workers in the US and to gear up for upcoming campaign actions. After the discussion, many of us proceeded to a nearby Safeway supermarket to deliver a letter to the manager expressing concern about the conditions of tomato pickers in Florida and asking Safeway to pay more for their tomatoes and negotiate with CIW. You can find out more about CIW's whole Northeast tour here.
Since the tour, there has been some debate going on related to cases of forced labor in Florida's tomato fields (which we've mentioned on this blog before). When asked about forced labor cases and prosecutions by the US Department of Justice in Florida's fields in the last decade in a recent article, Terence McElroy, a spokesman for Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said, "Of course, I say any instance is too many, and any legitimate grower certainly does not engage in that activity (slavery) but you're talking about maybe a case a year." However, CIW reports that well over 1,000 workers since 1997 have been found to be working in slave conditions and a federal prosecutor described Immokalee as "ground zero for modern-day slavery." CIW has an excellent response to McElroy and all of those who don't recognize the seriousness of the situation in Immokalle on their website and you can find out more about CIW's anti-slavery work here.
Senator Bernie Sanders was right when he said after visiting Immokalee, "The extreme is slavery. The norm is a disaster." Exploitation is the widespread in Immokalee's tomato fields, and in many other agricultural sectors in the US and globally. CIW's campaign successes show us how important it is for farmworkers to organize and for consumers, faith groups, students and all of us to join workers in solidarity. As we celebrate the holidays, let's dedicate ourselves to continuing the struggle in the coming year because when we take action together we can win!