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Harvest of Hope

Against all odds, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is changing the agricultural industry

Photo: Photos by L.E. Soltis, License: N/A, Created: 2010:11:18 14:45:48

Photos by L.E. Soltis

All in a day’s work: Before joining the CIW staff, workers (l-r) Mathieu Beaucicot, Leonel Perez, Silvia Perez, Nely Rodriguez and Cruz Salucio earned a living picking tomatoes in farms surrounding Immokalee

Since the workers are paid by the bucket, they harvest at a furious pace, filling their red buckets with at least 32 pounds of tomatoes, carrying their load 100 feet to a freight truck, then quickly returning to the field to repeat the process. Given the frenetic pace at which the pickers must work and the long hours they put in, it’s little surprise to hear a young woman working at a local cafe say that life in Immokalee is “work, work, work.”

Tomato picker Candlario says he lives with seven other men in a four-bedroom apartment, but rarely sees them. “I don’t know them,” he says, adding that the extent of their friendship is “good morning, good evening, things like that.”

These living and working conditions are rich fodder for labor activists, but the obstacles to organizing migrant farmworkers, especially in a community like Immokalee, are daunting. First, there’s the language barrier: Though the stereotypical portrait of a farmworker is a Spanish-speaking Latino, many are Guatemalans who speak indigenous dialects; others are Haitians who speak Creole. Some workers, coming from places where school is a privilege, are illiterate.

Migrant workers are transient by nature and often come alone so that they can follow the harvest more easily. Some never return to Immokalee. Adding to the disincentive to lay down any roots is that farmworkers don’t have the right to form a union, since they were left out of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. (The upside of this is that the Act’s prohibition of “secondary” boycotts – exactly what the CIW employed in its campaign against Taco Bell – does not extend 
to farmworkers.)

But it’s precisely under difficult conditions such as these that most social movements are born. In early 1993, eight farmworkers – including Lucas Benitez, who was 17 at the time – began to hold meetings at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Immokalee to discuss what they could do to improve their working conditions. Recognizing the multilingual nature of the farmworker community, they formed three committees – Mexican, Haitian and Guatemalan – and went door-knocking to survey the community about the problems they wanted to see addressed.

The committees encountered four key complaints: low wages, wage theft, violence from crew leaders and a general lack of respect. (Sexual harassment of women by bosses was – and still is – routine, according to the coalition, but the issue was stressed less because women make up only a small portion of Immokalee’s farmworkers.) The issues were never raised to the growers directly. “You had to be silent,” says Gerardo Reyes, who worked in Florida’s tomato fields from 1999 until he became a full-time coalition staffer in 2003. “If you complained, you wouldn’t have a job the next day.”

The upstart group, which called itself the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, aimed to change that.

In its first years, the CIW was unknown outside of Immokalee. There were strikes and protests, which gave it small gains, but no changes were made to the laborers’ working conditions. Workers could get a raise one year, then return to find their wages lowered again. Because a large percentage of the workers at each harvest are new – estimates run as high as 90 percent – many wouldn’t even know to be angry.

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