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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

In December 1997, six coalition members went on a hunger strike to bring attention to their cause. They succeeded. As the strike reached its 30th day, the situation had gained such a following that President Jimmy Carter offered to intervene. This ended the strike, but ultimately, the growers were unmoved. As legend has it, during the strike a farmworker overheard two company bosses talking. When one asked the other why he wouldn’t negotiate with the striking workers, the answer was: “Let me put it to you this way: The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm.” The message made its way to the coalition, and from then on, “I am not a tractor!” became a popular rallying cry of the CIW.

Though the strike didn’t immediately yield results in the field, it marked a turning point for the coalition: They were no longer alone. A group of sympathizers devoted to the CIW’s mission banded together under the name Interfaith Action and lent its efforts to the cause. In February 2000, around 50 farmworkers and more than 100 supporters walked 230 miles from Fort Myers to Orlando. The march, which cut through college campuses, inspired students to form the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Suddenly, the CIW found it had the financial and moral support of the faith-based community, as well as the energy and visibility of the student community, to bolster it.

Despite its newfound allies, CIW still found it difficult to make gains by confronting tomato growers directly. The growers insisted that they didn’t have the money to pay workers more, and to an extent, they were correct. The rising purchasing power of large chains meant that growers were getting only 25 percent of the retail price of tomatoes in 2000, down from 41 percent a decade earlier. “It’s gotten harder and harder to make money out of tomatoes,” says David Neill, co-owner of Big Red Tomato Packers, based in Fort Pierce. “Labor, fertilizer, box material, compliance costs – everything we touch is more expensive.”

At one of the coalition’s regular Wednesday meetings in 2000, a worker named Virgilio from Mexico’s Oaxaca province suggested that CIW shift its focus and put pressure on the ones increasingly calling the shots in the tomato market – the buyers. Billion-dollar corporations, particularly fast-food companies, would have a harder time claiming poverty, Virgilio argued, and with their target audience – students and young people – protesting the tomato growers’ refusal to fund a fair wage for workers, the companies would face not only a serious blow to their images, but to their profits as well.

Virgilio’s strategy was adopted, and the coalition decided to focus on one company at a time. Taco Bell was an obvious first target, given its appropriation of Latino culture. In 2001, after a year’s worth of overtures to Taco Bell went unanswered, the “Campaign for Fair Food” – formed by the CIW and its allies – declared a boycott of the company. After four years of unrelenting protest and pressure from the campaign, Taco Bell’s parent company Yum! Brands (which also includes Pizza Hut and KFC) finally agreed to pay an extra cent per pound for Florida-grown tomatoes and to buy only from growers that abided by a CIW-approved code of conduct and accountability.

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