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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

It was after McDonalds signed on in 2007 that the FTGE shut the door on the CIW’s campaign and imposed a hefty fine on any member that dared to cooperate with the group. “From a legal standpoint, we have been advised that the potential risks of participating in the penny-per-pound agreement far outweigh any benefit,” the FTGE’s Brown testified before a U.S. Senate committee 
in 2008.

The CIW hired a part-time attorney to analyze the FTGE’s position. After being assured that the exchange’s legal justification for its intransigence was baseless, the CIW continued its campaigning.

And it continued winning. In 2008 Burger King, Whole Foods and Subway got on board. The following year, food-service giant Compass Group signed on. Then, in September 2009, a crack appeared in the FTGE’s dam – East Coast Growers and Packers, one of the biggest tomato comp-anies in Florida, withdrew from the growers exchange just so that it could sign an agreement with the CIW. Shortly after East Coast withdrew, the FTGE quietly rescinded its punishment for growers that worked with the CIW. Last October, two more Florida tomato-growing giants – Pacific Tomato Growers and Six L’s – reached an agreement with the coalition.

Less than a month later, Reggie Brown was shaking hands with Lucas Benitez. “It was in our own interest to improve the working conditions that farmworkers face,” Brown says.

Today, the CIW as an organization looks substantially different than it did a decade ago.

It has connections in Washington, New York and other centers of financial and political power. The organization’s operating budget is well over a half-million dollars, pieced together with grants from well-known philanthropic organizations like the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and OXFAM. For their work against human trafficking, three coalition members received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award in 2003. This year, the CIW’s Laura Germino was recognized by the U.S. Department of State for her “determination to eliminate forced labor in supply chains.” The award, signed by Hillary Clinton, hangs inconspicuously in an occasionally used office at the rear of the coalition’s new building in Immokalee, which cost the CIW roughly a million dollars.

Although all CIW staff – with the exception of Germino and her husband Greg Asbed – come from farmworker backgrounds, most of them don’t have to spend much time in the fields anymore. Instead, they spend most of the winter harvest in the CIW’s office, working as full-time activists. When asked whether the fact that they no longer have to pick tomatoes to make ends meet may cause them to lose touch with the workers they’re paid to represent, some CIW employees say they work in watermelon fields during the off-season to keep their sense of perspective. “Some Six L’s contractors are our bosses in the summer,” Benitez says. In addition, CIW staff wages are pegged to those of farmworkers as a show of solidarity. As a result, CIW staff all make close to minimum wage.

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