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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

Internally, the CIW walks a tightrope between democracy and oligarchy. Unlike a labor union, the CIW does not hold regular elections, nor does it have rotating seats of power. Rather, it’s a tight-knit group that rewards people based on involvement and experience; when funding opens up for a new position, a qualified worker slides into the job and keeps it. According to Cindy Hahamovitch, a professor at William and Mary University who studies the East Coast’s migrant agricultural workers, the CIW would be ineffective if it were as transient and fleeting as the workers it represents. “The real concern is when you get an organization that isn’t doing anything, and that doesn’t to seem to be the case [with the CIW],” she says.

At least one person disagrees: Greg Schell, a lawyer who heads the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project at the nonprofit Florida Legal Services. “It’s a model with no transparency, no accountability and no democracy,” he says of the CIW.

Schell, who supervised CIW staffers Asbed and Germino as paralegals in the early 90s, is preparing a lawsuit against East Coast Growers and Packers for not paying their workers the minimum wage. (Farmworkers should receive a guaranteed minimum wage regardless of how much they harvest, but this rarely happens – which is why the workers know they need to work fast. According to Hahamovitch, growers routinely falsify wage records to appear compliant.) He says there’s little recognition of the CIW among the tomato pickers he’s spoken with. “[The CIW doesn’t] do that mundane work of talking to the workers ... because there’s nothing sexy about that,” he says.

Schell drew on a few examples. A few hours after the press conference on Nov. 16, Lucas Benitez was on a plane to a human rights conference in New York. At the same time, a few other CIW staff and allies were in Jacksonville in the mobile “Modern Slavery Museum,” while others were preparing to travel to Georgia to protest the School of the Americas, a U.S.-funded military academy which trains soldiers for Latin American governments. “Their primary motivation is less improving farmworkers’ lives than generating publicity, 
power, influence and notoriety for the coalition,” Schell says.

In their defense, Asbed argues that the coalition’s campaigning outside of Immoka-lee is key to the organization’s success. “It is not possible ... to move nine multibillion-dollar food corporations to sign Fair Food agreements without building a powerful, active consumer movement,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Weekly. Asbed also points out that the coalition’s activities within Immokalee are multifold: It runs a radio station and a food cooperative, it hosts women’s meetings and English classes, and it provides education on workers’ rights, among other things.

Farmworkers have mixed opinions of the coalition, mostly because the much-lauded extra pennies still haven’t reached their paychecks yet. “Year after year, they say we’ll get an extra cent for every pound I pick,” says a graying worker named Alberto, who has been coming to Immokalee for the past five years. “The growers are getting the money, not us,” he concludes.

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