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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

At the time of his interview, however, Alberto was unaware of the CIW’s “watershed” agreement with the FTGE. When asked if his opinion of the coalition would change if he actually gets his long-promised raise, he answers: “For sure.”

Despite its recent victory, the CIW says there is still a mountain of work ahead. A color-coded map of the United States hangs in the CIW’s office, highlighting the organization’s next targets: supermarket chains. With the exception of Whole Foods, no supermarkets have signed agreements with the CIW. The extra penny-per-pound corresponds to the growers’ clientele, since it is the buyers who ultimately agree to pay more for their tomatoes in order to fund the raise. If only half of a grower’s tomatoes go to buyers who have signed CIW agreements, then workers receive the raise on only 
half the value of 
their paychecks.

Protests outside of Publix stores across Florida have already begun, following the tried-and-true formula of past CIW campaigns: emphasize 
the modesty of “only a penny more,” accuse the target company of exploitation and perpetuating poverty, and satirize corporate slogans and logos in the chants and artwork of streetside protests.

But despite the coalition’s record of bringing some of the world’s biggest food corporations to heel, Publix is holding firm – for now. “From the beginning, our position has been this is a labor issue and not the business of a grocery retailer,” writes Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens. When reminded that other corporations had taken a similar position, only to later sign with the CIW, he responds: “We applaud their successes, but our position remains the same.”

In the meantime, the coalition’s influence continues to spread. “The changes are going to transform the whole agricultural industry,” says Romeo Ramirez, a coalition staffer. “But it’s going to take time.”

Indeed, nearly a month after the biggest victory in the CIW’s 17-year history, Immokalee is very much the same. The market near the pick-up lot still hums with activity in the darkness of early morning; shredded beef sizzles on the grill while checkout lanes swell with people. Workers scoop ice into their coolers from an outside machine marked “No For Human,” then board the buses that will take them into the fields. The nearby Main Street Café serves its 50-cent coffee and dollar tamales. And leaving Immokalee, you can still hear the CIW’s radio station calling on listeners to support its campaign, until the signal becomes static noise, and you’re alone with the Florida wilderness once more.

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