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A Penny a Pound, Plus Power: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers Changes History

As Wendy’s shareholders convene their annual meeting in New York, farmworkers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) are calling on the remaining, hold-out, major fast food corporation to commit to workers’ rights and fair wages.

Protesting Wendy’s this past April in New York City. (Photo: courtesy of

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As Wendy’s shareholders convene their annual meeting in New York, farmworkers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) are calling on the remaining, hold-out, major fast food corporation to commit to workers’ rights and fair wages. On Saturday, May 18th, farmworkers and their allies will gather in Manhattan’s Union Square (14th St.) at 2pm for a rally and march to a nearby Wendy’s.

“The tomato industry is an enormous industry. First we have to move this giant because if we don’t move the biggest one, the little ones aren’t going to move either,” said Lucas Benitez, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a Florida-based organization of farmworkers.

For most tomato pickers in the US, a bucket brings in 50 cents, a piece rate that has remained virtually unchanged for more than 30 years. Because the rate is set so low, a worker has to pick more than two and a quarter tons of tomatoes per day – the weight of a young elephant – to make the minimum wage.

Until 2005, no restaurant or grocery chain had ever taken responsibility for the fact that its profits played a role in creating such deplorable conditions and wages. When gross mistreatment of workers periodically made its way into the public eye, if anyone at all took the rap, it was the crew leader who managed the workers. Corporations who reaped the profits remained untouched. In this way, the system had been protected against any real change.

The CIW is transforming all of this. In 2005, after a four-year boycott against Taco Bell, CIW won its first major victory when Taco Bell’s parent corporation, Yum! Brands, agreed to pay a penny more per pound for their tomatoes. If paid by all major buyers, this seemingly small increase would nearly double farmworker wages.

“Labor is such a small percentage of the overall cost of getting food out from the field to the table,” Greg Asbed, another CIW co-founder, told us. “Farm labor wages could be increased 100% and the consumer wouldn’t even notice the difference. We call it the ‘reverse princess and the pea principle’: change can be felt at the bottom of the food industry with an imperceptible change at the top.”

The trick to changing the industry, Asbed said, “lies, first of all, in combating the billions [in advertising] that are spent against any kind of meaningful consumer thought. And, second of all, in combating the natural instinct of the consumer to be self-oriented. Consciousness is the first necessary component for change. That’s what will create new consumer decisions. And those new consumer decisions will force corporations at the public end of the industry to change their decisions. And those corporations are so powerful that when they start changing decisions, the supply chain beneath them changes, too.”

CIW has won similar agreements with Yum! Brands (the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s, and A&W), Burger King, McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Subway. Beyond fast food chains, the CIW has convinced the natural grocery-store giants Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and the food-service companies Bon Appetit, Compass Group, Aramark, and Sodexo, to sign similar agreements. In 2010, the Coalition won a commitment from the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which includes 90% of the state’s tomato growers, to pass along the penny-per-pound bonus to farmworkers. Workers picking for farms that sell to participating retail companies receive the penny per pound bonus as a line item in their weekly paycheck. Since 2011, due to these agreements, more than $10 million have flowed from buyers, through farmers, into workers’ paychecks.

Beyond increasing wages, the contracts require companies to sign onto the Fair Food Program, governed by a Code of Conduct. In each of these agreements, CIW actively participates in upholding the code, monitoring and reporting working conditions at farms, and conducting worker-to-worker education sessions on the farms on company time.

Melody Gonzalez, a former organizer with the Student/Farmworker Alliance, said, “Yes, pesticides are a big problem, health care is too, but at the root of this is the imbalance of power. The challenge is to create and enforce standards for workers that don’t depend on the largesse of particular growers.”

CIW members hope that soon all tomato pickers throughout the country will have greater rights and wages, and then all agricultural workers, with the establishment of an industry-wide standard.

The Coalition is also determined to put an end to modern-day slavery among farmworkers. (Since 1997, in Florida alone, the federal government has won seven criminal prosecutions for farmworker slavery involving more than 1,000 workers.) In 2010, together with allies from the Student/Farmworker Alliance, Interfaith Action, and Just Harvest, they created the traveling Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum out of a cargo truck similar to one in which workers had been locked and kept in slavery two years prior. The Fair Food Program directly aids in the elimination of slavery from the industry by creating a zero-tolerance policy and market consequences for growers on whose property such abuses occur.

Gerardo Reyes, a CIW organizer, said, “Paulo Coelho said, ‘The world lies in the hands of those who have the courage to dream and who take the risk of living out their dreams.’ Our dream is that we no longer be considered second- or third-class citizens, tools which can just be thrown away after they are used. We dream of receiving the respect that human beings merit. We dream of the possibility to maintain our families with dignity, and to offer them the future that has been denied us for so long. We’re taking steps on the road that will open doors to workers in many industries, where the economic power of a few does not determine how a person will live his or her life, where money doesn’t determine if a person has more or less worth.

“Our dream will be realized when we have a just agriculture system, one that doesn’t step on the rights of the workers, where they are recognized as one of the most important parts of the industry.

“For the consumers, we hope to see a day in which, when one says ‘farmworker,’ the word won’t be associated with powerlessness, voicelessness, inability to define one’s own destiny. Our dream is that when consumers think of who farmworkers are, they understand that we have taken up our pens to write our own history.

“We will continue dreaming and we will continue working together to realize our dreams. We have the notebook of destiny in our hands, and we’re writing it today.”

For updates on the Wendy’s action in New York City, check out the event’s Facebook page.

Download the Harvesting Justice pdf here, and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.

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