A penny of progress in Florida tomato fields makes a world of difference to field workers

By enlisting the might of major restaurant chains and retailers — including Walmart, which signed on this year — the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has pressured growers that produce 90 percent of Florida’s tomatoes to increase wages for their 30,000 workers and follow strict standards that mandate rest breaks and forbid sexual harassment and verbal abuse.

The incentive for growers to comply with what’s called the Fair Food Program is economically stark: The big companies have pledged to buy only from growers who follow the new standards, paying them an extra penny a pound, which goes to the pickers. The companies have also pledged to drop any suppliers that violate the standards.

So far, the agreements between retailers and growers are limited to Florida’s tomato fields, which in itself is no small feat considering that the state produces 90 percent of the country’s winter tomatoes.

But gaining the heft and reach of Walmart — which sells 20 percent of the nation’s fresh tomatoes year-round — may prove far more influential. To the applause of farmworkers’ advocates, the retailer has agreed to extend the program’s standards and monitoring to its tomato suppliers in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia and elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard. Walmart officials say they also hope to apply the standards to apple orchards in Michigan and Washington and strawberry fields in many states…

Since the program’s inception, its system of inspections and decisions issued by a former judge has resulted in suspensions for several growers, including one that failed to adopt a payroll system to ensure pickers were paid for all the time they worked.

Amassing all these company partnerships took time. The workers’ coalition organized a four-year boycott of Taco Bell to get its parent company, Yum Brands, to agree in 2005 to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes, helping increase workers’ wages. In 2007 the coalition sponsored a march to Burger King’s headquarters in Miami, pushing that company to join the effort. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and Subway have also signed on.

Perhaps the coalition’s biggest success is luring Walmart, which joined the program in January without a fight. Walmart officials said they were looking for ethically sourced produce as well as a steady supply of tomatoes. The giant company’s decision coincides with its major inroads into organic foods and fresh fruits and vegetables.

RTFA. It’s about a victory, serious victory inside one of the greediest segments of American capitalism. A penny a pound may not seem like a lot to urban and urbane workers and professional; but, for a field hand it’s a world of difference. And the most reactionary elements of American agribusiness think it’s the end of the world.

Kudos to the organizers and field hands together who joined this fight and won. And special thanks to the restauranteurs and retailers who supported this struggle.

2 thoughts on “A penny of progress in Florida tomato fields makes a world of difference to field workers

  1. Flashback says:

    “This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Cape Town. It is not Nyasaland or Nigeria. This is Florida. These are citizens of the United States, 1960. This is a shape-up for migrant workers. The hawkers are chanting the going piece rate at the various fields. This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.” Edward R. Murrow, opening lines to “Harvest of Shame”, an installment of the television documentary series “CBS Reports” that first aired just after Thanksgiving Day in November 1960. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJTVF_dya7E

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