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Harvest of Hope

Against all odds, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is changing the agricultural industry


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 - PHOTOS BY L.E. SOLTIS
  • 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

After driving 45 minutes inland from Naples through the Florida wilderness, you arrive in Immokalee. Drive for one more minute, and you’ve already left. It’s a town that rises before the sun and has more churches than it does bars; a place where it’s not uncommon to see grown men riding children’s bicycles and people delivering television sets on foot. Most properties in Immokalee are lined with chain-link fences, which some residents use to hang secondhand clothing for sale to passersby. Mornings are punctuated by the crowing of roosters, and occasionally, you can hear the squawk of the black buzzards that frequent the town’s trash bins.

To a newcomer, this mostly Latino town of nearly 20,000 people doesn’t seem particularly inspiring, yet over the past decade writers and photographers from the New Yorker, National Geographic, the Independent and other weighty publications have been drawn to a story that’s been unfolding here. Immokalee is not the site of a hidden natural wonder nor is it the birthplace of a quirky celebrity or serial killer. Rather, it’s the headquarters for an activist group that’s gotten the ear of some of the most powerful politicians and businesspeople in the country. In the process, the group has been praised and cursed, ridiculed and respected, but most importantly, it’s been noticed.

Though most of its fame comes from exposing “modern-day slavery” operations, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – colloquially known as the CIW – has made a name for itself by getting some of the country’s biggest food corporations to cave to its demands. Last month the organization, which is made up of activists and laborers who have banded together to improve working conditions and wages for the town’s migrant farmworkers, won a hard-fought battle against Florida’s tomato-growing companies, which supply 90 percent of the nation’s domestically grown tomatoes during the winter.

On Nov. 16, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange – a trade group that oversees nearly 
all of the large growing companies in the state – was the latest organization to surrender to the CIW. Given that it’s the members of the FTGE who sign the workers’ paychecks, this was by far the CIW’s most important victory yet. “We’ve agreed to work with the CIW in establishing new standards of verifiable social accountability for the tomato industry as a whole,” said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the FTGE, at a press conference at the coalition’s headquarters that day.

Brown announced that the exchange’s member companies would pay workers an extra cent per pound of tomatoes picked, a raise paid for by big buyers like McDonalds, Subway and Aramark. Though it seems small, the raise would mean as much as a 71 percent increase in the farmworkers’ paychecks. The growers also promised to adopt a code of conduct, mostly written by the CIW, as a way to address decades of verbal, physical and even sexual harassment of workers by employers. Per the agreement, follow-through on the new financial and ethical commitments will be periodically verified by an auditing firm of the coalition’s choosing. In addition, CIW staff will be allowed to visit the growers’ farms to educate workers about their rights.

“From the beginning, we’ve tried to change the imbalance of power that exists between the grower and the worker,” says Lucas Benitez, the CIW’s chief spokesman. “It’s been many years that we’ve hoped for 
this moment.”

The agreement was a startling reversal by the FTGE: In 2007, the exchange was so vehemently opposed to working with the CIW that it imposed a $100,000 fine on any member company that collaborated with the coalition. At that point, the CIW had already gotten a couple of major buyers to agree to pay an extra cent per pound of tomatoes, but since the growers were forbidden from distributing the supplemental wages, the extra pennies languished in an escrow account. In late 2007, Brown called the CIW’s attempts to reform the tomato-growing industry “pretty much near un-American.”

By then, however, the coalition had already set in motion a chain of events that would bring Brown back to the table three years later with a more conciliatory attitude.

How did the coalition do it? Benitez says it followed a simple formula: “Consciousness, plus commitment, equals change.”

Compared to other crops, tomatoes can be difficult.

Mechanized harvesting can damage the delicate fruit, so it can’t be depended upon to deliver presentable tomatoes. The fresh market variety – whether they end up in a grocery basket or a restaurant salad – must be picked by hand. Every winter, during Florida’s tomato-growing season, growers hire 30,000 migrant workers to harvest their crops; 10,000 to 15,000 of them come from southwest Florida near Immokalee.

On a recent November morning, tomato pickers begin to arrive in the parking lot of La Fiesta #3 market, between Second and Third streets just off the main drag in Immokalee, well before the sun rises. There, they await the painted school buses that will transport them to the fields – that is, if they’re chosen for work that day. Pickers may begin their day by sitting for hours alongside the fields waiting for the plants to dry, since a tomato picked while wet can later become mushy. “The buses come at four, four thirty, but it isn’t until nine we can enter the fields to work,” says Jose, a 20-year-old from Guanajuato, Mexico, while he waits for a parked bus to open its doors. According to one grower, the “crew leaders” – the workers’ immediate bosses – arrive early so they can get first pick of the men and women hoping to get work that day.

Some of the buses go to farms as far away as Palmetto (near Tampa) and Homestead (near Miami), so it’s possible for some workers to spend more than four hours each 
day commuting.

For their efforts, Immokalee’s tomato pickers are paid an average of 50 cents per bucket of fruit harvested, which means that to earn minimum wage during a 10-hour workday, they have to pick nearly two and a half tons each. According to the latest federal National Agricultural Workers Survey, the average farmworker’s income falls between $10,000 to $12,500 a year. (This is assuming normal conditions, which are anything but guaranteed in agriculture. In January of last year, for example, Florida’s tomato crop was devastated by a freeze. Afterward, “everyone disappeared” from Immokalee, according to Candlario, a 49-year-old worker from Mexico.) As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2008, “poverty among farmworkers is more than double that of all wage and salary employees.”

Since the workers are paid by the bucket, they harvest at a furious pace, filling their red buckets with at least 32 pounds of tomatoes, carrying their load 100 feet to a freight truck, then quickly returning to the field to repeat the process. Given the frenetic pace at which the pickers must work and the long hours they put in, it’s little surprise to hear a young woman working at a local cafe say that life in Immokalee is “work, work, work.”

Tomato picker Candlario says he lives with seven other men in a four-bedroom apartment, but rarely sees them. “I don’t know them,” he says, adding that the extent of their friendship is “good morning, good evening, things like that.”

These living and working conditions are rich fodder for labor activists, but the obstacles to organizing migrant farmworkers, especially in a community like Immokalee, are daunting. First, there’s the language barrier: Though the stereotypical portrait of a farmworker is a Spanish-speaking Latino, many are Guatemalans who speak indigenous dialects; others are Haitians who speak Creole. Some workers, coming from places where school is a privilege, are illiterate.

Migrant workers are transient by nature and often come alone so that they can follow the harvest more easily. Some never return to Immokalee. Adding to the disincentive to lay down any roots is that farmworkers don’t have the right to form a union, since they were left out of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. (The upside of this is that the Act’s prohibition of “secondary” boycotts – exactly what the CIW employed in its campaign against Taco Bell – does not extend 
to farmworkers.)

But it’s precisely under difficult conditions such as these that most social movements are born. In early 1993, eight farmworkers – including Lucas Benitez, who was 17 at the time – began to hold meetings at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Immokalee to discuss what they could do to improve their working conditions. Recognizing the multilingual nature of the farmworker community, they formed three committees – Mexican, Haitian and Guatemalan – and went door-knocking to survey the community about the problems they wanted to see addressed.

The committees encountered four key complaints: low wages, wage theft, violence from crew leaders and a general lack of respect. (Sexual harassment of women by bosses was – and still is – routine, according to the coalition, but the issue was stressed less because women make up only a small portion of Immokalee’s farmworkers.) The issues were never raised to the growers directly. “You had to be silent,” says Gerardo Reyes, who worked in Florida’s tomato fields from 1999 until he became a full-time coalition staffer in 2003. “If you complained, you wouldn’t have a job the next day.”

The upstart group, which called itself the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, aimed to change that.

In its first years, the CIW was unknown outside of Immokalee. There were strikes and protests, which gave it small gains, but no changes were made to the laborers’ working conditions. Workers could get a raise one year, then return to find their wages lowered again. Because a large percentage of the workers at each harvest are new – estimates run as high as 90 percent – many wouldn’t even know to be angry.

In December 1997, six coalition members went on a hunger strike to bring attention to their cause. They succeeded. As the strike reached its 30th day, the situation had gained such a following that President Jimmy Carter offered to intervene. This ended the strike, but ultimately, the growers were unmoved. As legend has it, during the strike a farmworker overheard two company bosses talking. When one asked the other why he wouldn’t negotiate with the striking workers, the answer was: “Let me put it to you this way: The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run the farm.” The message made its way to the coalition, and from then on, “I am not a tractor!” became a popular rallying cry of the CIW.

Though the strike didn’t immediately yield results in the field, it marked a turning point for the coalition: They were no longer alone. A group of sympathizers devoted to the CIW’s mission banded together under the name Interfaith Action and lent its efforts to the cause. In February 2000, around 50 farmworkers and more than 100 supporters walked 230 miles from Fort Myers to Orlando. The march, which cut through college campuses, inspired students to form the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Suddenly, the CIW found it had the financial and moral support of the faith-based community, as well as the energy and visibility of the student community, to bolster it.

Despite its newfound allies, CIW still found it difficult to make gains by confronting tomato growers directly. The growers insisted that they didn’t have the money to pay workers more, and to an extent, they were correct. The rising purchasing power of large chains meant that growers were getting only 25 percent of the retail price of tomatoes in 2000, down from 41 percent a decade earlier. “It’s gotten harder and harder to make money out of tomatoes,” says David Neill, co-owner of Big Red Tomato Packers, based in Fort Pierce. “Labor, fertilizer, box material, compliance costs – everything we touch is more expensive.”

At one of the coalition’s regular Wednesday meetings in 2000, a worker named Virgilio from Mexico’s Oaxaca province suggested that CIW shift its focus and put pressure on the ones increasingly calling the shots in the tomato market – the buyers. Billion-dollar corporations, particularly fast-food companies, would have a harder time claiming poverty, Virgilio argued, and with their target audience – students and young people – protesting the tomato growers’ refusal to fund a fair wage for workers, the companies would face not only a serious blow to their images, but to their profits as well.

Virgilio’s strategy was adopted, and the coalition decided to focus on one company at a time. Taco Bell was an obvious first target, given its appropriation of Latino culture. In 2001, after a year’s worth of overtures to Taco Bell went unanswered, the “Campaign for Fair Food” – formed by the CIW and its allies – declared a boycott of the company. After four years of unrelenting protest and pressure from the campaign, Taco Bell’s parent company Yum! Brands (which also includes Pizza Hut and KFC) finally agreed to pay an extra cent per pound for Florida-grown tomatoes and to buy only from growers that abided by a CIW-approved code of conduct and accountability.

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.

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.

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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