Coalition of Immokalee Workers to Crist: End Slavery

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The Nation

Coalition of Immokalee Workers to Crist: End Slavery

At The Nation we've written a lot about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The CIW is a worker's organization comprised chiefly of Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian immigrants who work in Immokalee, Florida, largely as tomato pickers.

Founded in 1993 as a "community-based worker organization" by a small group of discontented fruit pickers in low-wage agricultural jobs throughout Florida, the organization has won unexpected victories, achieved international notoriety and established fruitful collaborations with an array of grassroots groups, notably the Student-Farmworker Alliance.

Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel has followed the organization closely with blog posts like this, this and this.

In the March 21, 2007 issue of The Nation Adam Doster explained the group's origens: "Its initial organizing campaign coalesced in 2000 when CIW was able to raise the tomato-picking piece rate in Immokalee back to pre-1980 levels, a price that had dropped for two successive decades. This limited triumph came at no small cost; workers in Immokalee struck on three separate occasions, six daring pickers endured a one month-long hunger strike and members marched 230 miles to raise awareness about their plight."

CIW's most notable triumph came in the spring of 2005 when Yum! Brands -- the corporation that owns such food giants Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Long John Silver's -- decided to respond to pressure by legitimately addressing sweatshop conditions in Florida farms. After a four-year boycott that included a 10-day hunger strike and two media savvy, cross-country "Taco Bell Truth Tours," the corporation agreed to all of the CIW's demands, most importantly a one penny per pound increase in the wages of tomato pickers and worker collaboration on the drafting and enforcement of a code of conduct.

More recently, Christopher Hayes has written about the continuing campaign to expose exploitation in Florida's tomato fields, where farm laborers still toil for a meager 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they harvest, as well as the more shocking fact that some migrants are living lives best described as modern slavery.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Lucas Benitez has testified about seven-day workweeks, debt bondage, and armed crew bosses that beat workers who attempt to leave with impunity. In fact, Abel Cuello, a man convicted in 1999 for enslaving at least 30 migrants in Florida and South Carolina, was able to readily find work again upon leaving prison with Ag-Mart Produce, one of Florida's largest tomato growers.

Just this past December, federal prosecutors from the Department of Justice wrapped up a farm labor slavery case that the Chief Assistant US Attorney called one of Southwest Florida's "biggest, ugliest slavery cases" ever. This became the seventh such slavery case in the state in ten years, involving a total of more than 1,000 workers.

Now the CIW has set its sights on Florida's governor's mansion, a place whose three straight occupants have spurned the CIW's efforts to convince the state's chief executive -- who wields tremendous public and political influence over the state's agricultural industry -- to condemn these most egregious human rights violations. (Click here for details on the violations.)

The CIW is reaching out to Governor Charlie Crist to take the field in the fight against slavery. In the wake of the governor's spokesman's recent comments seeming to diminish the farm labor slavery problem, the CIW is calling on Gov. Crist to commit the full power of his office to combat modern-day slavery in Florida.

Add your voice to this anti-slavery call today by clicking here, where you can learn more about the petition campaign, send an email or fax to the governor, and forward the information to friends.

Peter Rothberg

Peter Rothberg writes the ActNow column for the The Nation. ActNow aims to put readers in touch with creative ways to register informed dissent. Whether it's a grassroots political campaign, a progressive film festival, an antiwar candidate, a street march, a Congressional bill needing popular support or a global petition, ActNow will highlight the outpouring of cultural, political and anti-corporate activism sweeping the planet.

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