As every schoolchild should know, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, perhaps the most controversial but successful public lobby in our history, was formed in London in 1787. After 20 years of campaigning came the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act; and then finally in 1833 the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire. So the society disbanded. Its work was done. Slavery was illegal.
Yet Britain might rule the seas but not all dry land; and legal status was far from the whole issue. So in 1839 the Anti-Slavery Society was formed, and gradually the understanding of slavery broadened to include forced labour and types of bonded labour. The OED gives one definition of slavery as "the condition or fact of being entirely subject to, or under the domination of, some power or influence", and finds the first figurative usage in 1592 as, no less, "the slavery of sin". But domination, power and force are perennial, even unto the present day.
Last month the Anti-Slavery Society gave its annual award to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. The platform told us to rhyme Immokalee with broccoli. But tomatoes, not broccoli, were the issue. The coalition was founded in 1993 by a group of farmworkers, mainly Mexican, some from Guatemala or Haiti, to combat sub-poverty wages, forced labour and intimidatory beatings. As the campaign hotted up, there were fatal shootings by gang-masters and kneecappings, especially after a general strike by over 3,000 workers. And alongside low wages and brute force, ruinous prices in company stores and crazy rents for foul bunkhouses.
In 2001 the coalition began a Campaign of Fair Food, targeting the major fast-food corporations whose vast buying power kept the labourers' piecerate prices so inhumanely low. A four-year national consumer boycott of Taco Bell proved effective enough to bring its parent company, the vast Yum! Brands, to the table. Payments were increased and went straight to the workers. But the growers fought back, lobbying in the name of a no-holds-barred free-market capitalism and threatening coalition members and organisers. It got very nasty. Happily they overdid it. Congress began to take an interest and the FBI went over the heads of corrupt or idle local law officers to prosecute traffickers and growers.
Three leading spirits of the Immokalee coalition came to London to receive the award: Lucas Benitez, Greg Asbed and Laura Germino. I was there because I had known Laura's parents, raised in Florida, since Harvard days in 1953, fierce leftwing democrats, like their daughter - citizens of an old America that I still try to believe is the real America that might return. "Laura, weren't you frightened that the company goons would go for you with guns, not just threats?" "We hadn't time to worry in the need to get in and out quick to organise them."
I thought of Woody Guthrie's song, Union Maid - "Oh you can't scare me I'm sticking to the union ..." But she did add that she and her husband Greg were "a bit worried what might happen when some of those men come out of prison". The growers may have learned some political sense and pretend humanity; but Mexican male habits of vengeance and honour could motivate their incarcerated servants.
This year Random House published a book called Nobodies by the journalist John Bowe - three case-studies in the US of the exploitation of illegal and transient workers, deprived of both legal and human rights. The first deals with Immokalee. It is a sad, good read. He also tells how some big guns came into play. Former president Jimmy Carter said, loudly and publicly, "I commend the coalition ... for their principled leadership in this very important campaign," and praised Taco Bell for coming round to take "a leadership role to help reform working conditions". And he tactfully addressed fair words to McDonald's "leadership in social responsibility" in following Taco Bell's example. Church leaders followed Carter's intervention. National student bodies piled into the boycotts, their members being prodigious consumers of fast food.
High-minded, high and hungry after the reception, and full of memories for old days in the States, I grabbed a nostalgic cheeseburger at Euston before boarding the Scottish sleeper. Only halfway through it did I remember to check that it was from McDonald's and not, the latest target, the recalcitrant Burger King. But I left my issue of anti-Burger King postcards on the table.
© 2007 The Guardian