Slavery in the Union

"We must ensure that all life is treated with the dignity it deserves," President Bush declared during his final State of the Union address. He then segued into a call to ban human cloning. He didn't talk about dignity in terms of ravaged pensions, working longer hours for lower wages, and the loss of healthcare and other benefits. He didn't talk about dignity in terms of the rise in poverty - 37 million Americans, one in eight citizens now living below the poverty line in the wealthiest nation in the world. And he certainly didn't talk about dignity when it comes to migrant workers in Immokalee, Florida where - as Senator Bernie Sanders told me just days before Bush's SOTU - "the norm is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery."

These farmworkers pick the tomatoes many Americans eat at McDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King and other fast food chains. They are paid 45 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. It's grueling work, as Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser noted recently in a New York Timesop-ed

: "During a typical day each migrant picks, carries and unloads two tons of tomatoes." For that two tons the worker can expect about $50, and annual wages of $10,000-$14,000. Wages have been stagnant for more than two decades. Two weeks ago, six people were indicted on slavery charges for beating workers, chaining and locking them inside U-haul trucks, and threatening physical harm if the workers left their jobs. This is far from a rare occurrence, as the Miami Herald wrote, "... farm crew slavery stories and the brutal exploitation of undocumented workers have long since lost their shock value in Florida."

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) - a community-based worker organization - has "exposed a half-dozen slavery cases" that helped trigger the freeing of more than 1,000 workers, and also advocated for better wages, living conditions, respect from the industry, and an end to indentured servitude. CIW recently scored critical victories in negotiating a penny-per-pound surcharge - so workers would now receive about 77 cents per 32-pound bucket - with McDonald's and Yum! Brands (owner of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC). The corporations - not the tomato growers - would pay the 40 percent salary increase. Astonishingly, Burger King has refused to go along with the deal (tell Burger King to pony up) - it would cost them less than $300,000 annually and the corporation took in $2.23 billion in revenues in 2007. Not to mention three private equity firms control most of Burger King's stock, including Goldman Sachs. In 2006 Goldman Sachs' top 12 execs took home bonuses exceeding $200 million - "more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year," according to Schlosser.) Even more outrageous is the response of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing 90 percent of the state's growers. The group has said it will fine any member $100,000 for accepting the extra penny per pound for worker wages.

It's no surprise that Bush has failed to use the bully pulpit to call out slavery and excessive greed in our nation. It's also no surprise that Sen. Sanders is once again taking a leading role in serving as the conscience of the Senate. Two weeks before the State of the Union address, Sanders, along with Schlosser, went to Immokalee to meet with CIW and witness the working and living conditions firsthand. In letters co-signed by Senators Edward Kennedy, Richard Durbin, and Sherrod Brown, he urged both Burger King and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to support the penny-per-pound deal. He's also working with Kennedy to hold hearings on this issue in the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee chaired by Kennedy. I spoke with the Senator about his experiences down in Immokalee, and why this is such an important issue for our country. If President Bush truly wants to use his final year in office to ensure that all life is treated with dignity, he should head on over to Sen. Sanders office and get involved.

Here, then, is what Senator Sanders shared with me:

"It was really stunning - the likes of which I have never seen in my life. I've long been interested in workers issues. But when we talk about the race to the bottom here in the United States I would say that Immokalee, Florida is the bottom. I think those are workers who are more ruthlessly exploited and treated with more contempt than any group of workers that I've ever seen and I suspect exist in the US.

What I observed is... I was out at 5:30 in the morning, where tomato pickers from all over the community assemble at several locations, primarily in a large parking lot. School buses come by to pick them up and take them to different growers' tomato fields. Some are selected and some are not. So, for a start, when you line up at 5:30 in the morning, you don't know if you're going to make a nickel during that day. You're standing there, and someone is pointing, 'you, you, you... but not you....' and you can see people dejected, because by 8:30 the buses are out and if you're not selected you're not gonna work. So these are desperate people then who have just discovered that that day they're not gonna earn a penny.

Then you get on the bus and depending on which farm you're going to it will be longer or shorter, but perhaps you're going a half hour away.... You're getting to the field at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, and you don't go to work right away. You're getting paid piecemeal. The pay is very, very low to begin with, but you're getting paid piecemeal. You can't pick until the sun comes out and dries the tomatoes. So we got photographs of workers just hanging around the bus waiting for the tomatoes to dry and that might be an hour, hour and a half. Now it's not only that this is your time, it is in a sense the contempt that you are so disposable, that we can get you out here just to sit around doing nothing while you're waiting for the tomatoes to dry....

Then you go out and you're picking tomatoes and you make on average about 45 cents for a 32 pound bucket of tomatoes - about a penny and a half per pound. That is not a lot of money. My understanding is that at the end of the year these are workers that will make 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 a year, working a very, very difficult job, under a very hot sun. After you do this job for a number of years your knees go out because you're bending over all of the time. Obviously there are no benefits that go with the job. I went over to the health center to see what was going on.... I met with these workers, and talked to them - they just don't go to the doctor. Some of them are able to take their children to the doctor, they have no real access to healthcare.

In terms of their living conditions, I visited trailers... and these trailers were old, decrepit trailers where you had 8 to 10 people living in the trailer. In the morning to get to the bathroom, sink, or stove, you gotta wait in line to do it, because there are a lot of people in front of you. And they're paying in some cases $50 per person, per week! You got that? So, the landlord who owns this old trailer is getting $2000 a month. And what someone there told me - I don't know if it's true or not - they buy these old trailers for about $2000 so they get their money back at the end of one month.

The days I was there - it was raining, when it rains you don't pick. The next day it rained mid-day so you had half a day of picking. Then, an amazing coincidence - when I was there the US Attorney announced an indictment on slavery charges. So we have seen now - I don't remember exactly the number - of different indictments that have been made against different individuals for slavery... which means that some of these people are being held in captivity, in some cases in chains. I think in the last instances, a couple of workers literally forcibly busted out of truck in which they were held against their will. So, the norm there is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery. And this is taking place in the United States of America in the year 2008.

Now some people might say, 'Well, I don't pick tomatoes why do I have to worry about it?' And the answer is that so long as these types of abysmal working conditions exist in the US, they create a culture which leads us to the race to the bottom... which says that any worker can be subject to arbitrary actions on the part of an employer. Just create a very, very strong anti-worker culture, which is part of the destruction of the middle class, the increase in poverty, the lack of respect for working people in this country.

Now the good news is there is a very wonderful group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who have managed to put pressure on large buyers of tomatoes, i.e., fast food chains like Yum! which owns Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, and McDonald's, to pay an additional penny a pound. And if you understand that if someone is making a penny and a half a pound, and they get an additional penny, that's a very significant increase. Burger King has been resistant, and there is now pressure being put on Burger King and other companies. And I would hope that as Americans, we all do everything we can, to demand that companies pay these workers a living wage and end this horrendous exploitation.

The Tomato Growers Exchange seems to be playing a very reactionary role. They are claiming that this additional penny a pound is in violation of antitrust law... I myself think that the issue - if you look at the amount of money that is being asked to be contributed by McDonald's, Burger King, and so forth - it is nothing. Very, very small number. I don't think the money is the issue. I think truthfully, in my gut, the issue is a question of a balance of power. It is a feeling right now that you have workers who are absolutely helpless, the feeling that if they achieve some victories, they may have more confidence in themselves and more of an ability to stand up for their rights.

So, imagine, just put yourself in their place. You don't know whether you're gonna work or not, there are no guarantees that you are - I may pick you, I may not - if you come there, if I pick you, you're gonna wait around for an hour and a half. What does that do to you as a human being? But these are desperate people who need the work, so to my mind it was an eye-opening experience, and I hope that as a nation we can end that kind of exploitation.

The very good news - what was positive about my visit down there was - we did a press conference, and the reporters went to Burger King, and Burger King came forth with what appeared to be a conciliatory response. Now whether it is just talk or not, we can't tell. But we want to pursue that. And certainly what we released when I was down there was a letter that was written by Senator Kennedy, Sen. Durbin, Sen. Brown and myself. And Sen. Kennedy has been very clear in telling me that he is prepared to do hearings on this issue. And I think that's terribly important, not only in exposing the exploitation, but trying to explain to the American people how slavery can take place in the United States in the year 2008."

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

(c) 2008 The Nation