In March 2005, I started a weekly feature called "Sweet Victories." The idea was to chronicle progressive victories --electoral wins, protests and boycotts, the launching of new ideas, fresh organizations and initiatives, and successful organizing efforts. I hoped that these stories would serve not only as a source of information, but inspiration. The victories might be small, but they were always sweet.
On May 23, we celebrate a sweet victory for social justice. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.) will join representatives of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Burger King Corporation at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol to announce that the corporation has agreed to work with CIW to improve wages and working conditions for the farm workers who harvest tomatoes for Burger King.
This victory is testament to the tenacity and discipline of the Coalition,a community-based worker organization, which has exposed a half-dozen slavery cases that helped trigger the freeing of more than 1000 workers. It has also advocated for better wages, living conditions, respect from the industry, and an end to indentured servitude. In this last year, CIW scored victories in negotiating a penny-per-pound surcharge--so workers would receive about 77 cents per 32-pound bucket--with McDonald's and Yum! Brands (owner of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC). (The corporations also agreed to work with the Coalition to eliminate slavery from the fields.) And the corporations --not the tomato growers--agreed to pay the 40 percent salary increase. Astonishingly, Burger King, until today, refused to go along with a deal that will cost them less than $300,000 annually; last year, the corporation raked in $2.23 billion in revenues.
The Coalition won this agreement because it had the facts on its side; it never exaggerated or distorted the truth. As a result, none of the lies told by Burger King or the growers could stick. In patiently hewing to the high road, its members were finally rewarded.
In April, Sanders chaired a Senate Labor Committee hearing devoted to exposing the low wages and harsh working conditions faced for decades by farm workers in South Florida. (The hearing came on the heels of Sanders' fact-finding trip to meet with the workers--a trip in which he saw first hand the grueling and brutal conditions of their lives.) At the April hearing, investigative reporter and author of Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser, who traveled with Sanders to visit the Coalition workers, laid down a marker: "The exploitation of farm workers should not be tolerated in Florida. It should not be tolerated anywhere in the United States. There are many social problems that are extremely difficult to solve. This is not one of them."
This victory is the result of years of struggle and highly disciplined organizing work by the courageous members of CIW. (It is a struggle I have reported) As such, it is a marker of real progress in exposing and addressing the injustices and abuses suffered by workers in our imperfect union. It is also an agreement that is good not only for Florida farm workers, but also for Florida farmers; it increases wages without taking money out of the pocket of farmers.
One historic measure of the Coalition's victory comes from Lucas Benitez, its indomitable co-founder and former tomato worker. At the Congressional hearing in April, he recalled how during a 1997 worker hunger strike a grower said that they would never meet the workers' single demand for dialogue. "Let me put it to you like this," the grower said. "The tractor doesn't tell the farmer how to run a farm." Benitez continued, "That's how they've always seen us, just another tool and nothing more. But we aren't alone anymore. Today there are millions of consumers with us willing to use their buying power to eliminate the exploitation behind the food they buy. And a new dawn for social responsibility in the agriculture industry is on its way. With the help of Congress and with the faith that the complicated will be made clear under the purifying light of human rights, today, just as was it 200 years ago, we will witness the dawn of that new day."
Eric Schlosser also sees enormous significance in this win. On the eve of the settlement's announcement, he told me "This may be the most important victory for American farmworkers since passage of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975. That bill heralded a golden age for farm workers. But the state government apparatus it created, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, got taken over by the growers in the 1980s and watered down the reforms. In Florida, the Coalition has chosen a different path, avoiding government and putting pressure on the corporations at the top of nation's food chain. The strategy clearly works and can be emulated by other workers in other states. In the absence of a government that cares about the people at the bottom, here's a way to achieve change."
Yet the CIW's organizing victory is also a marker of how much more needs to be done. The settlement of the dispute over wages and working conditions does not relieve Burger king of the obligation to come clean about the corporate spying which has been exposed. What exactly did Burger King do, and to whom, and who knew about it? Those questions still have to be answered; and if Burger King doesn't provide the answers, Congress should investigate.
This is no time for complacency. Conditions in the field are still appalling. And now that the deal with Burger King has been signed, it's a moment to leverage that agreement to go after WalMart, Whole Foods and the other big supermarket chains. If McDonalds and Burger King can agree to take care of farm workers, there is no reason other companies shouldn't spend a few extra pennies for their tomatoes.
In the statement announcing the agreement, the Coalition's Benitez eloquently laid out what is at stake in the fight ahead: "Today we are one step closer to building a world where we, as farmworkers, can enjoy a fair wage and humane working conditions in exchange for the hard and essential work we do everyday. We are not there yet, but we are getting there, and this agreement should send a strong message to the rest of the restaurant and supermarket industry: Now is the time to join Yum! Brands, McDonalds and Burger King in righting the wrongs that have been allowed to linger in Florida's fields for far too long."
Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
© 2008 The Nation