"The extreme is slavery, the norm is disaster."
--Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as he described the conditions in Immokalee Florida last year.
As a farmer and part of a Food Justice delegation to Immokalee earlier this month I would say that Senator Sanders was spot on. Poverty wages, abusive labor conditions, overpriced dilapidated housing; collectively humiliating the workers and stripping them of their basic human rights. Immokalee, little more than a labor reserve of immigrant farm workers from Mexico, Haiti and Guatemala supplying cheap labor to keep the winter vegetables flowing to northern markets.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was formed in 1992 to organize the workers, help them defend their rights and rise above the daily abuse. Their community organizing eventually led them to, as Senator Sanders put it, the extreme, slavery, over 1,000 men and women held under conditions of modern day slavery since CIW was formed.
Initially the fight for worker rights was more a struggle for human rights, a struggle for the worker to be recognized as something other than merely a cog in the machinery of Florida agribusiness. CIW started with a general work strike, then in 1997 a hunger strike asking for dialog with the growers, but as one grower put it "a tractor doesn't tell the farmer how to run the farm". While the power of the growers seemed insurmountable there were other avenues to pursue.
Starting at the top of the food industry seemed like a David vs. Goliath task, yet the CIW saw promise, for indeed David had defeated Goliath. Their Campaign for Fair Food targeted the corporate buyers of Florida tomatoes, Taco Bell (part of YUM Brands) and later McDonald's, Burger King, Subway and Whole Foods.
Initially there was silence, no response from Taco Bell. A year later with still no response, a successful four year national boycott was launched with the cooperation of organized labor, religious, student and non-profit groups. The demands: worker rights, zero tolerance for slavery and a penny more per pound of tomatoes passed directly to the workers. It was a ground breaking victory.
While the ensuing campaigns were still met with resistance, the corporate targets reached agreement faster and with what appeared to be genuine support for worker justice. Yet the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange remains united in their rejection of worker justice.
The growers said (in 2007) they wanted to develop "more impactful, comprehensive" ways of improving the lives of the farm workers and their families. Still the workers wait. The growers claimed the penny per pound deals violated racketeering laws, laws I am sure they understand.
Clearly, the penny a pound campaign was a success with vast popular appeal nationwide. The agreements would nearly double the wages of the workers and cost the Florida Tomato Growers nothing, yet would allow the corporate buyers to develop a business model based on social consciousness and worker participation that could go a long way to ending slavery in South Florida.
The growers, by their refusal to participate in the program, deny the workers what would be their first wage increase in nearly thirty years. By denying the workers a fair wage they also deny them fair working and living conditions, thereby endorsing the ongoing human rights abuses that allow slavery to exist.
One final question needs yet to be answered, what role will Governor Crist play in all of this? Something finally got through to the Governor, whether it was the CIW's action in Tallahassee on March 9, their two years of repeated requests for a meeting with the Governor, or as Abraham Lincoln might have put it, the guidance of the better angels of his nature. When Governor Crist meets with the CIW this week, will he listen to those better angels?
To his credit Governor Crist held out against any sort of dialog for only two years, his predecessor Jeb Bush remained resolute for eight years. Still, this sudden willingness of Crist to meet with the CIW will mean little without executive action. Agreeing to a meeting is a start, but the true measure of the Governor's moral compass will be seen in what actions he takes after the meeting.