Another Appeal to Gov. Crist

There is a powerful opinion piece at The Naples Daily News by Jim Goodman, a W.K. Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow, who is an organic dairy farmer and farm activist encouraging local food production and fair prices for all farmers. His commentary, essentially a call to action for Governor Charlier Crist, touches on the work done by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers:

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 Sanders put it, the extreme, slavery — with evidence of more than 1,000 men and women held under conditions of modern-day slavery across the country 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 versus Goliath task; yet the CIW saw promise, for indeed David had defeated Goliath. CIW’s 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 groundbreaking 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 its 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 30 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 Crist play in all of this?

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