Lucas Benitez Inspires and Challenges Folks on Long Island

A report on CIW member Lucas Benitez’ tour of Long Island by Rev. Noelle Damico

As members of the CIW kicked off their NW Tour in Seattle, Lucas Benitez kicked of a mini-tour in Long Island NY, accompanied by the Rev. Noelle Damico, National Coordinator of the Taco Bell Boycott for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Thursday morning, Lucas spoke to a roundtable of workers, advocates, growers, federal and state labor inspectors and lawyers, health and social service providers, and religious leaders called the “Farm Labor Outreach Project” convened by the Department of Labor. In June 2004 Long Island experienced its own case of modern day slavery. Federal authorities disclosed that 59 Peruvian men, women and children were held in captivity by three of their compatriots. The DOL and the Farm Labor Outreach Project was eager to learn more about CIW’s anti-slavery work and the Taco Bell boycott.

Then Lucas and Noelle attended a lunch discussion sponsored by the Protestant Campus Ministry of the State University of New York at Stony Brook where they discussed student and religious support for the boycott. Brother Clark Berge, Protestant Chaplain then arranged for Lucas, Noelle, and himself to do a radio interview on “shalom” (or just peace) that will broadcast and webcast in November on the college station WUSB. Lucas was especially articulate in illustrating how the CIW’s non-violent actions like the hunger strikes, marches, and labor stoppages have been critical for advancing the work of justice in the fields.

In the evening “Professor Lucas” guest lectured at an economics class at SUNY taught by Prof. Michael Zweig, that has been examining the power of working people to organize and change the very systems that impoverish us all. Professors, students, and staff were eager to take the next steps in thinking about how to draw attention to the work in light of the Taco Bell restaurant on H-quad.

On Friday Lucas and Noelle did an interview with “Labor Lines” a workers’ rights show that is hosted by Victor Fusco and broadcast across the nation. The show will air in November and be available by webcast. Vic was adamant that consumers wake up and use their power to propel the boycott and the work for fast food forward.

Friday evening, Lucas joined Willie Baptist of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign for an evening discussion on poverty-wage work in America and how workers are organizing for change. Hosted by the Setauket Presbyterian Church, the program was well-attended and the questions and answers went on for 90 minutes! Church and community members are eager to promote the boycott and helped themselves to gobs of the new CIW postcard.

On Saturday morning Lucas and Noelle met with day laborers as they sought work along Highway 83 and Horseblock Rd. in Farmingville. You might have heard that two workers were beaten to within an inch of their lives several years ago, the home of a worker and his family was fire-bombed in 2003 and that tension in the community is high. Anti-immigrant folks try to intimidate workers through active protests where they gather to look for work and lobbying the county legislature to “deport illegals.” Meanwhile contractors come every day seeking workers they really need and the workers labor hard for very little pay. This past year a documentary called “Farmingville” aired on PBS across the country that highlights the struggles of this community. It won the Sundance documentary award and is periodically screened in community theatres. Look for it.

On Saturday night Lucas and Noelle met with about 20 students from Stony Brook University, Ward Melville High School and even a 6th grader from Minnesaukee Elementary School to discuss how students have been a critical part of the Taco Bell boycott and the campaign for fair food. The students were jazzed and networked together about how they could work together to make a difference.

Sunday was a long and wonderful day as Lucas keynoted at a gathering of 400 day laborers from Farmingville at Little Portion Friary in Mt. Sinai. Human Solidarity, a group of workers, has organized a soccer league as a way of building community. It was a highly successful venture and Lucas gave an inspiring speech and spent time strategizing with workers about next steps for moving their struggle forward.

At 3:00am EST Lucas took off for JFK airport so he could fly out to Seattle and join the NW Tour. All of us here on Long Island are incredibly grateful for having had the opportunity to meet with him and pledge to do our part to keep the campaign for fair food growing here on the East Coast.