A season of hope…

Holidays perfect time for a news round-up with a theme of hope for the new year!

A dozen years ago — shortly before Christmas, 1997 — a small group of farmworkers in Immokalee began a 30-day hunger strike that would forever transform the struggle for justice in this country’s fields. Their excruciating month-long fast cast an unblinking light on the cruel reality facing tomato pickers — slipping sub-poverty wages, rampant wage theft, and even violent modern-day slavery rings. But more than that, it also exposed the Florida tomato industry’s deeply-rooted, unregenerate resistance to dialogue with farmworkers and to improving farm labor wages and conditions.

In short, the CIW’s month-long hunger strike made the case for the Campaign for Fair Food that was to come, for the urgent need for intervention by the multi-billion dollar corporations that purchase Florida tomatoes to demand more modern, more humane conditions in the fields where their tomatoes are grown and picked.

Over the next twelve years, the Campaign for Fair Food grew into a national movement, and the Florida tomato industry continued its stubborn resistance to progress. Even after workers in Immokalee reached landmark agreements with the world’s two largest fast-food corporations — Yum Brands and McDonald’s — to help fund long-needed changes in Florida’s tomato fields, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange threatened to fine any tomato grower willing to pass on the additional funds to improve their workers’ wages. Yet the Campaign for Fair Food persevered, patiently building a critical mass of food industry leaders pledged to use their power as major tomato buyers to demand that Florida tomato growers help end poverty and abuses in the fields.

And this year, as the direct result of the collaboration of farmworkers and consumers through the Campaign for Fair Food, true transformation has begun: Three Florida tomato growers are now working with the CIW to implement the Fair Food agreements, including a substantial wage increase, a real voice for farmworkers, and a code of conduct for fair conditions in the fields.

Here below are three stories from the end of this year that capture this pivotal moment in the Campaign from different perspectives. If you have a moment, take a look at the stories and, as you do, savor the fact that these changes can be traced — day by day, battle by battle — back to the small, storefront office in Immokalee where six workers took on the trillion-dollar food industry by refusing to eat until their demand for justice was heard:

  • “East Coast Brokers partners with farmworker labor group,” The Packer (12/04/09)
    “… ‘ Although it was probably not the most popular decision, it was a decision we chose to make for our workers and for our partners in business,’ Madonia said. ‘If there’s a way I can give them (the workers) a better standard of living, they can have a better life and if this doesn’t adversely affect my business at all, there’s no way I could not let this happen.’

    Madonia, who this fall resigned his longtime membership with the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Exchange, said industry reaction to his move was mixed.

    ‘I just felt like it’s more important to give my workers a better standard of living instead of the benefit that my company gets by being part of that group,’ he said.

    Madonia said he hopes his peers respect his decision.

    He said many of them have told him off the record that they support his agreement with the CIW.”

  • “25 gifts making a tough 2009 a bit better for Tampa Bay area,” St. Petersburg Times (12/24/09)
    … 23. Hard-fought successes by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to secure better pay for Florida tomato pickers….


  • “You say tomato,” Roll Call (subscriber only online, 12/14/09)

    You Say Tomato
    Dec. 14, 2009 By Byron C. Tau
    Roll Call Staff

    The vendor responsible for operating the House [US House of Representatives] restaurants and cafeterias has made a big change in the way it conducts business.

    Restaurant Associates is participating in a new purchasing arrangement of tomatoes from Florida. Compass Group, Restaurant Associates’ parent company, announced last week that it will pay an additional 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes purchased annually, with 1 cent per pound going directly to the harvesters.

    “We are proud to offer a responsible menu item like fair wage tomatoes for our dining service operations,” Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard said in a statement. “We are pleased to set an example for responsible dining choices for the staff and our visitors.”

    According to CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura, the initiative came from Compass Group rather than from the House administration. “We support it, but it’s something that they’re doing,” he said.

    Rick Stone, Compass Group vice president for corporate social responsibility, said the company was spurred to action by a visit from activists at the Student/Farmworker Alliance.

    “The back story is quite simple,” Stone said. “Ninety-five percent of the tomatoes grown in the winter months come out of Florida. The labor to harvest the tomatoes is — for the most part — immigrant workers. Because of that situation, and the need for these workers … it sets an environment that is ripe for abuse.”

    Stone added that tomato prices have increased in recent years, but wages paid to agricultural laborers have not. “The supply chain has clearly been squeezed at the bottom,” he said. Further, according to Stone, cases of outright slavery have even been discovered and prosecuted in Florida.

    Still, Stone insists that customers in the House cafeterias will not see any price increases, saying that Compass Group was willing to “absorb the cost” of the new ethical purchasing agreement.