‘Tis the season to be greedy…

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Publix, Ahold angling for a free ride on road to social responsibility

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“In economics, collective bargaining, psychology, and political science, “free riders” are those who consume more than their fair share of a public resource, or shoulder less than a fair share of the costs of its production… The name “free rider” comes from a common textbook example: someone using public transportation without paying the fare. If too many people do this, the system will not have enough money to operate.” read more

The disciplines of economics and philosophy rarely intersect, but one place where they have met over the years, a place visited by some of our greatest minds — from Plato to Socrates, David Hume to John Stuart Mill — is in a vexing quirk of collective action often called “The Free Rider Problem.” From wikipedia:

Scottish philosopher David Hume provided another example in his reflection on this age old phenomenon:

“Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because ‘tis easy for them to know each other’s mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But ‘tis very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou’d agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free himself of the trouble and expence, and wou’d lay the whole burden on others.” (emphasis added) read more

At this point you may be asking yourself: What in the world does all this have to do with the Campaign for Fair Food.

Fair question. But, as it turns out, the answer is: Everything.

Our very own public good: Human rights in the food industry…

And here’s why: You see, at this point in the campaign, we — farmworkers in Immokalee and Fair Food activists across the country — have succeeded in creating something from nothing. Through years of collective action, we have created a new public good: Respect for fundamental human rights in Florida’s tomato fields.

In a variation on David Hume’s words, we set out to drain not a meadow, but rather a swamp — a swamp of slavery, sexual harassment, wage theft, and grinding poverty.

That’s no small feat, one that has come at the cost of great sacrifice. But having arrived here, the battle is far from over. In fact, it has only just begun. And that is because there is a significant cost involved not just in winning human rights in Florida’s tomato fields, but in holding and defending that higher ground, too.

In other words, human rights are not free. And now that our agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has established the Penny per Pound and the Fair Food Code of Conduct as industry standards — the twin pillars that buttress this new standard of farm labor rights — those in the “public” who enjoy this new good have to pay for it (and by “public” we don’t mean consumers — the trillion-dollar food industry is more than capable of absorbing the new costs created by the Fair Food program, and prices in the fast-food and foodservice industry have not changed as a result of the penny-per-pound).

A shared public good…

Who, exactly, is the “public” in our situation, then? Clearly farmworkers are the primary beneficiaries of this particular public good, and farmworkers have more than paid the price, through decades of poverty and degradation, and years of sacrifice and struggle. And CIW members will continue to contribute through the constant vigilance that will be necessary to monitor and enforce the nascent Fair Food standards. But the list hardly ends there.

Growers, whose industry has suffered for decades from the stain of extreme exploitation, certainly stand to benefit from greater social accountability. This is, after all, the very industry that spawned the infamous “Harvest of Shame.” Abuses that previously festered in the shadows until they inevitably blew up in scandal, lawsuits, and headlines will now be actively identified and eliminated before they can explode. This helps workers, of course, but it also helps the industry as a whole to change the narrative that has dogged Florida agriculture for as long as anyone can remember, and in the process differentiate itself from other tomato producing regions of the world.

Buyers, too, benefit richly from this public good; within the marketplace they are ultimately the face of the produce they sell. Much as they may have preferred the days of old — where what happened in Florida’s fields stayed in Florida’s fields — those days are gone. Today’s consumers are increasingly concerned about any exploitation behind the products they buy, and the market for sustainable food is growing daily. Social accountability is good for business.

A shared burden…

And so how exactly do growers and buyers pay their part to sustain this new public good? This is an important question, because understanding this question will go a long way to understanding why Publix and Ahold — the want-to-be free riders on this shiny new bus — must be brought, with every ounce of pressure we can exert, to do their part. They cannot be allowed, to quote Hume, to “seek a pretext to free (themselves) of the trouble and expence, and… lay the whole burden on others.”

Let’s start with the one cost the growers don’t pay: The growers don’t pay the penny-per-pound. This has been the source of considerable confusion since the announcement of the FTGE agreement among the press, the broader public, and even some longtime Fair Food activists. But this needs to be clear — the growers did not agree to pay the penny-per-pound, but rather to pass the penny, paid by the buyers, on to their workers as part of their regular paychecks in the form of a “Fair Food bonus”.

The growers do shoulder many other costs of the changes brought about by the new industry-wide standards, most having to do with the improvement of working conditions required by the Fair Food Code of Conduct. Shade in the fields, worker education on the clock, health and safety committees, and a real commitment to a new complaint investigation and resolution system all have associated costs, and all are borne by the growers. Systems designed to insure transparency and accountability, that is, the very systems to which the FTGE has now committed itself, require both time and money. Florida’s tomato growers recognize this and have agreed to bear their part of the cost of valuing human rights. They are doing their part.

The buyers, on the other hand, are responsible for the Fair Food program’s wage increase, which is built, buyer by buyer, penny by penny, based on each buyer’s purchases. They also help support the improved working conditions by committing to condition their purchases on compliance with the Code of Conduct.

Thus, in theory, the Fair Food program, and the new respect for fundamental human rights in the Florida tomato industry to which it has given rise, are a classic example of a public good, achieved through collective action and supported by contributions by all those who benefit from the new good.

Theory thwarted…

And indeed, the nine multi-billion dollar, multi-national corporations that have already signed Fair Food agreements with the CIW are paying into the system.

But those food corporations that have not yet signed — principal among them supermarket industry leaders, with the sole exception of Whole Foods — are not. And now it is becoming increasingly clear that the strategy of those supermarket leaders, in particular Publix and Ahold, is to shirk their responsibility to pay into the system, short workers of their portion of the pay increase, and refuse to tie their purchases to the Fair Food principles. Instead, they hope to satisfy the public by simply buying from those growers where the Fair Food Code of Conduct is in effect, with no contribution to improved wages for the workers on those farms and no commitment to cut off purchases if violations of the Code of Conduct are found.

In short, they want social responsibility on the cheap, with all of the benefits and none of the costs. They want to ride the bus for free, while everyone else pays. Here’s Publix’s statement following the announcement of the CIW/FTGE agreement:

“Publix Super Markets, Inc. congratulates the Tomato Growers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for reaching a resolution… (W)e would assume that the resolution addresses farm worker pay in Florida. We would view the agreement to increase the workers pay by an additional penny per pound, in addition to the federal minimum wage the workers currently earn on their harvests as a confirmation of the industry’s commitment to act ethically, responsibly and in the best interests of their employees. We applaud both parties for successfully reaching this agreement.” read more

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Not content with washing their hands of the need to pay the extra penny to improve farmworker wages, Publix went on in a subsequent statement to make it abundantly clear that they feel no responsibility whatsoever for improved working conditions either:

“We don’t have any plans to sit down with the CIW,” Publix’s Media and Community Relations Manager Dwaine Stevens said, also citing that the company sells around 36,000 products in the stores and it cannot get involved with each product’s labor issues. “If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business. Maybe it’s something the government should get involved with.” (emphasis added) read more

Not to be outdone, Ahold has issued its own, equally unenlightened statement on their position vis a vis the Campaign for Fair Food1. Here’s an excerpt:

“On November 16, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents all of Ahold’s major tomato growers and suppliers, announced an agreement with the CIW to accept the CIW’s Fair Food Code of Conduct. We are pleased to learn about this agreement and believe that it is entirely consistent with our findings, specifically, that the growers from whom we source tomatoes in the Immokalee region are committed to treat employees and other workers fairly and with dignity and in accordance with the Ahold Standards of Engagement.

… We will not, therefore, participate directly with the growers’ employees in CIW’s proposed penny-per-pound program.”

‘Tis indeed the season to be greedy.

No ticket, no ride…

While Publix and Ahold appear to have paid close attention to the CIW/FTGE joint announcement, they both seem to have somehow overlooked this crucial passage:

“Nearly 50 years to the day since Edward R. Murrow shocked the nation with his landmark report Harvest of Shame – which aired the day after Thanksgiving, 1960 – a solution has appeared on the horizon through the Campaign for Fair Food,” added Gerardo Reyes, also of the CIW.

“For this new model to achieve its full potential, however, retail food industry leaders must also step up and support the higher standards,” concluded Reyes. “Key players in the fast-food and foodservice industries have already committed their support. It is time now for supermarket industry leaders to seize this historic opportunity and help make the promise of fresh – and fair – tomatoes from Florida a reality.” read more

Without Publix and Ahold — and the rest of the supermarket industry — paying into the penny-per-pound program and conditioning their purchases on the Fair Food principles, workers’ raises are shorted and the push to improve working conditions is undermined. And, to paraphrase the words of the wikipedia page at the top of this post, if too many people do this, the system will not have enough money, or market strength, to operate.

Such an outcome would be doubly harsh given the active role supermarket giants like Publix and Ahold have played in creating — by leveraging their volume purchasing power to demand ever lower prices for produce — the poverty and brutal working conditions from which they have profited for so many years.

That’s why, if you support the Campaign for Fair Food, you must make your voice heard in the new year, and there’s nowhere you can do that better than in Boston or Tampa at the big spring action!

The victory announced last month in Immokalee is, without doubt, a watershed moment in the history of Florida agriculture. Never before have growers and workers joined together behind such progressive standards and at such a comprehensive level, covering over 90% of the entire Florida tomato industry. We — all of us — are making history.

But that victory will be diminished if Publix and Ahold are allowed to take the low road they seem so determined to travel. In the new year, let us gather our forces, meet them on that road, and turn them back to join the rest of the food industry on the path to true social responsibility.