Talk by “Not a Tractor” author, Susan Marquis: “Transforming the Fields: Defining and Claiming Farmworker Rights”…

Susan Marquis, left, prepares for her conversation with Korsha Wilson, right, at the 2019 Southern Foodways Fall Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, this past October. Susan is the Dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Los Angeles and the author of “I Am not a Tractor”, the definitive history of the CIW’s organizing efforts and the groundbreaking Fair Food Program.

Sometimes a great story will get lost in the never-ending torrent of news and analysis coming out of the Fair Food movement. This past October, just such a story took place in the historic college town of Oxford, Mississippi, and, by no fault of its own, promptly got lost in the shadow of last month’s big march in New York City.

But consider the story lost no longer.  Susan Marquis, Dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Los Angeles and author of the exceptional history of the CIW and the Fair Food Program “I Am not a Tractor,” gave a remarkable talk on the CIW and the Fair Food Program at the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Fall Symposium, and now you can read her remarks in full right here.

But first, a bit of context.  The theme of this year’s symposium was “Food is Work”, with a focus on the labor undergirding every level of our nation’s massive food industry.  Here’s how the SFA framed the conference:

For 2019 the Southern Foodways Alliance tells stories of the domestic and public labor that powers growing, cooking, and serving food. Join us in Oxford, and on the University of Mississippi campus, October 24-26, for our twenty-second fall symposium. In a way that welcomes all, SFA weaves together smart talks, great food, compelling art, and challenging conversations. Join us.

We will showcase work songs from Georgia cane fields and Carolina mills. We will tell stories of the cooks who feed working folk at construction sites and tobacco fields. We will sing songs of soup beans and the fight-for-fifteen. Leading the way will be – among many other good and smart folk — Kiese Laymon, Carnegie medal winning author of Heavy, chef Maneet Chauhan, the pride of Nashville, and Jessie Wilkerson, author of To Live Here, You Have to Fight.

Susan began her own remarks with this beautifully written introduction:

Good morning. I’m here to share a story of farmworkers in America. If you pay attention to food, and who puts that food on our tables, you know this story, but it bears repeating and it needs context. That’s what I aim to offer. What I am also offering may not be what you are expecting. And that is a different ending to the story. For much of our nation’s history, farmworkers, whether enslaved or free, immigrant or native born, have been the voiceless; the powerless; the ones who needed somebody to save them. But, that is no longer true. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers have changed the ending of this story. Florida farmworkers have built a powerful tool that protects not just their own rights but provides a model to protect the rights of agricultural, factory, and other low-wage workers for the rest of the world. And that is good news – a story of not only of hope but real and tractable opportunity…

After recounting the abysmal conditions in Florida’s fields before the advent of the CIW’s Fair Food Program, she went on to describe the FFP’s unique structure and success:

… So, those were the conditions just a few years ago in Florida’s tomato fields. Today, those same fields, and others up the eastern seaboard, are a living, breathing demonstration of a new model for agricultural labor, defining farmworker rights, and holding corporations accountable for their supply chains. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program is the prototype of what is now known as Worker-driven Social Responsibility (or, WSR), a partnership between workers, producers, and corporate buyers. It’s rooted in farmworkers’ expertise and experience. It uses the power of the market for good. And it works because of immediate and effective sanctions for violating workers’ human rights. The results? Virtual elimination in Fair Food fields of the abuse farmworkers have lived with for much of our nation’s history, and a near doubling of farmworkers’ wages. Producers have gained from new operational efficiencies, reduction in legal risks, and a more stable, better trained workforce. Fast-food and grocery corporations at the top of the food chain now have confidence in the integrity of their supply chain for U.S- grown tomatoes, maintaining the trust of their customers, and protecting their brands…

Susan then proceeded to take a deeper dive into various aspects of the CIW’s history and the functions of the Fair Food Program, including this excellent passage on the FFP’s key mechanisms:

… I promised to get to the why – why the Fair Food Program has worked. Whether willingly or not, buyers, employers, and workers were now in partnership and the Fair Food Program came to life in 2011. It is now a rare example of end-to-end, systemic change. The comprehensiveness of the program, and resulting effectiveness, is unmatched in social responsibility programs. Rights are defined in the Code of Conduct. All workers must receive worker-to-worker rights and responsibilities education. With this, the workers themselves monitor every row of every farm field. A 24/7 complaint line, answered by people who speak the many languages of farmworkers, lets workers report potential violations, protected from retaliation. The Fair Food Standards Council, an independent third party, fields complaints, conducts investigations, prescribes resolution, and conducts detailed audits. Enforcement comes through the corporate buyers’ legally-binding agreement not to purchase tomatoes or other produce from growers who don’t quickly come into compliance after violations…

You can read Susan’s remarks in full here, and you’ll be glad you did!  You’d be hard pressed to find a more thorough and concise, accurate and compelling, analysis of the CIW’s 25-year history and the award-winning Fair Food Program.