“Not 1996 anymore…” Worker beaten at packing house near Immokalee…

The more things change…

November, 1996

March, 2012

No, actually. The more things change, the more the old guard fights to keep things the same. But it isn’t 1996 anymore…

The two bloody shirts pictured above trace the trajectory of the CIW’s two-decade old fight for fundamental human rights in Florida’s fields, a fight to eliminate the constant undercurrent of violence which has haunted the fields for far too long.

The shirt on the left belonged to a young man who walked into the CIW’s office in November, 1996. He had been picking tomatoes in a field near Immokalee when he stopped to take a drink of water. A field supervisor accosted him, shouted “Are you here to work, or to drink water?“, and launched into him, leaving him badly bruised and bloodied — and determined to find justice. The young worker walked back to Immokalee, headed straight to the CIW office, and sparked a nighttime march of nearly 500 workers on the crewleader’s house. The marchers brandished his shirt as a banner, declaring “If you beat one of us, you beat us all!“, and helped launch a movement that changed Immokalee forever.

The shirt on the right belonged to a young man who walked into the CIW’s office last week. He had been working at a vegetable packing house, packing eggplants, about 10 miles from Immokalee when a supervisor approached him. According to the worker, the supervisor criticized his work, and he, thinking the criticism unjustified, answered back. A discussion ensued when, according to the worker and a witness, the supervisor hauled off and punched him in the face. Staggered, he swung back, but was knocked to the ground by the supervisor before others in the area stepped in to pull them apart. The worker was told to go home, clean up, and return the next day. Instead, he went to the CIW’s office, and filed a police report. He then went to the hospital, where he learned that the supervisor’s punch had broken his nose.

One might see the two shirts — these two incidents of inexcusable violence against workers that they symbolize — and conclude that little has changed for farmworkers in Florida. But that would be wrong.

In fact, the punching of the worker at an eggplant packing house last week — like the incident, also just last week, in a Plant City strawberry field where a farmer was caught on video screaming violently at workers for picking his berries poorly, calling them “damn animals” that “ain’t worth a sh*t” (the original video has been removed, but a short audio recording remains) — only underscores just how much has changed in the tomato fields where the Fair Food Program is in effect.

“A man can’t ride your back unless it is bent”…

Those words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King on the eve of his assassination, in his ever powerful “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968. Speaking about the Civil Rights movement in Albany, Georgia, he said, “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.”

Today, in tomato fields across the state of Florida, the men and women who pick this country’s tomatoes are indeed going somewhere, through the Fair Food Program. Not only have they won new rights and protections against exploitation and abuse (verbal and physical), but they are learning about those rights, on the farm and on the clock, through the CIW’s educational efforts, and are enforcing those rights through the Fair Food Program’s protected complaint mechanism.

They are straightening their backs up, and — in a true partnership with those growers who have made a real commitment to the Fair Food Program — taking steps to eliminate violence and humiliation in Florida’s tomato fields, to end the long nightmare of the state’s Harvest of Shame.

That is not to say that all is right in the fields where the Fair Food Program is in effect. But it does mean that workers and employers determined to improve conditions in the tomato industry now have real, effective tools with which to identify and eliminate the abusive bosses and exploitative structures that have plagued the industry for decades. And they have done so this season, time and time again, on participating farms from Homestead to Ruskin.

But what’s even more interesting is what’s happening at farms outside of the Fair Food Program — whether they are vegetable fields outside the tomato industry, or tomato fields where growers have refused to join the Program. With increasing frequency, the CIW and Program auditors are receiving complaints from workers who, having picked tomatoes on participating growers’ farms earlier in the season, now find themselves working for companies beyond the reach of the Program, where conditions are every bit as harsh and demeaning as they ever were.

These workers, who received the orientation on workers’ rights under the Fair Food Code of Conduct at a participating farm, confirm the positive impact of the Program every time they call with complaints ranging from verbal and physical harassment to forced overfilling of buckets and systemic minimum wage violations on non-participating farms.

Having seen the New Day taking shape in participating growers’ fields, they are shocked anew at the conditions as they used to be, and continue to be, in fields outside the Fair Food Program. And while the distinction is good news for workers on the participating farms, it is also good news for the participating growers themselves, who, thanks to the more humane workplace environment they are creating this season, are better able to attract and retain workers, leading to lower turnover, reduced training costs, and higher productivity.

But not everyone is pleased with these unprecedented changes.

It takes two to exploit farmworkers…

Without an outlet for produce brought to market in violation of workers’ fundamental human rights, growers who have turned their backs on the Fair Food Program would have to raise their standards or go out of business. So, where does an old school grower turn to sell his tomatoes, eggplants, or strawberries with no questions asked?

“If there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business.”

“We do not intervene in labor disputes between suppliers and their employees.”

“If productivity standards are too strenuous, farmworkers should work for another employer.”

Yes, Publix, for one, is happy to buy tomatoes produced where workers do not enjoy the protections and oversight provided by the Fair Food Program. Publix sells several brands of Florida tomatoes from farms that have not agreed to the new human rights standards, like the Red Diamond tomatoes pictured above, purchased recently at a Naples area store. And Publix is all too happy to provide the public support necessary to encourage recalcitrant growers to continue resisting change, as it has done time and time again in response to the Campaign for Fair Food.

Dehumanization makes it all possible…

Why, when the option to support a more modern, more humane agricultural industry exists, does Publix insist on doing things the old way?

Because, in the final analysis, Publix, like the growers who would turn back the clock on any gains made by farmworkers, simply refuses to recognize the fundamental humanity of those who harvest their bounty. Instead, Publix desperately clings to the old days, when farmworkers were invisible and consumers were silent, leaving Publix totally unaccountable for generations of farm labor poverty and degradation.

You can’t break another human being’s nose just because he had the temerity to speak back to you, unless you don’t see him as a fellow human being. You can’t sexually assault a woman who works for you if, in her, you see your mother, your sister, or your daughter. You can’t steal another person’s freedom and force them to work at the barrel of a gun if you see that person as fundamentally equal to you. It’s just not possible. And you can’t turn your back on those conditions when deciding where to buy the produce you sell unless you share the perspective that farmworkers are, in some defining measure, less fully human than you.

Think about the worker you saw at the top of this post who was beaten at the packing house last week. As long as he is defined as “a worker” and the details are about the facts of the assault, you may see him one way. But what if we were to tell you that he has lived and worked in Immokalee with his family for eleven years, teaching himself how to drive a forklift to try to get ahead, to be a better provider for his family. That he is a husband and the father of two beautiful young boys, 8 and 3, and that his youngest, whom he loves dearly, is severely disabled and can’t walk, eat, or breathe on his own? You might begin to see him differently, as your neighbor, a member of your community, a human being.

But for Publix and for still too many growers in Florida, farmworkers remain faceless, nameless, “hands” — tools needed to bring in the harvest. Tools that, when they wear out, or are damaged, are simply replaced with other tools without a moment’s hesitation or regret.

But it’s 2012, not 1996, and that attitude no longer puts a company in the mainstream of Florida agriculture, not to mention the retail food industry. Today, the vast majority of Florida’s tomato growers have recognized the mistakes of the past and are making, through significant investments of time and resources dedicated to meeting the higher standards of the Fair Food Program, a true commitment to a more socially responsible, more humane work environment.

And today, more and more consumers are no longer happy to buy the food they eat, the food they put on their families’ tables, no questions asked, even if Publix still is. Consumers are demanding to know the story behind their food, but violence, sexual harassment, and grinding poverty are not the story they want to hear.

It is not 1996 anymore, where the only people outraged when a young worker comes back from work bloodied and beaten are his fellow workers in Immokalee. And until Publix realizes that simple fact, they will get more and more letters like this one, with which we will close today’s post, from Brendan and Alison Conley of Temple Terrace, Florida. Mr. and Mrs. Conley, you have the final word:

Dear Friends at Publix: We love Publix. But we can’t shop there.We grew up shopping at Publix. Until recently, we bought nearly all of our
groceries there. But we won’t be back, not until one thing changes.

The people who pick our tomatoes, represented by the Coalition of Immokalee
Workers, haven’t had a raise in 30 years. They’re asking you to pay a penny per
pound more, and you have refused to even meet with them.

We’ve heard your response already: this has nothing to do with Publix; it’s
between the growers and the workers. We see through that. If Publix told the
growers that they had to pay the workers a penny per pound more, would they really refuse? Who’s really calling the shots?

Does that mean Publix is the boss? No. We the consumers are. So we’re sorry,
Publix, but we’re going to have to let you go. Come back to us when you’ve cleaned up your act.


Brendan Conley
Alison Conley