“Publix must turn from its pride and arrogance and turn towards its partners in business, the workers from Immokalee…”

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24-hr vigil at Publix ends with march of 1,000 through downtown Lakeland!


The 10-day, 10-city Now Is the Time Tour ended Saturday with a massive march through the heart of Lakeland, Florida.  Responding to the marchers’ infectious high spirits and passionate call for human rights in Florida’s fields, the townspeople embraced the march with honks, waves, and thumbs-up, leaning out car windows and pouring out of homes and businesses along the three-mile route.  Lakeland’s response sent a clear signal that, even in Publix’s hometown, the grocery giant’s stubborn stonewalling of the Fair Food Program is growing increasingly unpopular and that the time has come for Publix to set aside its pride and join the growing partnership for farm labor justice.  

The final day of the tour started bright and early, with a gathering at sunrise around the impromptu stage erected at the vigil site during which workers and allies shared stories of how they became part of the Fair Food movement and what the movement — and the New Day of rights and dignity dawning in the fields — has meant in their lives:


The reflections shared in that early morning light were heartfelt and deeply appreciated by the participants, the perfect way to emerge from the cold, dark night of the vigil into the light of the big day of action ahead:


… though not everyone was able to shake off the effects of Friday’s all-night vigil quite as easily (and you thought we were kidding about the whole “head hits keyboard” thing in Saturday’s update!):


But soon even the most sleepy among us would have to be up and at ’em, as the vigil that began to grow the night before with the arrival of reinforcements from Immokalee and other worker communities around Florida truly swelled on this last morning of the tour, with hundreds of allies from around the state pouring into Lakeland for the march.  As the numbers rose throughout the morning, the picket outside the landmark Southgate Publix grew:


… and grew:


 … and grew, until it was finally time to step off the curb and into the street:


… steadily unwinding from the sidewalk site where workers and allies had gathered over the past 24 hours, transforming the vigil into a march, 1000 strong:


… for the three-mile trek through Lakeland’s streets:


And a wild three-mile journey it was.  With a bouncing soundtrack from the flatbed truck at the head of the march and the ablest of animation from the CIW’s irrepressible emcee crew:


… marchers making their own noise at the farther stretches of the column, beyond the range of even the sound truck’s stout speakers:


… impossibly cute kids handling outreach from the back of the truck:


… and still others doing their part on the ground:


… and, of course, countless colorful, handmade signs:


… the draw of the march on onlookers along the route was irresistible.  

And in return, the marchers were buoyed along their way by the remarkable — and remarkably consistent — positive feedback from the people of Lakeland, whose waves:


… applause:


… and smiles:


… made it abundantly clear that the Fair Food movement’s message was hitting home in Lakeland (outside of the Publix executive echo chamber, of course, where one can only imagine the apocalyptic terms they use to describe the Fair Food Program and the existential threat that they perceive it to be).

As the march neared its destination:


… and turned the corner into Lakeland’s downtown district and the final stretch of the route: 


… it would soon become clear that the thoughts of Publix’s executives were very much on the minds of those who would be speaking at the final rally (as the headline of this particular post foreshadows).  

After landing at a beautiful spot on the shore of Mirror Lake in Lakeland’s Kryger Park:


… the marchers settled in for a rally that included theater, music, and some truly stirring speakers (be sure to check out the video at the top of the post for a fuller sense of Saturday’s excellent speeches).

The rally began with the final performance of the the CIW’s original popular theater piece “Lo Bueno y lo Horrible,” which, after a blockbuster ten-day run, will make its way into the storied annals of CIW theater, props and all:


The Reverend Michael Livingston (pictured below), the National Policy Director of Interfaith Worker Justice and the former Director of the Poverty Initiative of the National Council of Churches (not to mention a participant in both the Fast for Fair Food in 2012 and the March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food in 2013!), got the rally off to a rousing start with an interactive cheer, with one half of the crowd chanting, “Journey towards justice,” and the other, “Now is the time!”  

Rev. Livingston also struck the first of what would be many sharply critical notes during the day’s speeches by drawing a stark contrast between the Fair Food movement’s unique warmth of spirit, on the one hand, and the Publix executive’s cold response to the movement, on the other, saying, “We’ve been on this journey towards justice together, and while we’ve been doing that, Publix has been standing still, telling lies, denying justice. Publix is just standing still, telling lies, while we are growing together, and embracing one another, and loving one another.  So we’re on a… (audience) Journey towards justice… Now is the time!”


His words were beautifully translated by Melody Gonzalez (speaking below), a longtime member of the CIW’s extended family who has extended her own family recently with the beautiful Tonalli, shown here at his mother’s feet practicing his own emcee skills during the rally:


Representatives of students and youth from across the Fair Food nation (group picture, below) spoke next.  Echoing the voices of students at Jacksonville’s River City Science Academy at last Thursday’s Publix protest, Lis-Marie Alvarado of We Count! in Homestead sounded her own cautionary note for Publix’s leadership, with a focus on the future and the changing dynamics of the 21st century marketplace, saying, “Publix, we want you to know that you do not represent Florida.  You do not represent our families, you do not represent future generations, and you do not represent us, the young people and students.  Sign the Fair Food agreement if you want our loyalty as customers.  It must be earned by doing the right thing.”


As the rally wound to a close, faith leaders from across the spectrum were next to speak (below), choosing their words for Publix directly from the Gospel.  Brian McLaren, shown speaking here, provided a true highlight of the rally when he addressed Publix executives directly: “I want to say something to the leaders of Publix, based on this book (holding a Bible aloft).  Love your neighbors.  Love your neighbors who work on the farms, love your customers who care about those workers.  Turn from your pride and arrogance, and turn towards your partners in business, the workers of Immokalee.”


The Rev. Noelle Damico of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative wrapped up the faith leaders’ addresses, asking, “Thirty years from now, when we look back at a totally transformed agricultural system, what will the history books say about Publix?”  

With the sun beginning to set, Rev. Damico’s message was underscored by the CIW’s Lupe Gonzalo (below):


… who helped to close out the day, and the tour, alongside fellow CIW members with words from the CIW’s Women’s Group: “We want to say to Publix that as women, we will not even consider allowing sexual violence to continue in Florida’s fields or the agricultural industry.  We will not take one step backward.  We will only continue forward.” 

The rally was the perfect ending to a nearly perfect tour (the only way it could have been better is if Publix had actually reached out to talk).  The words of the speakers reflected the Fair Food Nation’s growing frustration with Publix’s leadership, the growing sense that history is passing Publix by, that its leaders — or perhaps their advisors — are failing their own company, letting ideology get in the way of practical business concerns.  From the beginning to the end of the final day of the tour, the specter of history — of agriculture’s shameful past, and of the future of a food industry ever more finely tuned to its customers’ demands for fair labor conditions behind the food they eat — was present, a silent judge of Publix’s increasing isolation thanks to its indefensible shunning of the Fair Food Program. 

Earlier in the morning, reflecting at the vigil site, one longtime farmworker (Nathaniel Perry, pictured below) spoke of his own experience, of how, when he first started picking tomatoes, the piece rate was less than half of what it is today, and crewleaders ran company stores that would steal your pay before you ever even saw it.  He told the gathering that the changes he is watching unfold today are not just long-overdue, but gratifying in a way that he could have never imagined before.


But what Publix fails to see — blinded perhaps by the pride decried by so many of yesterday’s speakers — is that those changes are not only good for workers, but for business, too.  Less than five years ago, the Florida tomato industry, like Publix, was also mired in a fight against progress, boycotting the Fair Food Program and running day and night to put out public relations fires caused by the unceasing flare-up of human rights violations in their fields.  At the same time, the Florida growers struggled daily to compete in the marketplace against tomatoes coming out of Mexico.  With human rights problems and antiquated labor relations on both sides of the border, Florida tomatoes were indistinguishable from Mexican tomatoes, and price was the sole determinant for the vast majority of corporate buyers.

Today, just a few years later, the Florida tomato industry is infinitely stronger, poised to compete on the basis of social responsibility with Mexico –and any other tomato producer, for that matter — thanks to the Fair Food Program.  With stories of modern-day slavery continuing to flow out of Mexico’s fields, and headlines exposing the control exercised by violent drug cartels over the Mexican agricultural industry (“The violent gang wars behind your Super Bowl avocados,” Wall St. Journal, 1/31/14) dominating the run up to this year’s Super Bowl, it is clear that Mexican tomato workers enjoy none of the rights or protections that cover over 90% of the Florida tomato industry today.  There is no Mexican Fair Food Program, and it is safe to say that there will not be for the foreseeable future, as long as farmworkers in Mexico remain powerless against the corruption and violence that is endemic there today.

Meanwhile, the Florida tomato industry is home to the most effective, most successful social responsibility program in all of US agriculture today, bar none.  Recognized by the White House for its unique effectiveness in preventing slavery, by the UN for its worker-based human rights protections and enforcement mechanisms backed by real market consequences, and by PBS Frontline for its unique success in fighting sexual violence in the fields, the Fair Food Program is seen as a model for the protection of human rights not just in US agriculture, but in corporate supply chains on a global level.  It is an asset that has increased the value of the Florida tomato industry and its products immeasurably.


And so today, less than five years later, the Florida tomato industry is better off thanks to its decision to set aside its pride, sit at the table with workers, and help build the Fair Food Program.  They were able to leave behind whatever feelings of ill will they may have harbored toward the CIW — and surely there were some after nearly two decades of an often contentious struggle —  for the good of their business.  Whatever ideology may have driven their decision to pursue that battle for so long was trumped by practical business interests, resulting in the birth of a unique new partnership.  And today the industry — growers and workers together, alongside the twelve food industry leaders supporting the Fair Food Program — is stronger for it.

The Fair Food Nation awaits that same awakening within Publix, albeit with increasing impatience if the comments at Saturday’s rally were any indication. 

Nathaniel closed his comments at Saturday morning’s reflection by adding that he considers every single person, worker or consumer ally, who fights for Fair Food to be part of a single family, and that when he is able to reunite with that family in action every year, he feels like he is coming home.

And so, as the Now Is the Time Tour ends and we all make our way home to the four directions of the Fair Food Nation from which we came, we travel with his words in our hearts.  When we are together fighting for justice in the fields, we are home, and we will never tire of inviting Publix into our home to join us at the ever-growing Fair Food table.  


Thanks to all who helped make our 10-day, 10-city tour happen.  And check back soon for a final round-up with more photos, media reports, news from what turned out to be quite the epic journey!