“A movement, not a moment”: Lessons from the Fair Food Program for the growing fight against sexual harassment and assault in the workplace…

CIW staff members and Fair Food Program educators (from right to left) Nely Rodriguez, Silvia Perez, Leonel Perez, Cruz Salucio, and Mathieu Beaucicot stand outside the CIW office in Immokalee.

As the New York Times rang in the New Year with a story announcing the organization of an exciting new coalition of “300 prominent actresses and female agents, writers, directors, producers and entertainment executives” formed to pursue an “ambitious, sprawling initiative to fight systemic sexual harassment in Hollywood and in blue-collar workplaces nationwide,” an article published late last month by In These Times provided a timely reminder of the importance of workers’ voices in building a sustainable movement to reshape workplaces, from movie sets to produce farms, across the country:

… Ana Orozco, the national organizer for feminism and gender justice at the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, tells In These Times, “I think it it’s important that #MeToo leads to a movement, not just a moment.  This means hearing directly from group like Immokalee workers, women who are migrant workers, working-class folks who face a variety of obstacles on a daily basis.”

The article, titled “#MeToo In the Fields: Farmworkers Show Us How To Organize Against Sexual Violence,” is a great read and quotes CIW leaders Lupe Gonzalo and Nely Rodriguez extensively as it examines the Fair Food Program’s unique success in preventing sexual harassment and assault in the Florida tomato industry, long considered among the most hostile working environments for women in the country:

Lupe Gonzalo works in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Fla., worlds apart from the Hollywood celebrities whose #MeToo testimony is exposing widespread sexual violence and toppling powerful men. Yet, Gonzalo says that it is women like her, “with no platform and no voice, invisible and vulnerable,” who bear the brunt of workplace sexual assault—and who offer lessons in how to band together to defeat it.

“Of course, it is incredibly important to pay attention to the suffering of all women, particularly women who work in industries and live in a society that doesn’t have protections, basic rights, where abuse is incredibly rampant,” says Gonzalo, referring to the #MeToo movement, first sparked in 2007 by Tarana Burke. “Looking at the extremity of that violence here, farmworkers began to create a solution and built a program to ensure our own rights”…

… Through its Fair Food Program established in 2011, CIW is now forcing 14 food giants—including McDonald’s and Trader Joes—to meet farmworkers’ demands for workplaces free from violence, coercion, slavery and sexual assault. This labor agreement includes a 24-hour worker-complaint hotline monitored by an independent council, as well as worker-to-worker political education and organizing programs. According to Gonzalo, the model is premised on the principle that “workers themselves are monitoring their own rights”—tackling sexual assault alongside other workplace abuses…

… Nely Rodriguez, a Mexico-born farmworker who has lived in Immokalee for 12 years, organizes with CIW. She tells In These Times that worker-to-worker education provides the organizing muscle behind the Fair Food Program. “We have education sessions to explain what sexual harassment looks like,” she says. “It is a boss asking you for a sexual favor in exchange for work. It is vulgar jokes and comments. We are empowering workers to speak out and ensure that their own rights are protected in the workplace.”

According to Rodriguez, this education and outreach has itself spurred a cultural shift. “We are seeing that farmworker men are more open to making the cultural change in the industry and within themselves by helping to end sexual harassment in the field,” she explains. 

The article also discusses the importance of efforts like the Campaign for Fair Food in demanding that retail corporations take responsibility for — and commit their purchasing power to help end — human rights violations in their supply chains, including sexual harassment and assault:

… CIW is entering 2018 with its sights set on Wendy’s, which has so far refused to join the Fair Food Program despite organizing drives, marches and a national boycott. Wendy’s status as a holdout is especially troubling to Rodriguez because the company operates in Mexico, where workers on mega-farms face rampant abuse and slave-like conditions. In September, CIW launched a “Harvest Without Violence” mobile museum to highlight sexual assault throughout the agricultural supply chains of industry giants—including Wendy’s.

On March 11 through 15, farmworkers and their allies will launch a fast outside the Manhattan office of Nelson Peltz, the chairman of the board of Wendy’s. “Corporations like Wendy’s don’t care that workers have to go silent,” says Rodriguez. “They are profiting from these abuses.”

As CIW continues this fight, Gonzalo hopes that the organization’s model of “worker-driven social responsibility” is useful to workers in other industries. CIW’s approach has already inspired Vermont farmworkers’ Milk With Dignity campaign, launched in the fall of 2014 to hold corporations responsible for abuses committed throughout the food chain.

Be sure to check out the article in its entirety here, and, to borrow a phrase from Hollywood, get your popcorn ready for what promises to be a momentous new year ahead in the Fair Food movement!