Aspen Institute: How a Farmworker Movement Changed the Way Your Food Gets Made…

From left to right: Steven Greenhouse (author, former labor reporter, New York Times), Susan Marquis (Dean of RAND Graduate School, author, “I Am Not a Tractor”), Jon Esformes (Chief Operating Partner, Pacific Tomato Growers), Gerardo Reyes (CIW) and Greg Asbed (CIW). The speakers were gathered at the Aspen Institute offices in Washington, DC, earlier this month for a panel discussion on the Fair Food Program as a new model for social responsibility in agriculture and the new book on the CIW’s history to date, “I Am Not a Tractor”.

Jon Esformes, Pacific Tomato Growers: “We all bear the responsibility to ensure that our fellow men are treated fairly.”

On February 9th, the Aspen Institute hosted an animated discussion on the CIW’s Fair Food Program, its roots in the CIW’s twenty-year struggle to advance farmworkers’ fundamental human rights, and its remarkable potential for helping workers around the globe who toil at the bottom of corporate supply chains in dangerous, low-paying jobs.  The idea for the panel was sparked by the publication late last year of a new book on the Fair Food Program, entitled “I Am Not a Tractor: How Florida Farmworkers Took on the Fast Food Giants and Won,” by the Dean of the RAND Graduate School, Susan Marquis.

We were planning on excerpting portions of the 90-min long panel discussion and providing a report from the day’s events in DC, but the Aspen Institute beat us to it!  And they did such a great job that we decided, why reinvent the wheel?  So, here below is the Aspen Institute’s report, in its entirety, from the discussion earlier this month. 

Enjoy, and check back soon for an update from the organizing front in New York City, where preparations for next month’s big Freedom Fast and Time’s Up Wendy’s March are going strong!

Gerardo Reyes Chavez remembers the first time he saw the Statue of Liberty. She had brown skin, stood 12 feet tall, and cradled a tomato bucket in her arm. Reyes and a group of activists carried this contemporary interpretation of Lady Liberty on a 234-mile march from Fort Myers to Orlando in order to spread awareness of human rights abuses in Florida’s agricultural industry.

“We were fighting for the recognition of our humanity,” said Reyes, a key leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Reyes, his colleague Greg Asbed, and Sunripe Certified Brands CEO Jon Esformes joined author Susan L. Marquis for a discussion about her new book I Am Not a Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took on the Fast Food Giants and Won. The book details the story of the farmworkers and community leaders who fought for the Fair Food Program. The event was hosted by the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program and moderated by former New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse.

As Marquis explains in her book, farmworkers in the United States are disadvantaged in part because they have historically been excluded from protections established under US labor laws.

Wage theft, assault, and exploitation were the norm in Florida’s tomato industry when Greg Asbed co-founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in the early 1990s. These were problems rooted in the country’s history of slavery and exacerbated by the fight over immigration. The Coalition aimed to pressure the growers to improve working conditions by targeting the buyers— fast food companies, grocery stores, and food service organizations that were buying their crops.

The Coalition gave workers a voice. Reyes had been a farmworker since he was 11 years old. He joined the Coalition so that he could advocate for change as part of the worker-driven movement. Now he is a key leader in the organization who conducts workers’ rights educational programming and investigates claims of human rights violations. These labor-driven reforms are a fixture of the Coalition and empower workers to advocate for themselves. “We were not asking people to save us,” Reyes said. “We were not looking for experts because we are experts in our field.”

Jon Esformes runs a fourth-generation, family-owned produce company called Sunripe Certified Brands. The company’s initial relationship with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was a confrontational one. “When we heard ‘worker organization’ the initial response was to put on the flak jacket and get ready for war,” Esformes said. In 1995, tomato workers walked off the family’s farms in protest of unfair labor practices. Twelve years later they were the first produce company to sign the Fair Food Agreement, which helps his company follow the law and ensures humane wages and working conditions.

Marquis noted that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers found success because the change came from within and addressed the broader system that led to their brutal working conditions. They also had a seat at the table when negotiations with growers and buyers were taking place.

Consumers are at the heart of the fair food movement. They can harness their power and tell corporations how they want their food to be produced. This has been successful in the past. When the public was made aware of slavery, sexual assault, and wage theft in Taco Bell’s supply chain, boycotts and campaigns put pressure on the company to work with the Coalition to improve pay and working conditions. Consumers should educate themselves on the practices of the companies they support. “We all bear the responsibility to ensure that our fellow men are treated fairly,” Esformes said.