Picking a fight

Early on a Sunday evening, workers in Immokalee are recuperating from a long week and gearing up to start another one. Men sit outside their trailers and shanty-like houses, drinking beer and talking with the others who share their condition.

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In Immokalee few people own cars. The town east of Fort Myers, on the edge of the Everglades, has more pedestrian traffic than most American towns. It's not exactly Calcutta, but it's desolate. Except for the building that houses the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The small, grayish-white building boasts a colorful mural with images of fruit pickers and King Zapata. Outside, people are drinking soda and chatting. They do business at the coalition's co-op and stop to converse with friends. The talk is mostly in Spanish, with a little French drifting through.

A few people are inside watching television. Sometimes they have movies, says Greg Asbed, one of the coalition's staff members. But mostly people rerun the videotapes the workers most want to see -- tapes featuring protests staged by coalition members demanding better wages and working conditions. On this Sunday those tapes show them standing outside of an Orlando restaurant, carrying signs and chanting, "No 'quiero' Taco Bell." We don't want Taco Bell.

Members of the coalition began contacting Taco Bell last year, seeking the company's assistance in getting the Immokalee growers that supply its tomatoes to increase workers' wages. First they wrote letters. Then they encouraged consumers to write letters. Taco Bell wrote them back and said the issue of farmworker wages had nothing to do with them. They just buy the tomatoes; they don't own the companies that grow them. They can't help, they said.

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The coalition begs to differ.

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In April, workers kicked off a national boycott against Taco Bell with the Orlando protest. Since then there have been more than a dozen actions drawing consumer attention to what the coalition feels is Taco Bell's lack of corporate responsibility. The group vows the protests won't end until the restaurant chain either grows a conscience or is void of customers.

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That's why the videos are so popular. They allow the coalition's members to see themselves externally as they see themselves internally -- as people who have the power to better themselves and act on their own behalf.


According to the latest report by the U.S. Department of Labor to Congress, the production of fruits and vegetables has increased and global demand for American produce continues to grow, but agricultural worker earnings and working conditions are either stagnant or in decline. The median income for farmwork is between $2,500 and $5,000. In spite of these dismal numbers, numbers that have never been anything less than dismal, the American government still does not allow farmworkers to bargain collectively or earn overtime pay for overtime work. Employers are free to pay them less than a living wage and can import new migrant workers from impoverished countries when the supply runs low.

The tone of the Department of Labor's report suggests that the government feels the pain of the migrant worker; it just doesn't want to do anything about it.

Neither does the general public. People who live in agricultural states such as Florida have likely heard of the plight of the migrant farmworker even if they've never met one. They're the recipients of food collected by churches and used Christmas toys and clothing from generous and compassionate people. They're the subjects of news features that tug at your heart and make you think, "Somebody should do something," just before you turn to the sports section.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has decided that that "somebody" should be the workers themselves.

Pedro Lopez left Guatemala 17 years ago. He arrived in Immokalee to pick vegetables, and he worked in the fields for two years before his wife and children were able to join him. Lopez earned low wages and lived in squalor. But the isolation and poverty that migrant workers live in didn't demoralize Lopez as it did so many others. Instead, it spurred him to start the small revolution that is now the coalition.

About seven years ago Lopez and 11 other men formed a committee and worked to clean parts of the city that were neglected. They also worked to push the county to install more streetlights. There was a high incidence of muggings in the town then, and the absence of light made it easier for thugs to strike. There still is a high incidence of muggings, but the lights helped to lower the numbers.

Buoyed by their success, the group turned their attention to the sometimes-violent treatment they endured from field supervisors. Lopez was aware that there was some risk of losing work when he and others from the newly formed coalition started speaking up, but that risk was not enough to stop them. "We were more afraid of losing our lives to muggers and our bosses in the fields than we were of losing our jobs," he says.

Lopez knew the power of organizing. In Guatemala he worked with a group that started a consumer food cooperative and made crafts that were sold to improve the lives of the local population. He brought that knowledge with him to Immokalee. Beginning a co-op for farmworkers made sense, Lopez says. Workers who were already being taken advantage of in the fields by being forced to work for wages that could barely sustain them were also being exploited in stores by paying high prices for groceries. So the coalition decided to do what the grocery stores did -- they purchased food from wholesalers and then sold it at prices much lower than the local stores.

"First we sold in the street without any kind of roof over our heads," says Lopez. Later the local Catholic Church began to allow the workers to use their facilities for storage and meetings.

The first action against the Immokalee growers took place in 1995. More than 4,000 workers joined a strike in protest of a growers' attempt to drop the wage from $4.25 to $3.85 and pay only 10 cents per bucket. "Once we took to the streets and made it clear we weren't going to work for this wage, they had to back down," says Lopez.

The new unity among the workers also cut down on a lot of the violence that was rampant in the fields. In the past, workers were beaten for requesting water, not working fast enough -- you name it. "They'd throw buckets at you, they'd hit you and if you wanted to complain there wasn't much you could do," says Lopez. "Now that we're organized and have been doing actions, hunger strikes and marches, those things no longer happen."

Wage theft has also decreased. Previously, bosses would tell workers they didn't have a check for them on payday. They instructed the worker to come back the following week and when they did they were again told there was no check. When the coalition hears of these types of abuses, a group of members, sometimes as many as 40, will march to the offending boss' house to demand payment. Sometimes the mysteriously disappeared check will turn up when a worker shows a coalition membership card.

"This used to be a town without law so bosses could do those sorts of things without consequence," says Asbed. "What the coalition did was create consequences."

Romero Benitez has lived in Immokalee for the past five years. He found out about the coalition from workers who were discussing it on the street. He went to a meeting and what he heard there made him hopeful. "What I really liked was that we are all workers from the same class," says Benitez. "At the time I really didn't know what we could do. But I just had something in my mind; I had an idea in my mind that maybe we could change the situation in of our town, of our people, our community."

Lopez agrees. "We thought something that came from us could create much more pressure."

The coalition uses ideas developed by Brazilian adult educator Paolo Freire, who stated that the greatest task of the oppressed is to liberate themselves from their oppressors. The way to keep a group of people oppressed, according to Freire, is to get them to buy into their own inferiority. Oppression and identity are intertwined, so liberation has to come by changing self-image.

With that in mind, the oppressed are at the center of the struggle for a better life -- solutions don't come from the outside. "No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunate and by presenting for their emulation models from among their oppressors," Freire wrote in his popular book, "Pedagogy of Oppression." To gain liberation the oppressed have to critically analyze the causes of their own oppression, unveil it, then work to transform it, he says.

The coalition uses Freire's model to teach workers to become politically aware and encourage them to participate in the process of initiating change. Staff members, who are elected to work in the office and travel on behalf of the coalition, are paid the same wages as pickers and still have to work in the fields for part of the year to maintain contact with the conditions there. Although the staff members are often the spokespersons of the group, there's no leader -- everyone has the power to contribute equally to identifying problems and finding solutions.

Freire's model of participation and awareness works to the pickers' advantage. If the workers have to wait for all of the good Americans to become outraged at their treatment and liberate them, their day of reckoning may never come.

Legislation proposed by Florida state Rep. Frank Peterman Jr., of St. Petersburg, to stop employers from charging workers for expenses the growers should cover died in committee during the 2001 legislative session. There is no mainstream push for farmworkers' rights. Part of the reason for this apathy lies in how the workers are perceived: as illegal immigrants.

The perception that all pickers are illegal immigrants who had it worse in their own countries is pervasive. In fact, no one knows for sure what percentage of people who work in the fields is undocumented, says Lucas Benitez. What is known is that a significant percentage do have papers, and they suffer the same sub-poverty wages and miserable working conditions as those who don't.

"We look at the fight for more humane working conditions in Florida's fields as a question of human rights," says Benitez. "We believe that we are all born with certain rights -- the right to a fair wage for a fair day's work, for example -- and those rights are not dependent upon a person's immigration status. In fact, any industry that tries to justify clearly unjustifiable working conditions on the basis of a particular characteristic of its work force, be it immigration status, poverty or skin color, is morally corrupt."


Like any other parents in America -- in the world -- migrant workers are working now so their kids can have a better life in the future. Romero Benitez doesn't want to see his children have to work in the fields like he does. "I would hope that if I could make a decent salary, a salary where I could save some money, my kids won't have to do this kind of work," he says. "But if we don't change things, most likely our kids will be working these jobs."

It's more complex than just wanting their kids to have better job opportunities. They also want their kids to know that there's nothing shameful about working in the fields. It's decent, honest work, Lopez says, and if it paid better and the conditions improved he wouldn't see anything wrong with his kids doing it.

The larger issue for him right now, he says, is that doing work that pays so little means that he has to work more hours to support his family. That doesn't give him the time to provide them with the kind of family life they need now, while they're still young. "If we had a better wage, we'd actually be able to have a family life. We'd be able to be with our families more."

Farmworkers make up one of the few classes of workers left that can be exploited with little fear of government intrusion. Under the Fair Labor Act they are denied the right to overtime pay even though they generally work 12 hours per day. They don't have the right to organize and form unions. Employers can't be compelled to bargain with unionized farmworkers. The government even allows new workers to be shipped in from third-world countries if the supply of immigrants (both legal and illegal) starts to come up short. The agriculture companies seek ways to sidestep treating its workers fairly and the government steps right along with them.

"Almost every other industry has realized the benefits that come from treating employees fairly," says Asbed. "That mentality has never taken root in agriculture. People who work in agriculture have always been viewed as different, and until that mentality changes, there will always be an uphill struggle to get just a little better wage, a little better housing."

A hunger strike and marches to the capital have resulted in small gains for the workers. Wages were increased for the first time in 20 years in 1997, and a column by St. Petersburg Times editorial writer Bill Maxwell prompted a visit from Gov. Bush. Not only did Bush express his support for the workers, he expressed it in Spanish.

"We had an excellent dialogue," Asbed says of the governor's visit. "He came out of the meeting the same as we did, with the sense that there was a real possibility for something new. A new understanding between Tallahassee and farmworkers and growers."

Bush's involvement resulted in a 5-cent-per-bucket increase from one grower, and the coalition had reason to hope that they had made a breakthrough. But the workers ultimately wanted more than just an extra nickel. They wanted to be able to sit down with their employers and be recognized as the vital part of agribusiness that they are. Without that recognition they will always have to starve and strike to get what most Americans have by law. That's when Bush backed off.

"He roped off that area of labor relations and said that he would not get involved in any way," says Asbed.

So the coalition marched to the Governor's Mansion and staged a demonstration. The laborers are denied the more rational means to bring about change in the workplace, says Asbed. But Bush didn't become moved; he became mad. Instead of seeing the workers' protests for what they are -- an attempt by a disenfranchised group of people to be heard -- the governor was personally offended by the action. He shouldn't be.

"It's political expression for farmworkers," says Asbed, "and it's the only thing that they have."

Without the right to organize and without the protection of the Labor Department, the workers need an ally with a bully pulpit like the governor's to push growers to the bargaining table. "That's what leaders do," says Asbed.

It's what leaders do, but it's not what politicians do. Politicians follow the money. Agribusiness is Florida's largest industry next to tourism, and the food companies have the money and the clout to sway politicians. Farmworkers don't.

"They don't have money for political contributions. They don't have the Legislature. They only have the tool of their own voices to express what they want to express," says Asbed. "Unfortunately it seems that farmworkers' voices are having a harder and harder time being heard in Tallahassee."


There's an exercise the coalition uses to educate consumers. They show them a tomato and ask what comes to mind. Invariably, says Asbed, customers come up with the kinds of words tomato marketers would implant in everyone's brains while they slept: red, juicy, delicious and fresh. The many associations that exist to shill for the fruit and vegetable industry have done their jobs well.

Then the coalition members make their pitch.

They tell their audience about the poverty, exploitation and misery that makes it possible for those tomatoes to travel from the fields to those pyramid-shape piles in grocery stores. Because people scoop up tomatoes without a thought, like they grew right there in plastic bins, the coalition wants to impart the message that those juicy, red tomatoes aren't innocuous fruit. They keep people impoverished.

And people get the message, says Asbed. "It's really not that difficult when you get people to actually think about it."

The question is what can they do about it. The coalition can't really ask people to play detective in the grocery store and ferret out the origins of the tomatoes that they buy. Consumers can't be expected to remember which grower pays at least minimum wage and which grower pays so little that workers can barely afford to buy the tomatoes that they pick. But they can stop eating at fast-food restaurant chain Taco Bell, which purchases enormous amounts of tomatoes from an Immokalee grower who refuses to pay workers a living wage.

Taco Bell buys its tomatoes from Six L's Packing Co., one of the country's largest tomato producers. Six L's pays workers 45 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. Six L's gets about 30-35 cents per pound for those same tomatoes. The grower can negotiate a low price for its large customer and still make a profit because the company doesn't have to pay employees a living wage.

Taco Bell can demand cheap produce or take its business elsewhere, pass that low cost on to consumers and make a very large profit. Pickers have no powers of collective bargaining, are not protected by the U.S. minimum wage laws and are at the mercy of their employers -- they can't afford to feed their families.

The tone of the April 1 Orlando rally that kicked off the boycott was more festive than angry. Among the estimated 300 protesters were students dressed as tomatoes, and huge papier maché figures representing workers and Taco Bell executives. Kids beat the hell out of a candy-filled Chihuahua piñata.

Uptight Taco Bell managers who stood in the parking lot, guarding the premises and threatening to arrest reporters for setting foot on the property, called the police. The cops just stood around since the crowd clearly wasn't going to go on some kind of rampage.

But the protest served its purpose. Several potential chalupa buyers changed their minds after talking to protesters. Some customers didn't even need to know what the protest was about -- the fact that there was one made them want to run from the border. Cars driving past honked their horns in support.

"What we're doing is planting a seed," says Lucas Benitez. "It's very important that we ask consumers for support because for this issue they have the final word -- they can choose to buy or not to buy."

In today's anti-corporate atmosphere, the chances that people will choose not to buy are pretty good. Many of those who are beginning to insist that corporate responsibility should go with huge corporate profits are students -- exactly the demographic that Taco Bell targets. There are hundreds of Taco Bells ringing college campuses around the country and plenty of students who'd just as soon shut them down as buy products that are made by exploiting workers. The Student/Farmworker Alliance, an organization spawned by the coalition, is planning to make sure that students are aware of the tomato pickers' plight.

Student alliance member Sharon Levine spent her spring break in Immokalee, picking tomatoes, and says that two days work resulted in earnings of less than $25 even though she was working as hard as she could. A senior at New College in Sarasota, Levine says there are two Taco Bell restaurants within driving distance of the campus, and she hopes to see their business decline as she and other alliance members tell students how the farmworkers are treated.

"What they do is an essential part of the American economy," says Levine. "They feed America, basically, and that's not being recognized based on the wages that they earn."

Brian Payne, an alliance staff member, says the organization is looking to set up internships to provide other students with the same type of experience that Levine had, and to enlist as many from around the country as possible in the cause. The group is modeled in part on Students Against Sweatshops, the organization that helped Nike take an interest in the overseas factories where its shoes are made. (Read how Nike changed the exploitation of foreign workers)


The boycotts and the strikes are a big function of the coalition, but the real change takes place on a smaller level, says Ed Kissam, a researcher for a social science firm in California and an expert on issues of agricultural workers. The coalition gives workers who are isolated by language barriers or don't understand the American system of government a place to belong.

Kissam has been to Immokalee several times in the past 10 years and he says he can see the changes the coalition has made just in the attitude of its members. "It's not just active participation [in the coalition]; it's the number of people who hang around the coalition just to have a soda," he says.

With many workers unable to bring their families with them when they migrate, the sense of community the coalition provides is key, he says. Workers coming from other countries have a lot of concern about not knowing what's going on.

Members and staff of the coalition can explain things. "A pay stub doesn't initially make much sense to a barely literate Guatemalan," says Kissam. "But the coalition can say, ‘You need that so you'll know if you're being cheated.'"

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Another change that Kissam has noticed over the years is a shift in the ethnic makeup of the community. Mayans and other native people, who would have stayed in their own communities, are now being forced to come to the United States to work. Generally these cultures tend not to mix, said Kissam. What makes the coalition unique is its ability to bridge the gap and bring these people together for a common goal.

The coalition's belief in collective action and their ability to stay an organization run by the workers that form their membership also set them apart. "They're one of the most striking and intelligent organizations out there," Kissam says. Many organizations that start out at the grassroots level morph into referral-pushing bureaucracies. Instead of immediate help, workers get a referral to an overtaxed agency that will invite them to stand in line to request assistance then stand in line again to get it. Their office becomes a little too plush and the staff becomes a little too professional. Soon the people they exist to help don't feel comfortable going to them.

The coalition doesn't give referrals; they tackle problems in-house. Or not. Members of the organization may or may not be able to resolve the issues that arise, but they can examine the problem together and try to come up with solutions together, says Kissam. And that makes all the difference for people who feel like they're disconnected from the rest of society.

The coalition acts as a remover of obstacles, says Payne. They've removed the obstacle of being unable to communicate and work together. They've removed the obstacle of the stigma Americans place on agricultural workers, and they've removed the obstacle of perceived powerlessness.

"The coalition has overcome all of these obstacles," says Payne. "As a community the workers have begun to stand up for themselves and define who they are."