While the lingering summer humidity swelled, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) pedaled onward. On Aug. 26th, the Coalition, along with Interfaith Action Network organizers, set forth on a 200 mile Critical Mass bike trek from Immokalee to Lakeland in order to demand that Publix support fair labor practices in Florida’s tomato fields. The “Pilgrimage to Publix“ is an effort that culminates over two years that the “Campaign for Fair Food” has been waged against Publix.
“Publix has been handling a lot of this dispute through their [Public Relations] department,” said Margaret Gleeson of Interfaith Action Network. Riding bikes seemed like a good way to get Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw’s attention. “This makes sense because that’s how farmworkers get around in Immokalee. It sends a clear message . . . farmworkers can’t even afford cars.”
The CIW is asking for one more penny per pound of tomatoes picked, along with an agreement to a code of conduct for humane labor practices in the fields. This penny adds up to a 32-cent increase per bucket of tomatoes (currently farmworkers earn 50 cents per bucket), which can bring an increase of over 100 dollars a week in pay. The code of conduct would provide for workers to be able to track their work hours by clocking in and out, a shaded area for feeling faint from the heat or eating lunch and oversight for the sexual abuses and harassment that occur in the fields.
The campaign utilizes a lot of the community connections that the CIW and Interfaith Action Network have been building for over a decade in Southwest Florida. These connections include students as well as churches and faith-based community leaders.
“Students at New College have been involved with the campaign for over ten years,” thesis student Andrea Ortiz, who has been involved with the Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA) since her first year at New College, said. “[The CIW] is determined to make connections with community members,” Ortiz explained. “New College has been a legitimate enough ally to recognize that the relationship has to be long term. Also, the CIW just loves coming to New College.”
“It felt really empowering, a lot of people really want to make a change,” first year Megan Shea said about the protest held at the Publix on 41 and 10th St. last Thursday. “I had a vague idea that farmworkers weren’t treated that great, but I never knew exactly what was going on… it’s made me more conscious of where I buy my food and where my food comes from. When you buy tomatoes you don’t think about who picked them, but it really does make a difference.”
New College President Gordon “Mike“ Michalson expressed his support for the CIW’s campaign and the active student involvement. “Students have provided very important positive support to migrant workers, which is an easily exploited population,” Michalson said. “When it comes down to cash value, what it would cost for a big entity to do something that would vastly improve the lives of migrant workers – the cost never, to me, seems that high for the benefits it would produce. The role of public conscience that our campus introduces to all of this is a positive feature of New College ethos.”
“With fast-food and foodservice leaders on board, Publix’s continued rejection of the Fair Food advances establishes a dangerous example for the supermarket industry that threatens to undermine these landmark yet fragile gains,” stated the CIW’s press release, which referred to the gains made by the code of conduct, which farmworkers have only recently been seeing in effect. Publix, as a pillar of the supermarket giants, is a crucial target for the CIW. While Whole Foods has already signed the agreement, corporations such as Wal-Mart and Kroger will look to Publix as the example.
“These are all are fragile advancements, and Publix is putting them in danger by not signing,” Gleeson said. “We have been calling on them to put their purchasing power behind the code of conduct. They said they don’t want to sign the agreement, and that’s why we are doing this event. Will Mr. Crenshaw accept? He hasn’t decided. He hasn’t said if he’ll meet with us or not, but we’ll be there.”
“It’s a surprise to me that [Publix] seem to be a bit of a holdout,” Michalson said. “Dialogue never hurts.”
Oscar Otzoy, a farmworker and CIW member, described Publix’s continued disaccord with the code of conduct. During the heavily publicized slavery case that came out of Immokalee in 2008, companies who had signed on with the CIW’s condition of a zero-tolerance policy for human rights abuses stopped buying from the growers involved.
“Publix continued to buy from fields where slavery had taken place,” Otzoy said. “We are asking Publix to take their purchases away from fields that abuse human rights.”
According to Publix supermarket spokeswoman Shannon Patten, Publix is willing and able to pay the penny, if it is included in the price they purchase from the suppliers. “Publix is unaware of slavery in our supply chain,” Patten explained over a telephone interview. “We would never support a violation of human rights.” Publix claims that tomatoes are just one of over 35,000 products sold in their stores, and that they have an official policy of not getting involved in “the labor disputes of our suppliers.”
“If anything, this is one of the largest labor agreements – it’s a collaboration, a partnership, between corporations, suppliers and workers,” Jordan Buckley of the Interfaith Action Network noted.
Publix said they have no power to change what happens in the fields, and that “[workers] should go to the authorities if they are mistreated, because that is against the law.” Publix also stated that they are unaware of workers receiving anything less than minimum wage, and that if they are not, then they should simply “change their job.”
Speaking in a meeting with members of the First Presbyterian congregation, Otzoy pointed out the irony of Publix’s business practices. “Publix supports fair trade coffee, why?” A churchgoer read off of a Publix Greenwise Organic Fair Trade Coffee package. “Because fair trade is only fair: fair trade prices allow small farmers to provide livable wages and working conditions, which fosters the same values we do: community well being and a nicer world.”
Buckley noted that the “Campaign for Fair Food” is asking for Publix to participate in fair trade practices in its purchases of tomatoes from suppliers.
After two annual marches to the Publix’s Lakeland headquarters, the CIW returned on Sept. 6 amid dozens of church folk who wanted the same thing the farmworkers do – morality in corporate practices. They extended an invitation to Crenshaw, asking him to visit and see the working conditions in Immokalee’s fields with his own eyes. Check for an update at CIW-online.org.