CIW shows Publix and the public atrocities facing Florida farm workers and how to change them

TAMPA — First came the tomato pickers, bending at the knees and hunched over with the weight of the burdens placed upon them. Then came the people of faith, arms and eyes raised to the sky hopefully. And then those seeking food justice, with the community, students and youth behind them, stomping, yelling, chanting, dancing for justice.

All of it was part of a pageant organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) for their “Do the Right Thing” march and rally on March 5th in Tampa, where half the Publix executives live, according to the CIW. The pageant was not based on fiction, but rather the real issues Immokalee farm workers face.

The “Do the Right Thing” campaign has been leveled at the grocery store chain Publix in response to Publix spokesperson Dwaine Stevens’s statement in December that “if there are some atrocities going on, it’s not our business.” The CIW has argued that the atrocities Stevens alluded to — abuse, enslavement, poverty and sexual harassment — are the business of any company that buys tomatoes from Immokalee, including Publix. They have worked with several corporations to form an agreement pledging to better working conditions for the farm workers and a one cent increase per pound of tomatoes of the the workers’ salaries. As of press time, Publix has not signed on the agreement, despite CIW efforts.

Hermelinda (who did not giver her last name), an Immokalee farm worker, briefly described a typical day at work, stating, “We start at six [a.m.] and don’t get a break until 11 [a.m.] We have to wait until 200 pails of tomatoes dry so we can get off work. And we only get paid about 55 cents per pail of  tomatoes.”

While a big part of the CIW campaign is pushing for an increase in the workers’ salaries, they are equally committed to ensuring humane treatment and working conditions. Alexis Herrera, who has been working with the CIW since 2004, said that since they began working toward those ends, they have had many major corporations sign on with them, including Burger King, McDonalds, Taco Bell and Wholefoods.

“It’s time for Publix to stop denying their part in what’s happening in the fields of Florida, because every major corporation, every grocery store, food service provider, fast food restaurant, all of them rely on the work of people who pick the produce,” Herrera said. “So they need to take care of the people who are supporting them … Publix needs to pay a penny more per pound, they need to agree to a code of ethics and they need to come to the table for a dialogue, so the workers can actually have a decision in how it is that they live their  lives. They’re fighting for dignity and for justice. Publix needs to understand that we’re not going away until they meet our demands.”

The CIW has organized multiple rallies in an effort to bring Publix on board with them. The March 5th rally began with four groups of farm workers, students and members of the community marching from different Publix locations in Tampa to a street next to the Publix on 1313 South Dale Mabry Highway. The longest march began at approximately 10:45am from a Publix six miles away from the convening point. The marchers held up signs, chanted for justice and hollered with enthusiasm every time a passing vehicle honked to show support for the cause. Organizers made sure the journey went smoothly and dealt with less supportive drivers who honked for the large group to clear out of the large intersections they crossed.

People from many different states were at the rally, including Kim Daley, a student at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. “Duquesne, for the past 20 years, has been to Immokalee to work with everyone down here,” Daley said. “I’m here to support the CIW and farm workers, and would like [Publix] to sign on with the campaign.”

At 2:00 p.m. all the marching groups arrived at West Watrous Avenue off Dale Mabry. There, the tired marchers got a second wind, pumped up by the support of several hundred others. Organizers standing in the back of a truck guided the crowd in more chanting as they circled. A few people came on the truck to play music and sing lyrics with social justice themes.

On a stage set up on Watrous, speakers addressed the crowd. Reverend Russell Meyer, Executive Director of the Florida Council of Churches, represented one of the churches that were at the rally and have been working with the CIW. He reminded those present of Publix founder George Jenkin’s words, “Don’t let profits get in the way of doing the right thing.” Meyer gave his view on why Publix had not signed on with the CIW, saying, “I don’t believe that Publix has forgotten [those words], or that they’re ignoring us. There’s only one word for this: arrogance.”

After the speakers, Son Solidaridad (We Are Solidarity), a music group from Los Angelas, sang on stage while the crowd danced with impressive energy despite having marched for hours in the midday heat. After this, the pageant began.

A large poster was held above the stage, depicting a Publix executive with the Publix “P” logo for a head and Steven’s quote in a bubble beside it. In pairs, people came up on stage holding puppets that  portrayed the atrocities the CIW has been campaigning to resolve. Many of the marchers were involved in the pageant, making up either the farm worker, faith, food justice, community, or students and youth group. The farm workers sat in front of the stage holding cardboard cutouts of tomatoes in buckets. One by one, the other groups came on stage and spoke about their support for the CIW. As each group came on stage, one of the atrocity puppets was reversed to show how that injustice could become a new hope instead. By the time all the groups had spoken, the puppets instead read: dignity, respect, freedom and fair wages.

The Publix executive poster was unceremoniously taken down, and the crowd once more began singing, stomping and dancing.

“A quote that the CIW loves to throw out, and it’s a very powerful quote from Ghandi, is, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,’” Herrera said. “And this is what we’ve seen with every other target that we’ve taken on: first they’re going to ignore us, then they laugh at us — and I feel that’s the stage [Publix is] at now. They’re responding with this, ‘Oh, the workers aren’t that important, it’s not a big deal, it’s not our problem.’ But we’re here to let them know that it is their problem, it’s their responsibility and that we’ll continue to be here until they recognize that and address the issues.”

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