Tomato Pickers Harvest Labor Justice in Florida

By Michelle Chen Oct 08, 2009

If someone offered to carry your groceries home, you’d probably thank them. But every day, a typical migrant farmworker in Florida could gather over two tons of tomatoes for America’s supermarkets and fast-food joints and be thanked only with sheer poverty. The immigrant workers who toil in Florida’s farm “sweatshops” are finally getting their due. Following a series of collective-bargaining agreements with major restaurant chains, the Florida-based Coalition of Imokalee Workers has scored a victory against the trade association that has for years blocked wage increases for tomato pickers. The Coalition has reached a breakthrough agreement for a higher per-pound pay rate with two firms, the food service company Compass, and East Coast Growers and Packers. Through media campaigns and grassroots organizing, the CIW has pressured corporate behemoths like Burger King and Whole Foods to agree to pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes, which would ideally be passed directly onto workers through the production chain. But the weak link has always been the resistance of the region’s major tomato producers, led by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. But with the buy-in from Compass and East Coast Growers, that extra penny may finally start to trickle down to tens of thousands of farmworkers whose earnings have reportedly remained flat for decades. Sean Sellers at Labor Notes reports that the new agreement will help move the farmworkers—who are mostly of Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian descent—toward “a guaranteed minimum fair wage":

This means an extra 32 cents per bucket for tomatoes harvested under the Fair Food agreements, a raise that ranges from 60 to 80 percent depending on where a worker is employed. Average wages for a Florida farmworker are about $10,000 a year currently. Second, the agreement provides a framework to improve working conditions at the farm level. Suppliers are now required to cooperate with the CIW to improve wage and hour record-keeping, to establish employee-controlled health and safety committees, to create a worker grievance system, and to permit third-party auditing for full transparency. Significantly, the CIW is allowed to conduct worker education on company time and property.

The CIW has already laid the foundation for an activist infrastructure in the fields, rallying marginalized immigrant communities to make noise in the media, the streets and the courts. The CIW has sued exploitative employers under anti-trafficking laws, launched their own radio station, and won allies ranging from Gourmet Magazine to the Department of Labor. The activism surrounding the Florida tomato pickers bring together issues of food production, labor and immigration—all politically fraught policy arenas that the Obama administration is poised to shake up in the coming months. Whether lawmakers are contemplating community-oriented agriculture initiatives or immigration reform, they can look to the plight of migrant farm laborers as a barometer of success or failure. If activists, officials, corporations and consumers each recognize their role in the food system, the country might finally start showing real gratitude to the workers who feed us every day. Image: Coalition of Imokalee Workers via flickr