The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Fast for Fair Food (Part 1 of 6)

From March 5-10th I stood with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Lakeland, Florida; the event named: The Fast for Fair Food. 61 individuals fast for 6 days in hopes of swaying the heart and mind of Publix, a supermarket chain located in the southern US. I joined the CIW in asking Publix to sit down at the table with farmworkers who pick the tomatoes sold in their stores, ultimately arriving on someone’s table. Since 2001, ten corporations have signed with the CIW (including Taco Bell, McDonalds, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Aramark, etc) with the Fair Food Agreement, committing to a code of conduct, and living wage. “A penny more per pound. Un centavo mas!” is the motto. The folks of the coalition are mostly brown immigrants, fighting for justice in the heartland of white male capitalism, and they are WINNING! Consciousness + Commitment = Change (CIW slogan). In 2010, the CIW signed an agreement with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to implement a fair code of conduct effecting over 90% of Florida’s tomato industry. Instances of cruelty, disrespect, degradation, and sexual assault can now be reported and changes made.

During the fast, one of the farm workers, missing a week’s pay to attend the event, explains normal day. He sits at ease on the Home Depot truck and speaks to us in Spanish, followed by a CIW staff member translating his words into English. As a day laborer, he arises at 4:30AM to look for work. He and others, if chosen, are brought to their designated field to wait for the sun to rise and for the dew to evaporate. Tomatoes cannot be picked during this pre-dawn time, and the farmworkers await their call to work, unpaid. At the call of the overseer, he gets to work. He picks each tomato off the vine, placing it in his plastic bucket. He then sprints the distance to a truck, hauling the bucket on his shoulder. He throws the bucket to the overseer, standing on top of the truck. This man judges the fullness of the bucket, either accepting or rejecting the tomatoes; these men can be particularly harsh on workers they dislike through inconsistent opinions on what “enough” tomatoes. If the bucket is cleared, it is returned back to him empty, and he sets off on another dash. The usual allotment of pay for this work is approximately 50 cents per bucket. This means one person must approximately carry 153 buckets of tomatoes in a 10 hour work day to receive a minimum wage!

Outdoor manual labor can be exhausting in Florida’s climate, reaching up to 90-100 oF. During the summer months many grow tired and seek refuge under the shade of a tree. The man, continuing to share his story, says the overseer says they will be fired if they continue resting. The man shares an experience, often heard in relation to agricultural workers, regarding pesticides. It is a day when one of the chemicals is sprayed on a row adjacent to the area where he is picking, becoming a fume. It covers his body, and fills his lungs. Again the overseer tells our storyteller to stay put. Afterwards, his skin burns for a week, along with many others.

Our speaker continues by sharing the story of other farmworkers who were forced into a situation of modern day slavery. He shares how twelve men were locked in a truck at night and worked the fields during the day. These men were forced to pay an overseer for food, drink, and sanitation, which was later used as a reason to refuse their departure. One night, one of the men punched a hole in the truck and ran to the CIW. The two overseers are now in jail for a long time. Before the CIW, corporations held no accountability to cut off their business to these growers. It shows how rampant degradation of people can lead to these more extreme cases of outright slavery.

The CIW changes the lives of people in the fields. The members of the coalition, farmworkers, represent people with value, who have dreams of a better future, love their family, and have brilliance to share with the world. The CIW encourages those in corporate boardrooms, to look farmworkers in the eye and acknowledge them as fellow human beings. They change the lives of allies, another name for active supporters of the CIW, by fostering camaraderie, diversity, shared learning and collective growth.

The CIW continues to be led by the coalition – by the people it strives to serve. Even after so much success, it still makes sure, first and foremost, that their needs are reflected in campaign goals and strategies. It’s a bilingual community helping to break down the walls of language by embracing, rather than recoiling, from moments of misunderstanding. Every speech is translated; every voice that enters with humility is heard.

I spent one week actively working with the CIW as an ally. I learned first hand, about their values and pursuit for justice, and I became a part of their struggle. I knew many faces, and grew to love their daily consistency, even when their names eluded my memory. Everyone at the event arrived there by different paths, for different reasons, and took away different lessons from the experience. Despite the variety, we stood together for 6 days to fight against injustice, and to fight for a community based on mutual respect and cooperation. The days filled with art, music, and passion. Alongside the CIW, I fought for change, while simultaneously creating an alternative space.

In one week
I learned
In one week
I cried
In one week
I was rejuvenated

For more information about the CIW and videos of the Fast for Fair Food: http://ciw-online.org/

For more information about The Campaign (Alliance) for Fair Food: http://www.allianceforfairfood.org/about.html

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