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Victory: Trader Joe's Signs Fair Food Agreement, Promising Better Conditions for Workers

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers's agreement with Trader Joe's is a significant step forward its efforts to bring fairness and accountability to the food industry.

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

On Thursday, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers announced it had signed a Fair Food Agreement with Trader Joe’s, a significant step forward its efforts to bring fairness and accountability to the food industry.  “We are truly happy today to welcome Trader Joe’s aboard the Fair Food Program,” CIW’s Gerardo Reyes said in a joint statement issued by CIW and Trader Joe’s.  “Trader Joe’s is cherished by its customers for a number of reasons, but high on that list is the company’s commitment to ethical purchasing practices.”

The same statement, which the company has  posted as a letter to customers on its website, hails Fair Food as "a groundbreaking approach to social responsibility in the U.S. produce industry that combines the Fair Food Code of Conduct...with a small price premium to help improve harvesters' wages." Trader Joe's did not respond to a request for further comment.

But it wasn’t long ago that activists were carrying “Traitor Joe’s” banners, and Trader Joe’s was  condemning Fair Food Agreements as “overreaching, ambiguous, and improper.”

Trader Joe’s' reversal follows a months-long campaign. As Michelle Chen has  reported for In These Times, it included "Trader Joe’s tours” last summer that picketed stores, educated consumers, and met with allies along the East and West Coasts. 

In Boston, a group of fifth graders organized a rally outside a store. In New York, activists held a 1.6 mile run between two stores. The announcement of the settlement came on the eve of two planned days of coordinated protest pegged to the grand opening of Trader Joe’s' first-ever Florida location. That store, the company’s 367th, is located on Immokalee Road in Naples, 35 miles from the fields where the CIW was born.

CIW announced Thursday that Friday's and Saturday’s demonstrations, planned for Naples and 32 other cities, were being cancelled or replaced with actions targeting Fair Food holdout Publix instead.

CIW is a workers’ organization that partners with faith, labor, and consumer groups to push improvements in farm workers’ working conditions and voice on the job. It’s part of a growing trend of labor activism that takes place outside of the protections and restrictions of the National Labor Relations Act. CIW’s Trader Joe’s agreement is the latest in a series of victories achieved through comprehensive campaigns that leverage consumer and media pressure at strategic points in the tomato supply chain. 

CIW achieved national prominence during its multi-year boycott of Taco Bell, which successfully forced the fast food giant to absorb the cost—a penny per pound—of modest labor reforms for workers in the fields. The three other largest fast food chains later followed suit.

CIW took the momentum from these victories—and the promise of an extra penny—and turned its focus to the growers who directly employ tomato growers.

As Kari Lyderson has  reported for In These Times, agreements with major growers in 2010 mean that 90 percent of U.S. tomatoes come from growers who have signed Fair Food agreements. CIW estimates that more than 10,000 farm workers are now covered by these agreements. They include basic standards on wages and working conditions as well as a complaint procedure, independent auditing, and meetings between workers and management to monitor compliance. CIW is currently training farm workers on their rights under Fair Food Agreements, and how to enforce them.

Following its agreements with fast-food chains and growers, CIW turned its attention to another point the tomato supply chain: supermarkets. For these companies, signing a Fair Food Agreement means a commitment to absorb the penny-per-pound cost, source tomatoes only from growers that are complying with a Fair Food Agreement, and meet with CIW regarding compliance. Absent buy-in from supermarkets, CIW warned, growers that are currently abiding by Fair Food Agreements could violate them in the future, secure in the knowledge that noncompliance would not cost them supermarket business.

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