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Fast for Fair Food: Farmworkers Fast so "Our Children Won't Have To"

The choice to fast is both an evocation of the history of farmworker activism and a moral choice, made to highlight the poverty the workers face.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Coalition of Immokalee Workers

 
 
 
 

In a sunlit field in Lakeland, Florida, outside the headquarters of Publix Supermarkets, a group of around a hundred and fifty clergymembers, farmworkers in blue T-shirts, and community members have been holding vigil since Monday, March 5. And about sixty of them haven't eaten since then.

The Fast for Fair Food is part of a campaign by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, one of the country's most innovative labor-rights organizations, to get Publix to join the CIW's Fair Food Program, guaranteeing better conditions and pay for the thousands of workers who pick the tomatoes sold in the grocery chain's more than 1,000 stores across the South.

Publix prides itself on being an “employee-owned” company, which its website explains means that “Publix associates – as a group – own more shares of stock than any one stockholder – 49% to be exact.” It's number 102 on Fortune's 500 largest American corporations, last year it raked in over $1.3 billion in profits, and was ranked number 78 on the list of “best companies to work for.” Yet for three years it has balked at providing a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked for the workers who spend 10-hour days in the Florida sun, or complying with the Code of Conduct that would ensure conditions on the farms—still grueling, even with their new protections—don't include forced or child labor, or sexual harassment.

Fresh from a victory in their campaign to get Trader Joe's to sign up for the Fair Food Program, CIW and its interfaith allies took a page from legendary organizer Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, and decided to undertake a fast outside of Publix's headquarters, calling for the company—which prides itself on its Christian values--to acknowledge its moral obligation to the workers whose labor allows it to profit.

Every day thus far, Publix employees have driven past the fasters, who sometimes sit on the red buckets that they fill with tomatoes in the fields. No one has yet stopped to speak with them, let alone indicate that the company might relent. But each day a few more of them wave, or honk their horns in support. Each day a few more of them acknowledge the signs that say “You are Human, So am I.”

Fasting for Justice

The signs the fasters carry, the banner under which they hold the vigil, declare, “We go hungry today so our children won't have to tomorrow.” It's a poignant reminder of the real struggle of the workers, who even with the CIW's Fair Food Program, still make poverty wages and have little job security.

“All the cars that pass by, they give us a lot of motivation when they wave at us and honk,” Eduardo Saustino Galindo, a farmworker who has been part of the campaign for fair food since 2005, told AlterNet through a translator.

The choice to fast is both an evocation of the history of farmworker activism and a moral choice, made to highlight the poverty the workers face and the fact that they are responsible for putting food on the tables of millions—without these workers, people would not eat. Also, Galindo noted, “Our fast corresponds to the Lenten season,” as many of the workers are Catholic. “It's true that we're hungry but because of the cause, because we're trying to get the public to listen, we have a lot of energy,” he continued.

They have the support of a broad coalition of religious leaders, many of whom are also fasting in solidarity with the workers. Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy, as well as their daughter Kerry, will meet with the workers on Saturday, March 10, to symbolically break their fast—just as RFK, then a candidate for President, did with Cesar Chavez in 1968.

Many members of the interfaith community have been blogging their experiences, reaching out to their respective traditions and explaining why they chose to fast. Rev. Noelle Damico, a member of the Presbyterian Hunger Program from White Plains, New York, wrote Monday: 

“It is hot. Searing hot. There isn’t quite enough shade for all the fasters so another tent is being erected. Even necessary tasks turn into opportunities for community. Laughter, string, where to stake? Which way will the wind blow? A good question in more ways than one…”

CIW has also undertaken an innovative social media campaign, posting pictures, videos, and regular updates under the hashtag #fairfoodfast on Twitter, and holding a Wednesday afternoon Twitter chat with Rev. Michael Livingston, former president of the National Council of Churches and current director of the NCC's Poverty Initiative, Gerardo Reyes of the CIW, and Rev. Damico (read the whole conversation on Storify). Online petitions at Presente.org and the National Council of Churches also help broaden the reach of the campaign. Despite working in 19th-century conditions, the workers of the Coalition have been able to amplify their protests through a solid web presence. 

The coalition is known for its creative actions, dramatizing the refusal of giant, profitable corporations to speak to the workers. Recently, three of the farmworkers offered to ride bicycles from Immokalee, where they work in the tomato fields, to Publix headquarters in Lakeland to extend the CEO, Ed Crenshaw, a personal invitation to come see their working conditions himself. While Crenshaw and the higher-ups at Publix continue to avoid facing the workers, they are getting increasing support from Publix employees—who, as stockholders in the company, might be able to help the farmworkers get their message across.

“We're hoping that Publix will agree to meet with us, that God may soften the executives' hearts,” Galindo said.

Making Food Fair

During the day, the participants in the Fast for Fair Food have been holding workshops on social justice, sharing their collective knowledge. They've heard from a small farmer, from members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and from members of clergy from various faiths, discussing the message of social justice woven through all of their respective scriptures. Their protest isn't unlike a small Occupy encampment, claiming space and visibility while working together to create a vision of a system that works for all.

But, of course, the CIW has a very definite request to make of Publix: they want the supermarket giant, which is Florida's largest corporation, to join the Fair Food Program. “Their refusal to participate anchors the resistance of the supermarket industry as a whole,” Oscar Otzoy of the CIW said.

Faster Shannon Gorres, a seminarian from Kansas, explained why the campaign is targeting Publix in particular:

Ten corporations have agreed to this Code of Conduct, but Publix has negated, denying their responsibility to agree to fair food. By refusing to agree, they are sending pressure down the supply chain and threatening to undo some of the gains the Coalition has won. Because they buy in bulk and want the cheapest price, there is pressure on the growers (companies that sell the produce to the supermarket corporations) to get the cheapest labor possible. And if Publix refuses to agree to the Fair Food demands, they will continue to buy produce from growers in whose fields abuses are still happening.

“Despite the fact that we are human beings that harvest the tomatoes sold in the stores, they nonetheless deny our humanity,” Galindo said. “We work incredibly hard under the hot sun, in the heat, the cold, the rain. It doesn't bother me that it's hard work, the problem is that the wages are incredibly low and there's lots of mistreatment.”

Publix has consistently repeated the same arguments against joining the Fair Food Program, arguing that it is inconvenient to pay the extra for the workers, claiming that it isn't incorporated into the price of the tomatoes (it is, as a premium similar to how other fair trade products are priced), and accusing the workers of lying about their working conditions and wages, citing minimum wage laws that don't apply to the farmworkers, and claiming ignorance of recorded instances of actual conditions of slavery at Florida tomato growers.

In a point-by-point rebuttal of the supermarket giant's arguments, the CIW pointed out that “Florida tomato harvesters are still paid by the piece. The average piece rate today is 50 cents for every 32-lb bucket of tomatoes that workers pick. At the current rate, a worker must pick more than 2.25 tons of tomatoes to earn minimum wage in a typical 10-hour workday – nearly twice the amount a worker had to pick to earn minimum wage thirty years ago.”

The Fair Food Program incorporates retailers like Publix, fast food restaurants like McDonald's and Subway, as well as the tomato growers themselves, making all levels of the food supply chain accountable for the conditions of the workers at its base. Recently, the CIW came to a historic agreement with the Florida Tomato Grower's Exchange to join the program, improving wages and conditions for over 30,000 workers across the state. But Publix and other supermarkets' refusal to join and pay the premium shorts the workers and relies on others to regulate working conditions, while they take no responsibility for the products they sell. Other corporations, including Yum Brands, Burger King, Whole Foods Market, Bon Appetit Management Company, Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo, and most recently Trader Joe’s have taken that responsibility by signing on to the program, and the workers retain hope that Publix will relent and be the next to do so.

The workers will break their fast on Saturday, but their fight for better treatment goes on. They simply want to know why Publix doesn't live up to the words of its founder, quoted recently in an interview by CEO Crenshaw himself: “Don’t let making a profit stand in the way of doing the right thing.”

 

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.