Jordan Buckley

Reflections of a Transformed Warrior

Hart Viges is a 30-year-old peace activist and Iraq veteran whose antiwar organizing has carried him from classroom presentations in Texas high schools to Camp Casey near President Bush's ranch, from street protests in New York City and Washington, D.C., to a joint march of solidarity between Iraq veterans and Hurricane Katrina survivors along the Gulf Coast.*

Viges just came back from a whirlwind, two-week speaking tour across Ireland on behalf of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which concluded earlier this month, as well as demonstrations at the national meet-up for Halliburton shareholders.

WireTap Magazine spoke to Viges about his transformation from a warrior to a peace activist, and what he thinks supporting the troops should mean today.

WireTap: Why did you enlist?

Hart Viges: I enlisted because of 9-11. You know, a threat was imminent on American soil, and I needed to be part of its solution.

WT: Where did you serve during those 11 months?

HV: I served with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C. My time in Iraq I spent in As Samawah, a couple of weeks in Fallujah and the remainder of that time in Baghdad.

WT: Why do you think you, among tens of thousands of others, were shuttled off to Iraq by our government's leaders?

HV: Why? For money, and that's the pure truth of it. War really doesn't help anyone out -- it's not helping out the Iraqis, it's not helping out the soldiers that are going over there. It's just more money gained for a strategic hold in a region of the world that we're all dependent on -- and that's oil. It's business.

WT: Were there moments in Iraq when you questioned your mission?

HV: I didn't feel I had much of a say in it. I didn't see an escape while I was there. Basically just do my job and make sure everyone comes home safely. I remember in Kuwait for the first month we were there, waiting for the order to go in, I go to the porta-potty and write, "Of course Saddam has weapons of mass destruction -- we gave them to him."

I came back, and there were at least 20 other comments, 'Fuck you,' 'What are you, some crazy liberal?' and 'Russia gave them the weapons of mass destruction' -- that was my favorite one. I really didn't question it -- at the time I didn't really care if they had weapons of mass destruction or not.

When we came into Iraq, they were cheering us, 'Yes, Bush! No, Saddam! Yes, Bush! No, Saddam! Having guys come up to our position with no ears because they refused to fight in Saddam's army and just seeing the poverty of that country, I felt we were actually doing a good service for them by disposing of that leader. But those cheers faded after a while, when I guess they realized we weren't leaving and no changes were really coming into view for them.

WT: When did you start to oppose the war in Iraq?

HV: When I came back home, I was planning on going out for Special Forces. I wanted to be a more useful tool in fighting the war. I saw the regular Army not doing hardly anything to help the situation in Iraq, so I wanted to switch up to a more specialized unit, but when I came back home on leave, after serving a year in Iraq, I just remembered how it was here. It was a culture shock because being over there, I just really forgot what it was like in America. To see how we lived as opposed to how people live in Iraq. This is a choice. These are choices we make that can either bring us this peace or that war.

That kind of struck me pretty hard. And then I met my current girlfriend, and she basically questioned me -- she confronted me pretty harshly at first. When we first met, we just argued, argued and argued. What she really laid into me was -- question why. Are you really looking at the big picture here? Again, I was still holding on to "we got rid of Saddam." But as a soldier, you're given an order and you do it. You don't think about it. That's hesitation, and hesitation can kill you, so that was pretty much stripped out of me.

Once I got a little more history of what the United States government has done and why, through questioning, it raised my eyebrows and started me on a path towards this [opposition to war]. Then I saw "Passion of the Christ," and I consider myself a Christian, and everything Jesus said has no justification for war whatsoever. That really catalyzed my beliefs of what am I doing in the military as an infantry guy with my core beliefs being "love your enemy", "turn the other cheek", and "pray for those who persecute you." That was a turning point, those two weeks when I got back from Iraq.

WT: Were there moments in Iraq when you felt that what you were asked to do contradicted the purported ideals of the United States?

HV: Absolutely. We ran into some guys with some RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) near a water treatment plant outside of Baghdad, and they got away. So we went back in with some reinforcements asking questions. When Saddam was in power, if you had a problem with your neighbor, you just told the police that this guy said something bad about Saddam, and they'd come arrest him with no proof, and they'd take him away and torture them.

Well, when we were in this village asking where the people were with RPGs, we get led to this little farming house. And we get out, myself and another soldier, to check their little huts and see if there's any RPGs, explosives, multiple AK 47s -- anything that would denote armed resistance towards what we were doing there.

The only thing I found was this little .22 pistol, probably something to scare off thieves. Nothing to go up against the United States Army, yet we still arrested these two young men of that family with no proof. I told my sergeant, "Sergeant, I don't think these are the guys. I know. I had my sights on one of them. I saw his face." He was like, "Oh, don't worry. These are other bad guys."

It just didn't seem right. It didn't seem right at all. Their mother was crying hysterically. She was at my feet, trying to kiss my feet, kissing my cheeks and my face -- just pleading. It just wasn't right. I don't see any difference between what we did that day and what happened when Saddam was in power: just going into a house on just some words said by a guy who probably has something against this family, having no proof, arresting them on no proof, and they probably ended up at Abu Ghraib or some other prison where they were abused by some asshole MPs (military police). I don't see any difference.

WT: Why do you think other veterans should be involved in organizing for peace?

HV: If you get in touch with your conscience, and you know what you've done, getting involved in peace and justice is, in a sense, redeeming. It's therapy. It allows you to vent your frustrations. It gives you a voice because people are going to listen, and talking is about one of the best things you can do to heal yourself.

WT: What do you feel are the strengths of the antiwar movement?

HV: It's growing. More people are coming out when they see acts of courage like massive rallies or a grieving mother outside of a ranch in Texas.

I think we can end the war in a month. It would just take the choice of everyone -- everyone who is against the war -- to go to D.C., or their respective capitols, and jump up and down. Everyone. And not leave the place. Over half the country is against this war.

I love to talk about this scientific experiment with these schools in California where they had every kid in elementary school get up from their desks and start jumping up and down, all at the same time. This sent tremors that were felt in Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, all throughout California, of course -- from little kids jumping up and down. And if everyone against the war came to one place, if everyone against the war took a week off and went to D.C. and jumped up and down in front of the capitol, or in front of the White House, it would fall down and we'd create change.

This is a fight. This is a battle that we are engaged in, in the peace movement. It is the tools we use that make it different -- of what the results will be at the end. They use weapons and fear, we use courage and words.

You have to make a sacrifice. You have to understand that you are connected with everyone on this planet, and you are apart of it. Your silence will not protect you. We can stop this.

WT: What have you learned from talking to students in the high schools?

HV: That they think 9-11 had something to do with Iraq. We have these polls and people put stickers on whether they think we should get out of Iraq or stay in Iraq. Last time about 36 students put "get out." At first, six put "for the war." When people put "for" I would ask them, "Why should we stay in Iraq?" And a lot of them said, "So they won't bomb us again."

But there are a number of students who also are about making some change and talking about issues. It's just a matter of getting recruiters out of schools. If you can't trust a kid under 21 to drink alcohol and yet you can put a gun in their hand, it's pretty ridiculous. And for any 17-year-old kid to be harassed by recruiters when they really don't have a full world view in their heads yet … they are easily intimidated by a big old recruiter wearing a uniform, swaggering around. It's bullying on ignorance. It's just really, really sick.

When we (Veterans for Peace) were marching down the Veterans Day parade, a group of about 30 junior high kids -- all black and Latino -- were wearing desert camouflage, marching, as part of their ROTC program. My god, man. And we got on to Saddam for having the junior Fedayeen, his kid army. He was recruiting kids from junior high-level and training them. He actually had them with assault rifles and mortar systems. But really, what's the difference?

Here, you still have the mentality for them to have that assault rifle and mortar system, but when they get out of high school. It's just really, really sick militarizing our kids like that.

My sister just had a kid. They are thinking of having some of my toys be given to him. And I have a bunch of GI Joes. "Maybe he would like playing with these when he's older?" (imitating his sister). And I'm like, "Fuck no! This is a gun. This is a tank. But do you know what this does to a human being? Do you know what this 50 caliber does to a human body? And to play with that?"

I'm not saying ban GI Joe -- I don't think you'd solve anything by making it illegal, but just understand the implications of putting a toy gun into the hands of a kid. What are you telling him? What's he learning by going "bang, bang" at his friend? You know I did that, and I'm not going to blame my life on GI Joe, but it was definitely indoctrination into the military.

The last nightmare I had, that I remember, it was horrible -- my nephew was all grown up and he was going into the Army. I've thought about that for a couple of days now, and I've fantasized about how I would go about it if I got a call from my sister saying your nephew has decided to join the military. God forbid my nephew is going to serve in the military. No, no. I'll drive up there and rip his body out of the arms of those recruiters. I'll go straight into that center and I'll wear my colors, my military jacket, let them know that it ain't gonna happen. My nephew is not joining up, no way.

WT: What are some of the objectives of the group Vets for Vets?

HV: Vets for Vets is nonpolitical. Who cares if you are for or against the war; it's just a place for Iraq veterans and Afghanistan veterans to talk and say whatever you want. We'll listen. Everyone takes their turn talking. If you want to talk, great. You don't have to talk if you don't want to. Everyone listens. No one judges. No one tries to recruit you to one point of view or the next. It's just a place for veterans to talk to other veterans because everyone, even myself, comes back here and finds themselves disassociated with everyone here. They feel like they can't talk to them about what they experienced. They feel alone. Vets for Vets is a place where they can come and talk.

Not every guy or girl can tell their parents or their friends stories from Iraq. They won't understand. Or they don't want them to know what they did. And it's really rough. It's really rough for veterans to come back and find themselves, and especially when they're out of the service or even when they're in. You are like the alien. You have your own type of language. Even still, at work, I'm around all these people, and they're not like me. They don't understand.

WT: What does it mean to you to "support the troops?"

HV: Well, it's not leaving them out there to die. It's taking care of them. It's nurturing compassion that I see as support, and that includes fighting for the right to not be used in a war that's based on lies. It's fighting for them to come back home to their families and friends, and eat home cooking, to be with their wife or girlfriend or husband or boyfriend. Those are the people that take care of them the most. The Army doesn't. To them they're just property of the United States government.

Texas Youth Fight the War Aimed at Them

A suburban packed full of high school students barreled south toward the Mexican border Tuesday, and while several of the same gaggle of youth had missed classes the week before -- then marching nearly nine miles through the Texas heat from their campus to the state capitol in protest of proposed immigration reforms -- this time around, their absence is excused.

Today, they will present on their dynamic involvement within the so-called "counter-recruitment movement" at the Women and War Conference hosted by South Texas College in McAllen, situated six hours from their home in Austin.

Seldom are teenagers invited to speak at collegiate academic conferences, but the Youth Activists of Austin (YAA!) are growing accustomed to blazing new trails. YAA! -- a citywide coalition of mostly high school-aged social justice enthusiasts -- have drawn broad attention to what they argue are the unacceptable practices of military recruiters within their schools.

Indeed, the pervasive misconduct of military recruiters on a national scale spurred the U.S. Army Recruiting Command to declare a one-day abstention from pursuing enlistments last May, instead allowing them to "refocus on their values."

In January, YAA! unleashed a new campaign to urge the Austin Independent School District (AISD) to follow the lead of other school districts across the country by placing reasonable restrictions on the on-campus activities of military recruiters.

Recently, grassroots campaigns in a number of towns have resulted in policy changes. In Tucson, Ariz., students must initiate interactions with recruiters and not the reverse; in Princeton, N.J., recruiters can only meet with students in the presence of guidance counselors; in Madison, Wis., recruiters are limited to three high school visits a year, and guidance counselors are required to provide information to students on alternatives to military service.

Spurred by these reforms and abuses they had witnessed firsthand, YAA! members drafted a ten-point platform outlining policy changes that they determined fair and necessary to ensuring healthily maintained schools. They began by attending AISD board meetings and relaying their concerns to administrators en masse.

One plank of their proposed platform -- banning military hardware from campuses -- stems from recruiters' attempts to seduce enlistees through the use of spectacular technical equipment, which functions as aggressive advertising for military service and the war rather than examples of technological achievement with academic merit, YAA! argues.

Recently, Travis High School, a predominantly lower-income and nonwhite school located in southern Austin, was visited by one of the Army's Cinema Vans -- a multimillion-dollar 18-wheeler containing highly sophisticated war simulation video games. Educators there informed students that they had to "sign up" for the van to get credit for P.E. class -- a move which put the students' personal information in recruiters' hands, thereby better enabling them to contact these students individually and convince them to enlist.

Other components of YAA!'s proposed platform include: requiring recruiters to check-in at the front office and wear a name tag upon every campus visit, requiring parental consent for administration of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, allowing students to "opt-out" of releasing their personal information to recruiters while remaining eligible for contact from universities, and forbidding recruiters from classroom and school assembly presentations unless the content of their speech is directly applicable to class curriculum.

For YAA! member Timothy Bray, a senior at Westlake High School, the latter plank responds to an episode at his school where administrators afforded a military recruiter a gymnasium filled with captive audience members to mark Veterans Day.

But in addition to navigating the traditional channels for institutional change, YAA! also operates on a number of different fronts to raise consciousness about (and to consequently interrupt) recruiters' quest for youthful enlistees.

After recruiters plotted a visit to Austin Community College in December, YAA! members hung a banner from the roof of one of the schools' buildings that read "Homophobic War Recruiters Off ACC!" -- the recruiters relocated to another campus only to be confronted there by dozens of quickly mobilized counter-recruitment activists.

YAA! has elicited media attention for staging "read-in" protests outside of the AISD headquarters. The "Better Well-Read Than Dead" vigils alert passersby to YAA!'s opposition to unduly aggressive campus recruitment while reinforcing the group's top priority -- fair access to education.

Likewise, later this month YAA! will launch the "Enlightenment not Enlistment Program" whereby students may trade in military recruitment literature mailed to their houses at local participating bookstores to receive a 10 percent discount on purchases.

On Saturday, YAA! will reveal their newest tactic to combat those trying to put them in a war zone -- Protest-in-a-can. The ready-to-go kit easily fits in a locker and contains all necessary materials to demonstrate against recruiters' sudden presence on a campus: a banner, tape recorder, chant list, media call list and counter-recruitment literature. The cans will be piloted in two high schools before possibly being amended and reproduced for further use throughout Austin, says LBJ High School freshman Kate Kelly.

Already, YAA! appears to have made real advances in their campaign with AISD. The school district's attorney, Mel Waxler, has disseminated YAA!'s platform to the principals at all of AISD's 12 high schools and will soon make a recommendation of reforms to the board of trustees based on YAA!'s proposal.

Until then, YAA! remains poised to continue countering the government's efforts to shuttle youth abroad for war-making -- whether it takes them to the school district headquarters, their schools' hallways, the city streets or the riverbanks of the Rio Grande.

Criminalizing Humanitarian Aid

Last July, volunteers from a coalition of human rights, faith and student activists in Arizona were arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol during the rescue of three critically ill men attempting to cross the border.

No More Deaths -- founded in the spring of 2004 as a binational network of "migrant-friendly" groups and people on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border -- describes its organizational mission as seeking "to end the suffering and deaths of migrants in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands."

In the last decade, upwards of 2,000 individuals have died traversing the desert. The Coalicon de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition) calculate that at least 282 migrants lost their lives between Oct. 1, 2004, and Sept. 30, 2005 -- the time period used by the U.S. government as its fiscal year -- along the Arizona border alone.

As part of the group's humanitarian aid patrols, No More Deaths members Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss encountered a group of eight individuals braving the 105-degree heat this summer. They soon discovered that three of them were suffering several potentially life-threatening afflictions: dehydration, persistent vomiting, bloody diarrhea, heat exhaustion and severe blistering on their feet that restricted them from walking.

After consulting a pair of doctors, a certified nurse practitioner and an attorney, Sellz and Strauss resolved to evacuate the men to Tucson where they could receive immediate medical care. They never made it there.

En route to treatment, their vehicle was pulled over by Border Patrol agents who promptly arrested Sellz and Strauss and took into custody, then deported, two of the migrant men. Amnesty International reports that the other man, Emil Hidalgo-Solis, "was detained for two months as a 'material witness' in the case and deported without a hearing after he had made a videotaped statement" used for the government's pursuit of criminal charges against Sellz and Strauss.

According to Bates Butler, former U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona, during the men's detention no one "received medical attention, although the No More Deaths volunteer doctor and nurse went to the Border Patrol to examine and treat them. The Border Patrol turned the nurse and the doctor away." Unfortunately, the No More Deaths run-in with immigration law enforcement remains poised to inflict more injustice -- even beyond the cruel medical neglect of the ailing men and their expulsion. The aid volunteers -- whom Hidalgo-Solis credited in his deposition as being responsible for his survival -- are currently confronting severe penalties for their intervention.

Sellz and Strauss, both 23 at the time of their arrest, have since been indicted by a federal grand jury on two felony counts -- "transportation in furtherance of an illegal presence in the United States" and "conspiracy to transport in furtherance of an illegal presence in the United States." If convicted, each will face up to 15 years of imprisonment in addition to fines possibly totaling $250,000.

Shortly after releasing Sellz and Strauss, U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton proposed a plea bargain to the two defendants. In exchange for acknowledging guilt for their actions, the duo would have been spared incarceration. They refused. Instead, they proclaimed what has since become a prominent refrain in their campaign: Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime.

Among the all-volunteer legal team defending Sellz and Strauss is former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley G. Feldman. However, No More Deaths' strategy for thwarting Sellz' and Strauss' imprisonment is not confined to placing political heavyweights in the courtroom; indeed, they have also launched a campaign to mail signed postcards to Charlton's office demanding that he drop all charges against the two. Although they initially pegged their goal at 10,000, Pancho Medina, a No More Deaths volunteer, says they have already delivered close to 30,000 postcards to the U.S Attorney's office.

This Sunday, No More Deaths members and their allies will conclude a rolling 40-day fast that coincided with the seasons of Passover and Lent and included more than 100 participants. The fast aims not only to both remember and honor the thousands of individuals who have lost their lives in the desert, but to also highlight the dangerous laws and policies that foment their needless deaths.

While the xenophobic fervor of the so-called Sensenbrenner bill (PDF) has (rightfully) fixed our national attention on prevailing anti-immigrant forces within Congress, we too must be vigilant of the fight for a humane immigration policy within the judicial realm.

Sellz' and Strauss' case has been postponed multiple times. So when Arizona officials decide to finally take it to court, likely in the coming months, we too must stand prepared to halt this reckless precedent -- the criminalization of humanitarian aid to those in need -- from taking root.

Shaking of the Golden Arches

[Editor's Note: A correction has been appended to this story.]

Employers can respond in a number of ways to a worker's request to inspect unpaid hours.

For farmworker Santiago Garcia, a Feb. 25 attempt to seek compensation for time worked allegedly prompted his crew boss at M.E.D. Farms in southwestern Florida to punch him repeatedly in the face, then brandish a foot-long knife and threaten him with it.

Two days later, Garcia reported the incident to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) -- a vibrant, grassroots community group comprised of thousands of primarily migrant farmworkers. The multiple award-winning CIW has become internationally recognized for their struggle against the ongoing human rights crisis within US agriculture today.

In 1996, following a similar instance of a crew leader attacking a worker, 500 farmworkers in Immokalee demonstrated at the front steps of the accused contractor's house. A decade later, the CIW has retained the same logic and tactic, but their battle -- to hold individuals accountable for the exploitative labor practices that facilitate their profit making -- will soon transport them to a new site of protest: McDonald's World Headquarters near Chicago, Illinois.

Later this month, the CIW will launch a three-legged caravan entitled the "Real Rights Tour" that will shuttle scores of farmworkers from one of the nation's most impoverished communities -- Immokalee -- along with their urgent plea for justice in the fields, to the corporate offices of the largest restaurant chain on the planet. In particular, the CIW insists on fair wages, a seat at the negotiating table and a reasonable code of conduct founded upon universally-accepted labor standards.

Last Wednesday -- the one-year anniversary of the historic Taco Bell Boycott victory, which after four years resulted in the CIW winning a sizable wage increase, the right for farmworkers to participate in the protection of their own labor rights as well as unprecedented supply chain transparency -- the CIW unleashed news of the Alliance for Fair Food, a powerhouse consortium of supporters devoted to their cause of revolutionizing the agricultural industry.

Significantly, the Alliance -- which formally unifies the Presbyterian Church (USA), NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, United Students Against Sweatshops, Grammy Award-winner Bonnie Raitt, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, author Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) and Amnesty International U.S.A. among many others -- commits not only to organizing with the CIW in their campaign against McDonald's, but indeed until total abolition of the cruel status quo afflicting U.S. agriculture today.

As outlined in the Alliance's founding document, farmworkers are paid a rate that has not risen substantially in almost 30 years. They regularly work with "no right to overtime pay, no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid vacation or pension, and no right to organize in order to improve these conditions."

The ugliest manifestation of systemically oppressive labor relations, however, remains as modern-day slavery. Five separate farmworker slavery rings have been uncovered, investigated and prosecuted since 1997 through the remarkable work of the CIW. All in all, their efforts have resulted in the liberation of more than a thousand individuals forced to work against their will in U.S. farm labor camps.

The emergence of the Alliance is crucial as the showdown between the Golden Arches and Immokalee activists may very well be determined by the strength (or liability) of each side's allies.

McDonald's' principal compatriot is the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA), the lobby group of the state's agricultural growers. Together, they have crafted a counter-proposal to the CIW's call for real reform, deceivingly dubbed "SAFE": Socially Accountable Farm Employers. The SAFE proposition largely asks that growers heed existing labor laws and excludes consideration of wage increases.

Jay Taylor, FFVA's Vice-Chairman in 2005, recently admitted to the St. Petersburg Times that regarding the creation of SAFE, "I have to give CIW credit for bringing this issue to the forefront. We're being brought into the 21st century in the labor relations arena." Yet, while including representation of a few farmworker advocacy and charity groups, SAFE has revealingly shut out the CIW -- the state's only group actually led by farmworkers with extensive expertise in labor and human rights -- from their programs' development and implementation.

Troubling for McDonald's and farmworkers alike, Frank Johns -- FFVA's Chairman in 2004 -- has recently become ensnared in controversy related to the suspected enslavement of workers on one of his farms. In June, federal agents stormed the labor camp and soon after indicted one of the camp's crew leaders Ronald Evans Sr. in an attempt to halt what officials have described as "modern-day slavery." Evans, who worked for Tater Farms (owned by Johns), now awaits trial for more than 50 charges.

Despite Evans already having been charged with operating a crack cocaine ring at the labor camp, and possibly soon facing charges for the trafficking of humans, Johns nonetheless declared in July, "I'd like to think our operation is a little above average and I think Ron Evans is an above-average leader."

Similarly, McDonald's has also drawn fire for the return of Abel Cuello, a convicted slaver, to the fields of a key grower in McDonald's' supply chain. Labor rights advocates argue that in our modern economy multinational corporations like McDonald's not only possess the economic muscle necessary to purge unethical employers from their line of produce acquisition, they also bear the moral responsibility.

Cuello -- who, in 1999, was incarcerated for holding 27 people in involuntary servitude near Immokalee -- has reportedly returned to overseeing farmworkers in the employ of Ag-Mart Farms*. According to J.M. Procacci, whose company owns Ag-Mart, sales of grape tomatoes have risen steadily since 2003, and as reported in the New York Times last year, he specifically "attributes a significant part of the gain to McDonald's."

The battle lines are forming. On the one side, you have McDonalds and FFVA growers fighting to keep what could be called "just standard fast food fare." But on the other, there are the farmworkers and their increasingly determined allies confronting this system, shaking it up and remaking it anew, in essence demanding instead "just and fair food standards -- fast."

In an era of both slavery and Big Macs, time will only tell how long Ronald McDonald and company can continue to clown around with the suffering of those who supply their tomatoes.

*[Correction: March 17, 2006. The following statement has been disputed by the Law Offices of Allen, Norton and Blue that represent Ag-Mart Produce, Inc., "[Abel] Cuello -- who, in 1999, was incarcerated for holding twenty-seven people in involuntary servitude near Immokalee -- has reportedly returned to overseeing farm workers in the employ of Ag-Mart Farms."

The law offices provided this statement, "Abel Cuello does not currently provide field labor to Ag-Mart Produce. While he did work as an hourly field employee for Ag-Mart Produce prior to last fall, such work was under the direction of E&B Harvesting & Trucking, Inc. ("E&B Harvesting"), an entity which established Cuello's wage rate for the agricultural labor he provided. At all times, Ag-Mart Produce's payments for farm labor contracting activities were made payable to E&B Harvesting. For each week that he did provide field labor activities on the property of Ag-Mart Produce, Cuello's wages were deducted from the commission payments paid to E&B Harvesting."]

Slavery Beneath the Golden Arches?

Exactly 50 years ago this weekend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. answered a startling phone call from Minneapolis Tribune journalist Carl T. Rowan. Rowan had come across a wire report that the Montgomery bus boycott -- then entering its sixth week -- had been resolved by city officials and local black ministers.

The announcement would, of course, prove to be a fabrication of local authorities, and the boycott would endure another 11 months, resulting in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Alabama's bus segregation laws.

Today -- in the face of a recent revelation that McDonald's appears to buy its tomatoes through at least one convicted slaver -- the fast food giant has resorted to a similarly shameful tactic: taking token measures to avoid confronting the severe human rights abuses that may be hidden within its supply chain.

Since 1997, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) -- a community group from Southern Florida representing thousands of farmworkers -- has uncovered, investigated and helped to prosecute six separate slavery cases. In 2003, three CIW members were awarded the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their work in liberating over 1,100 individuals involuntarily held in agricultural work camps along the East Coast.

Last November, CIW called upon McDonald's to partner with them in confronting the violence and subpoverty wages of modern-day farm labor. McDonald's complicity in farmworker misery is not only emblematic of the industry as a whole, but its substantial clout as a fast-food monolith qualifies it as an apt candidate for working to end the extreme injustice.

Farm labor contractor Abel Cuello is just one of the slavers brought to justice by the CIW. In 1999, he was sentenced to only 33 months in prison for enslaving 27 people in trailers on his property. Due to a loophole in Florida law, a contractor is entitled to return to work just five years after being convicted for violating worker-protection laws. Accordingly, in October, Cuello legally returned to the fields.

In his contractor license application dated Oct. 8, 2004, Cuello stated that his job is to "recruit, supervise, [and] transport farm workers for Ag-Mart Farms." Although Ag-Mart claimed that Cuello has been banned from the company's premises, it employs E&B Harvesting and Trucking Inc., the company that Cuello launched just months after release from prison, and that his wife, Yolanda, presently serves as the sole owner.

Gregory Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth, Fla., who has spoken with scores of Ag-Mart farmworkers, insists that Cuello -- and not Yolanda -- works as E&B Harvesting's crew boss for Ag-Mart. "His wife has never been seen in the fields by the crew. He [Cuello] runs the operation," Schell said.

So who buys tomatoes from a man convicted of human enslavement? The answer seems to lie beneath the Golden Arches.

J.M. Procacci, chief operating officer of the company that owns Ag-Mart, told the New York Times last year that nationwide sales of grape tomatoes had increased by 25 percent since 2003, and that specifically "he attributes a significant part of the gain to McDonald's."

Yet, McDonald's -- despite the fact that last year Ag-Mart received notice of 457 pesticide violations from North Carolina and Florida agricultural officials (along with fines totaling $294,500) and was subject to state investigations after severe birth defects were found in three babies born to its farmworkers -- continues to buy tomatoes through Ag-Mart. Even the notoriously anti-labor Wal-Mart has reacted by terminating its tomato purchases from Ag-Mart.

But the point isn't that McDonald's should discontinue buying from Ag-Mart; the industry on the whole is similarly terrible. While slavery is the extreme of labor abuses in agriculture, sweatshop conditions are the norm. Farmworkers must pick two tons of tomatoes -- literally 4,000 pounds -- to earn just $50 in a day. They regularly work 10- to 12-hour days with no overtime pay, no right to organize, no sick days and no benefits whatsoever.

McDonald's could use its market power to work with farmworkers in ensuring fair and humane working conditions in the fields. Instead, it has thrown its support behind an initiative controlled by growers called Socially Accountable Farm Employers, deceptively abbreviated "SAFE."

Just as Montgomery city officials bluffed a resolution to bus segregation (due to the subsequent boycott) on Jan. 21, 1956, so too in 2006 has McDonald's sidestepped the appearance of a convicted slaver in their supply chain by proclaiming allegiance to SAFE.

Furthermore, a number of curious coincidences have led many to rightfully question McDonald's very involvement in the creation of SAFE.

First, SAFE hired CBR Public Relations to handle its media work -- a company that not only lists McDonald's as one of its major clients and garnered McDonald's nationally coveted Best Bets award in 2001 for excellence in press work, but also lists "activist response management" among its areas of expertise.

Second, SAFE has hired the auditing company Intertek to verify its companies' certification, interestingly the same firm already used by McDonald's for its own monitoring.

Third, according to SAFE spokesperson Ray Gilmer, of all the businesses that purchase tomatoes from Florida -- among them supermarkets and sit-down and fast-food restaurants -- McDonald's remains the lone company to publicly support the SAFE initiative.

Regardless of whether McDonald's worked to covertly concoct SAFE, its existence (as in the case of the false settlement in Montgomery) nonetheless enables the company to evade truly rectifying the grave realities demanding resolution -- the intolerably cruel system of farm labor that sustains its profit-making. It's an evasion tactic that failed in apartheid Alabama 50 years ago and will fail today.

If semi-centennials are honored with gold, then on the anniversary of the historic Montgomery bus boycott -- and white supremacist Southern officials' inability to suppress it -- it is incumbent upon the Golden Arches to embrace this golden opportunity to work with the CIW in abolishing the industry's horrific exploitation of farmworkers.


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