Labor Day Lesson: Coalition of Immokalee Workers Turn Tables For Migrant Workers

With Labor Day just a few weeks away and badly in need of an event to celebrate, an historic agreement was signed on August 24. Written in legalese, the statement commits Sodexo, a gigantic global food service company employing some 500,000 workers to partner with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a tiny organization of some 4000 members, to respond to “consumer demand for sustainable food” and to join forces to “improve farm worker wages and working conditions” in the pivotal tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida.

This agreement binds Sodexo in the U.S. to ensure that 1.5 cents for every pound of tomatoes served in thousands of US cafeterias in jails, hospitals and schools goes directly to a fund controlled by tomato workers. This extra penny and a half per pound virtually doubles their piece work rates and raises their income for backbreaking labor to something like $70 a day.

Though the agreement does not cover Canada, it is only a matter of time before Toronto plays the central role it played during the 1960s campaign on behalf of California grape workers. Since most imported produce sold across Ontario comes through the government-owned Ontario Food Terminal, it’s a sitting duck for any campaign to set standards for access to one of the most lucrative and socially progressive markets in North America.

And the CIW now has mainstream supermarkets clearly in their sites. They’ve won over the strongholds of fast food – including Taco Bell, Yum Foods, McDonalds, Burger King and Subway – and the three monopolies (Sodexo, Compass and Aramark) providing most cafeteria services across North America. They’ve already signed up Whole Foods, are in the midst of a campaign with another leading niche player, Trader Joe’s, and will soon have the clout to go after the 800 pound gorilla, Wal Mart, the biggest purveyor of conventional and organic food in the world.

The tomato workers’ organization, which self-identifies as a community organization rather than a union (if only because unions of farm workers are illegal in the U.S.), and which charges membership dues of two dollars a year, picked up more than tomatoes in the days since its founding in 19993. CIW has a few things to teach unionists across Canada and the industrialized world about how seemingly powerless groups of workers can take on the global giants of today’s economy and live to tell the tale.

There’s a new labor force in town, employers of casualized labor – perhaps a third of the workforce across North America, covering people from barristas to part-timers piecing together 40 to 50 hours of work a week in multiple dead-end jobs — should take note. A quick review of the CIW organizing methods provides a glimpse into a possible labor future based on a savvy and complex understanding of how to play the few cards that have been dealt some of the most disadvantaged people on the planet – the tomato workers of Immokalee are mostly Indigenous peasants from Mexico and Guatemala, sending their pay back to families desperate for any cash — the kinds of people ill-suited to the bureaucratic style and substance of conventional unions.

Without the whining characteristic of Canadian union progressives or the childish self-indulgence of black blockhead types, CIW leads from strengths – asset-based, is the word used around charitable foundations – and works calmly, peacefully and with complete dignity to overcome isolation from mainstream populations and win them over to the justice of their cause.

Early CIW leader Lucas Benitez remains one of the few to understand the two paradoxes of vulnerability barely-visible beneath the sheer heft of giant global food corporations. With the martial arts skills of turning the opponents’ weight against them, he became a giant killer by working with what he called the “boomerang effect.”

The ultimate paradox is that the power of global food corporations is imaginary and depends almost entirely on branding. Though thousands of new formulations of junk food are introduced each year and logistics of supply chain management are mind-boggling in their intricacy, in the last analysis food corporations don’t rely on innovation with distinctive new products the way computer, auto or entertainment industries do. Just as the soda can or plastic bottle costs more than the soda inside, so the brand is worth more than the knowledge and materials contained in the soda. Consequently, a good kick in the brand is both easier and more effective than a doomed-to-failure kick to the groin.

Secondly, the very volume that food giants deal in means that very small improvements in margins add up very quickly. By adding 1.5 cents to a pound of tomatoes that net ten times that in sales when cut into slices, fast food burger joints can almost double the income of tomato workers – a major motivator to any group of consumers who want to do the right thing if it’s relevant.

In 2001, the CIW launched a boycott of Taco Bell, the largest fastfood chain in the world, selling to 35 million people a week. Since CIW is not a union, it is not bound by US law banning “secondary boycotts.” The tomato workers’ beef, according to the logic of the law, is with the owners of tomato fields, not the “innocent bystanders” who buy the tomatoes – with enough corporate clout from aggregate buying to drive the price of every input to the bottom.

No doubt, CIW organizers appreciated the delicious irony of taking on a company that made its name by appropriating Mexican food staples and symbols, and by featuring subsidized U.S. corn and related staples; it was the cheap price of these exports to Central America that drove peasants there off the land and made it necessary for youth to travel to the U.S. to find work as day laborers.

Over the course of the Taco Bell campaign, the CIW appealed to faith and student groups to see the suffering behind the formerly anonymous fast food supply chain, and asked them to organize themselves to back the boycott. By 2004, faith groups such as Interfaith Action marshaled 36 per cent of Yum Foods (Taco Bell’s owner) stockholders to vote for fair conditions in the tomato fields, while students in the Student Farmworker Alliance engineered bans on Taco Bell in more than 20 high schools and universities.

The CIW is not only comfortable working with independent citizen groups, it knows its way around the electronic block. At virtually no cost for staff or equipment, it organizes tours of its Museum of Modern Slavery almost entirely through facebook, which, not to put too fine a point on it, puts a human face on food. During campaign peaks, the CIW website gets a half million hits a week, not a match for Justin Bieber but a good show by social movement standards.

Those familiar with the CIW way of working – be it the respect for independence of coalition members, the engrained pacifism and deep spirituality of CIW events, or the refusal to be cowed or even defined by the power of wealthier opponents – recognize the signature teachings of the Zapatista, a major force among Indigenous peoples of central America.

But the CIW watchword, “consciousness plus commitment equals change,” is as imposed by necessity as chosen by ideology. The slogan fits the fact that tomato fields are hiring new workers all the time, so the reserves of knowledge among them must be deep. The same is true for relations with consumers, one of the safeguard of worker rights in the coming era.


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