If you build it, they will come

Over the years, we at Real Food, Real Jobs have built partnerships with organizations and individuals across the food system.  From students to consumers to workers, we are constantly meeting new partners in our work for food that is truly sustainable. 

One of the most inspiring examples of that work is taking place in a region that—just 20 years ago—was about as far from “inspiring” as one could imagine.  At the edge of the swamp in Southwest Florida, farmworkers harvested tomatoes for a piece rate that hadn’t changed significantly for decades.  On top of earning sub-poverty wages, they endured systemic abuses in the fields, lack of access to necessities such as water and shade, and had no NLRB protections under which to organize for a union.  Such conditions created an environment that was all-too-hospitable to the most egregious of human rights abuses, modern-day slavery.

Enter the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  Formed in the early 90s by a group of farmworkers—largely immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti—they’d had enough mistreatment for what they knew was valuable work.  The CIW started “small,” organizing three community-wide work stoppages.  5 of its members participated in a 30-day hunger strike.  Workers marched 230 miles in the March for Dignity, Dialogue and a Fair Wage.  And while they made small advancements in and around Immokalee, it wasn’t yet enough.  Growers still held on to the past.  “The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run its farm,” they said. 

In 2001, the CIW shifted its strategy.  Partnering with students, people of faith, and consumer allies, they brought their fight for justice out of the fields and streets of Immokalee, onto campuses and into sanctuaries across the country.  The Campaign for Fair Food called on major buyers of tomatoes—those corporations responsible for squeezing every last link in the supply chain, right down to the workers—to pay one more penny per pound for their tomatoes to improve workers’ wages.  It called for a code of conduct in the fields to prevent abuses, and, perhaps symbolically most important, it called for a dialogue.  A place at the table for farmworkers who had, for too long, been denied a voice.

The Campaign for Fair Food resonated with consumers, who recognized their very real power in making corporate giants tremble.  One after one, they fell, beginning with Taco Bell.  McDonald’s.  Burger King.  Whole Foods.  Subway.  Bon Appétit, Compass Group, Aramark and Sodexo.  Trader Joe’s.  Chipotle.

The unprecedented success of the Campaign for Fair Food gave rise to the Fair Food Program, itself unparalleled in the world of social responsibility and oversight.  Never before had a corporate responsibility program been built from the ground up by the very workers who would benefit from its implementation and strength.  Never before in the history of Florida agriculture had there been very real consequences for those growers who would turn a blind eye to the violations of their workers’ basic rights.  The Fair Food Program—and the Fair Food Standards Council, the independent monitoring body responsible for its oversight—has received accolades from the likes of the White House, the United Nations and countless others.  But the real measure of its success is at the most micro of levels.  It comes from workers themselves, who remark on the new level of respect and dignity that they experience at work: “Things are better since you are at the farms – you must keep coming back.”

That brings us back to the title of this post.  “If you build it, they will come.”  As the Campaign for Fair Food continued making the figurative notches in its belt, the CIW and their allies always believed that, one day, the movement they were building would be so strong, and so effective, that the victories would mount even without sustained corporate campaigns.  Just last month, that dream became a reality.  But what was astonishing to even those who had been organizing around the campaign from the beginning was exactly who came to the table.  On January 16th, Wal-Mart—a corporation that is, in the words of Mexico’s La Jornada, “one of the most anti-labor in the country”—brought its tremendous power and influence into the Fair Food Program, without even a single picket outside of its stores.  No consumer postcards.  Not even a letter to encourage them to do so.

The CIW built the Fair Food Program.  And they—”they” being some of the most powerful and influential corporations in the world—have come.  It truly is a New Day for farmworkers.

Of course, in true form, the CIW is aware that work remains to be done.  Holdouts such as Publix Supermarkets and Wendy’s continue their entrenched resistance to the inevitability of the aforementioned New Day.  The Campaign for Fair Food soldiers on, and we can all still participate in this piece of history in the making by organizing in the Student/Farmworker Alliance‘s Boot the Braids campaign, or catching up with the “Now is the Time Tour” as it travels throughout the South- and Midwest this March, making major stops in Columbus, OH and Lakeland, FL.

Publix and Wendy’s, the time is now.  The tides are changing in the fields, and truly for all American workers.  Because once a corporate behemoth like Wal-Mart recognizes the basic dignity of farmworkers, the sky is the limit for all of us—for all workers—in our ongoing struggles for justice, dignity and respect. 

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