by Whitney Stewart and Ben Wright
One, we are the people,
Two, a little bit louder,
Three, we want justice
Fo(u)r farm workers!
These words of protest rang out from thousands of farm workers and activists who paraded along the streets on a warm, sunny March day. Farm workers and organizers, students and professors, rabbis and ministers; people of seemingly every stripe walked together with banners and floats from Bartlett Park to Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg, Florida. Organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the first Parade and Concert for Fair Food celebrated the achievements of the movement while also calling for greater change in the nation’s agricultural sector.
The CIW has earned the praise of nearly every major human rights organization in the United States. Their Program for Fair Food, according to President Bill Clinton, is "the most astonishing thing politically happening in the world we’re living in today." On January 29 of this year, Secretary of State John Kerry awarded the CIW the 2015 Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons. At the ceremony, Kerry praised the CIW, claiming, "They’ve helped uncover and investigate several farm slavery operations across the southeastern United States … Over the past 15 years, 9 major investigations and federal prosecutions have freed more than 1,200 Florida farmworkers from captivity and forced labor, with the coalition playing a key part in the 7 of those operations. And the coalition has effectively eradicated human trafficking in the farms that participate in their Fair Food Program."
The CIW began as the Southwest Florida Farmworker Project. After the SFFP joined with Greg Asbed of Florida Rural Legal Services, they renamed themselves the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. In the late 1990s, CIW members began to boycott certain abusive tomato growers. Tomato fields have been a site of particularly brutal exploitation. A former U.S. Attorney called the tomato fields "ground zero" in the fight against modern slavery in the United States. In April 2001, the CIW organized a daring rescue mission for workers enslaved in Lake Placid, Florida. In 2008, the CIW again worked with law enforcement agents to prosecute traffickers in South Florida. But the solution to human trafficking, according to the CIW, is not simply more prosecution. Instead, the farm workers are focusing on the demand side of the problem through the creation of the Fair Food Program.
Beginning in 2001, the CIW organized a student boycott of Taco Bell. Because of student pressure, twenty-two colleges kicked Taco Bell off their campuses. After four years of pressure, Taco Bell agreed to cooperate. Emboldened after this victory, the CIW continued to press additional companies with great success, winning concessions from other fast food restaurants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle, and Subway. With the help of students pressuring their campus dining services, the CIW then set their sites on catering companies, developing relationships with Sodexo, Aramark, Compass Group, and Bon Appetit Management Company. Grocery store chains also drew their attention, and the following companies also joined the Fair Food Program: Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and, most impressively, Wal-Mart.
The Fair Food Program includes two key provisions. Corporate partners agree to what is called the Fair Food Premium, which amounts to one penny per pound of tomatoes. The premium is then distributed as a line-item bonus on workers’ paychecks. So far, the FFP has resulted in over $15 million in direct payments to tens of thousands of farm workers living in poverty. The second provision requires corporate partners to purchase tomatoes only from growers that pass muster with the Fair Food Code of Conduct, requiring fair labor practices. The Fair Food Standards Council conducts thorough audits of growers’ fields, interviewing at least half of the farm workers, as well as all levels of management and a thorough financial evaluation. The result has been a complete overhaul of the previously deeply exploitative industry. Over the past fifteen years, seven cases of forced labor slavery have been successfully prosecuted, resulting in more than 1,000 people freed from slavery in U.S. tomato fields. Sexual harassment, wage theft, and verbal abuse have declined radically as well.
According to Janice R. Fine, professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, the Fair Food Program is "the best workplace-monitoring program in the United States."
Yet two major holdouts remain; Publix and Wendy’s still resist this important human rights effort. In the hopes of bringing more attention to this, the March 21 parade led participants in front of both a Publix and Wendy’s location, halting to chant at the unfair food practices of both chains. The parade culminated with the Concert for Fair Food, a free event that featured nationally recognized musical acts including Ozomatli, La Santa Cecilia, Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics, and more. Music was not the only attraction. Drawing on the tradition of Latin American folk art, the CIW commissioned a piece from artist Alec Dempster. The CIW wrote and performed a theater piece describing their origins. Local restaurants provided an assortment of food from tacos to Ethiopian cuisine. And merchandise like t-shirts, arm bands, bags, and buttons were available for purchase.
This combination of art, education, and goods for sale might sound familiar to a scholar of nineteenth-century abolition. Anti-slavery fairs were some of the most important, inclusive events of the abolitionist movement. Often organized by female anti-slavery societies, these fairs raised awareness and funds to help support the larger movement. The organizers recognized the real power that consumption held over middle-class Americans, and they sought to use consumerism to benefit the anti-slavery movement. They offered many kinds of goods, from books to statuettes to photographs. These were not just simple, homemade goods. Refined objects attracted the attention (and pocketbooks) of refined ladies and gentlemen. In 1857, Charlotte Forten—then a young woman teaching in Salem, Massachusetts— described the Boston Anti-Slavery Fair as having "many beautiful articles" from which to choose. Lectures, theatrical performances, panoramas, and musical acts supplemented the consumption-driven fairs, providing more opportunities for visitors to learn and engage with the anti-slavery movement. Nineteenth-century anti-slavery fairs were meant to educate, inspire, and support the abolitionist movement, and the CIW Concert for Fair Food and other events like it build on this tradition.
The CIW has much to celebrate, but their work is not complete. Drawing on past victories and allied with student activists, the fight against slavery in the tomato fields now turns to the corporate leaders at Wendy’s and Publix. HAS scholars and students are encouraged to join the movement and learn more at ciw-online.org.