“Safe events” to commemorate César Chavez don’t create change.
It’s the season to honor César E. Chávez and his legacy of labor activism on behalf of farm workers. However, many of the contemporary Chávez celebrations really don’t do justice to Chavez’s work and legacy. Some communities sponsor symbolic marches, and in one case (Tucson), a bike ride. Others sponsor Chavez breakfasts or dinners. One university-student group promotes cleaning up local parks and volunteering for the United Way as a means to honor Chávez.
While well-meaning, “safe” events like these don’t create change. Chávez died while fighting on behalf of farm workers who were unionizing to combat shameless exploitation. To honor Chávez’s legacy is to learn and practice the lessons inherent in his activism. The contemporary movement by tomato pickers is a good example of that. Here’s some background to put things in perspective.
Florida tomato pickers: a force to be reckoned with!
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), works to obtain better wages and safer working conditions.
In 2011, Florida tomato pickers, under the auspices of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), set up the Fair Food Program (FFP), a vehicle to obtain better wages and safer working conditions. The FFP establishes partnerships among the tomato pickers, the growers, and retailers who use or sell tomatoes. Under the FPP, participating companies (retail stores, restaurants) pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes. The tomato growers then pass on the fruits of this increase directly to workers as a line-item bonus on their regular paychecks.
But the FFP is not just about wages. As is detailed below, the CIW is internationally recognized for its work in fighting human trafficking, indentured slavery, and gender-based workplace violence. The CIW established a Fair Food Code of Conduct that addresses issues such as better pay and zero tolerance for sexual harassment and conducts worker education sessions on the Code of Conduct. A third-party monitor, the Fair Food Standards Council, ensures compliance with the FFP. The council conducts regular audits and investigates and resolves worker complaints, including farmworkers’ allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
Taking a page from the César Chávez-led United Farm Workers Union (remember the lettuce and grape boycotts?), the CIW works with consumers to pressure the agricultural industry to improve working conditions. The CIW asks consumers to buy only from food sellers who have signed legally-binding agreements to purchase tomatoes solely from growers with no outstanding issues involving wage theft, trafficking, or sexual harassment. These growers, designated as “Fair Food Farms,” comply with auditors and participate in worker-education programs that ensure that farm workers can work without fear of violence and in a work environment characterized by respect and dignity. Walmart, Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, Burger King, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Subway, and Yum Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, A & W, Long John Silver’s) have all signed on. The Wendy’s hamburger chain has not. [More on this below.]
Is CIW’s approach working?
Florida’s tomato industry boasts some of the highest labor standards in American agriculture.
As a frame of reference: virtually the entire membership of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange– representing 90% of the industry–is participating in the FFP. The CIW reports that between January 2011 and October 2018, over $30 million in Fair Food premiums were paid into the program, benefiting about 35,000 workers, primarily in Florida (but also in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey). Before the advent of the FFP, wage theft and violence in Florida’s tomato industry were common, rampant even. Since the implementation of the FFP, Florida’s tomato industry boasts some of the highest labor standards in American agriculture. (Source 1)
Susan L. Marquis, dean of the Pardee Rand Graduate School in Santa Monica, Calif., wrote a book about CIW’s work (“I Am Not a Tractor!: How Florida Farmworkers Took On the Fast Food Giants and Won,” Cornell University Press, 2017). She notes that, “They’ve already been successful in a measurable way at effectively eliminating modern-day slavery and sexual assault, and greatly reducing harassment.” (Source 1)
Journalist Bernice Yeung reports that in the program’s seven years, 35 supervisors have been disciplined for sexual harassment, and 10 have been fired and that the program’s most recent annual report notes that during the 2016-17 growing season, more than 70 percent of participating farms reported no incidents of sexual harassment. She quotes the report as saying that, “Cases of sexual harassment by supervisors with any type of physical contact have been virtually eliminated.” (Source 3) As a frame of reference: A 2010 study showed that 80% of farm working women said they experience sexual harassment. (Source 4)
The CIW’s work in this regard is widely recognized. The Harvard Business Review recently commented: “Consider the Fair Food Program, which leverages farmworker and consumer pressure to demand that food buyers, like fast-food companies, demand that their food suppliers take harassment and other workplace abuses seriously.” (Source 2) The United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights describes the FFP program as a “smart mix of tools” that “could serve as a model elsewhere in the world.” (Source 1) At the end of this article is a sampling of the national and international recognitions the CIW’s work has received. Note that several of the recognitions focus on CIW’s work to combat indentured servanthood and modern-day slavery.
Susan L. Marquis says the CIW has been successful in effectively eliminating modern-day slavery and sexual assault, and greatly reducing harassment.”
In 2005, after a four-year battle, the CIW won a significant victory when it got Yum! Brands Inc., the world’s largest fast-food restaurant corporation, to participate in the Campaign for Fair Food, FFP’s predecessor, and to pay the penny-per-pound increase for tomatoes. In this campaign CIW targeted Taco Bell, one of Yum!’s major restaurants. At the victory celebration, United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez commented, “It is the most significant victory since the successful grape boycott led by the UFW in the 1960s in the fields of California.”
[On a personal note: I am proud to say that I participated in the local actions (informational pickets at Taco Bell, etc.) of this campaign.]
Tomato pickers ask: Boycott Wendy’s!
For six (6) years the CIW has been trying to get Wendy’s to participate in the Fair Food Program. CIW’s main adversary is billionaire Nelson Peltz, CEO of the hedge Fund Trian Partners, which has a 12.4 percent ownership stake in Wendy’s, and who is the Chairman of Wendy’s Board of Directors. That Peltz personally gave $85,800 to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign gives a good insight into his political orientation. Journalist Derek Seidman<https://truthout.org/authors/derek-seidman/> wrote about this and notes that:
“The CIW’s effort to pressure Wendy’s to participate in the Fair Food Program is not just a battle between farmworkers and a major fast food chain. It is a battle that pits Florida’s tomato pickers against the Wall Street firm that oversees Wendy’s, which is run by a billionaire who has piles of cash to give to politicians like Donald Trump but who refuses to pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes so that farm laborers can have better wages, safer working conditions, and more dignity at work.” (Source 1)
Again taking a page from the César Chávez playbook, 40 CIW members traveled from Florida in March of 2018 to hold a weeklong fast in front of a Wendy’s in Union Square in New York City. Speaking at a pre-fast rally, CIW member Antonia Martinez said, “Although it is a sacrifice, it is nothing compared to the thousands of farmworkers whose voices aren’t heard, whose kids go to bed hungry.” (Source 5) Within a few days, the Immokalee workers were joined by thousands of supporters-local activists, religious leaders, students, workers-who staged a march through the streets of New York.
CIW also has an online petition, which has garnered over 100,000 signatures. In university-college communities, the CIW and supporters work to convince officials at college campuses with Wendy’s restaurants to remove the chain from campus or keep it from coming on campus in the future.
What can/should you do?
Here’s what you can do to honor César Chávez and his work.
So, to honor César Chávez and his work and that of the thousands of farmworkers he inspired to sacrifice greatly to achieve decent wages and working conditions, we should do something that could actually make a difference in the lives of farm workers, the people Chávez lived and died for. Here are some suggestions:
Write a letter to Wendy’s expressing your support of the CIW and urging Wendy’s to participate in the Fair Food Program-letter information below. If you or your family (parents, grandparents, etc.) have any farm worker experience, be sure to mention that so as to give your letter a personal perspective.
CEO, The Wendy’s Company
1 Dave Thomas Blvd
Dublin, Ohio 43017
Call Wendy’s and leave a detailed message: (614) 764-3100.
Support any action at Wendy’s (Press conference, picket line, rally, etc.) in your community.
Honor the Coalition of Immokalee Workers request, re: patronizing Wendy’s.
These are not political acts. They are acts of conscience … acts of decency … acts of respect for workers who are militantly combatting sexual abuse of and assault against women workers as well as economic exploitation of workers. c/s
Copyright 2019 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:email@example.com> Susan L. Marquis book cover used under fair use proviso of the copyright law. All other images copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc.
A sampling of the national and international recognitions the CIW’s work has received includes:
Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (1998); Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award (2003); Commendation from FBI Director Robert Mueller (2005); Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award from World Hunger Year (2005); Paul and Sheila Wellstone Award (2006); Anti-Slavery Award from Anti-Slavery International of London (2007); Benny Award from the Business Ethics Network (2009); Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award (2010); WhyHunger Food Sovereignty Award (2012); Natural Resources Defense Council’s Food Justice Award; from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2012); Freedom from Want Medal from the Roosevelt Institute (2013); Clinton Global Citizen Award (2014); Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking (2015); CIW Co-Founder Greg Asbed received the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation (2017).
Source 1 Derek Seidman, “Wendy’s Owner Gives Big to Trump While Refusing Farmworkers’ Demands,” Truthout, April 4, 2019.
Source 2 Alieza Durana, Haley Swensen, “Using the Power of Supply Chains to End Sexual Harassment,” Harvard Business Review, October 16, 2018.
Source 3 Bernice Yeung, “What Hollywood Can Learn From Farmworkers,” Slate, September 19, 2018.
Source 4 Irma Morales Waugh, “Examining the Sexual Harassment Experiences of Mexican Immigrant Farmworking Women, “SAGE Journals, January 21, 2010.
Source 5 Rinku Sen, “These Farmworkers Know How to End Sexual Harassment in the Fields. Will Wendy’s Listen?,” The Nation, March 15, 2018.