Posts tagged Ft. Myers

Slavery in Florida’s tomato fields

(Via the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.)

The Florida Tomato Growers’ Exchange is a cartel and legislative lobby which represents more than 90% of Florida’s tomato growers. Over the past year or so, the F.T.G.E. has moved aggressively to discredit the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and to destroy their penny-a-pound pass-through system, through which tomato buyers can volunteer to pass along one penny per pound of tomatoes bought, which would go directly towards increasing the wages of the farmworkers who picked those tomatoes. Since these bonuses are paid directly by the tomato buyers, and not by the farm bosses, it costs nothing for the farm bosses to implement, so I’m not entirely clear what the F.T.G.E.’s interest is here — but, if I had to guess, I would suspect that the campaign is mainly just part of a larger scorched-earth campaign against the C.I.W. as such and anything that they do, for fear that widespread success here would strengthen the organization, embolden them in their campaigns against exploitative and brutal treatment by growers, raise worker’s expectations about pay and conditions, and raise their hopes about what can be accomplished by uniting together. Along the way the F.T.G.E. has teamed up with Burger King (who later broke ranks and struck a penny-per-pound deal with the C.I.W.) and with a Republican state congressman, repeatedly making unfounded insinuations that the C.I.W. was skimming graft off of the penny-per-pound system (actually, payments are held in an escrow account and audited by an independent, third-party firm), and denouncing nonviolent protest and consumer boycotts as extortion, apparently on the claim that plantation owners have a God-given right to have their tomatoes bought, on terms set by the plantation owners and not by the buyers, and that any peep of protest or suggestion that buyers might freely choose not to buy tomatoes grown and picked under certain kinds of labor conditions is tantamount to a threat of violence. They’ve also made a special effort to spread a number of exculpatory distortions, obfuscations, half-truths, evasions, and lies about wages and conditions for tomato pickers in central Florida. For example, trumpeting the hourly wage rate that tomato-pickers can make during picking hours in the peak harvest season — about $12-$13/hour — without mentioning such minor details as the number of hours available, the unreliability of work, the fact that workers can only make that much for half the workday or so, that a few months of backbreaking work usually have to last the workers all year, and that, as that the annual income of farmworkers comes out to about $10,000/year or so, which is to say, that most farmworkers live in extreme poverty.

Then there’s the issue of working conditions, and the accusations of slavery in the tomato fields. The C.I.W. has already, several times in the past, been directly involved in busting up slave rings on Southeastern U.S. produce farms. Thus, they have focused a lot of their rhetoric on exposing the use of violence and coercion against farmworkers. But, the F.T.G.E. insists on their Industry Facts webpage:

Myth: Farmworkers are denied their fundamental labor rights by being held and forced to work in slave-like conditions.

Facts: Florida’s tomato growers abhor and condemn slavery. Charges that growers have enslaved workers are false. On numerous occasions, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has asked for evidence that would substantiate allegations of slavery and have received none. The Exchange stands ready to help authorities prosecute any instance of slavery.

Meanwhile, back in the real world:

Five Immokalee residents pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to charges of enslaving Mexican and Guatemalan workers, brutalizing them and forcing them to work in farm fields.

The 17-count indictment in the case — one of the largest slavery prosecutions Southwest Florida has ever seen — was originally released in January. It alleged that, for two years, Cesar Navarrete and Geovanni Navarrete held more than a dozen people in boxes, trucks and shacks on the family property, chaining and beating them, forcing them to work in farm fields in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina while keeping them in ever-increasing debt.

Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy called it slavery, plain and simple.

One of the six original defendants, Jose Navarrete, pleaded guilty in May to five charges.

The two ringleaders, Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete will likely serve 12 years and face fines between $750,000 and $1 million each. Sentencing is set for December.

Although the case was set to go to trial Tuesday, the defense and the government reached plea agreements at the last minute.

In federal court, if you go to trial and lose, the sentences are extremely severe, said Geovanni Navarrete’s attorney, Joseph Viacava of Fort Myers. We were happy to negotiate a resolution that caps our client’s liability and puts him in a favorable position come sentencing.

Molloy is happy too.

This is an excellent resolution, he said. The bad guys go to jail and the many victims get to go on with their lives.

Plus, he said, every time there’s a slavery conviction, We get two or three more reports of similar cases. So getting the word out about these prosecutions is extremely important, Molloy said.

Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has helped prosecute six slavery cases (including this) that freed more than 1,000 workers, also were pleased with the outcome.

The facts that have been reported in this case are beyond outrageous — workers being beaten, tied to posts, and chained and locked into trucks to prevent them from leaving their boss, said coalition member Gerardo Reyes.

How many more workers have to be held against their will before the food industry steps up to the plate and demands that this never — ever — occur again in the produce that ends up on America’s tables?

— Amy Bennett Williams, Ft. Myers News-Press (2008-09-03): Five plead guilty in Immokalee slavery case

And what did the ever-helpful, standing-ready, slavery-abhorring F.T.G.E. do about all this? Not a god-damned thing. Well. That’s not entirely true. They did do something. Specifically, on November 20th of last year, while they were busy going on a high-profile press junket with Burger King to smear the C.I.W., their yellow-dog auditing agency, S.A.F.E., did stop in to visit Immokalee and issue a public statement declaring that their audits have found no slave labor. As it happened, on the very same day that statement was issued — November 20th, 2007 — three tomato pickers reached the Collier County sheriff’s office on foot, and reported that they had just escaped out of the ventilation hatch of a box truck where they had been held against their will by the Navarette gang. So while workers were first telling the world about the violence and enslavement they had suffered, the F.T.G.E. and its agents did go out of their way to publicly declare that all those abuses simply did not exist.

The farmworkers’ struggle is one of the most important labor struggles in the United States today, and the way that the C.I.W. is carrying it on, in the face of tremendous opposition, nasty smear campaigns, repeated threats of legal coercion, and still managing to get so much done by so many workers, for so many of their fellow workers, in a really remarkably effective bottom-up, worker-led community workers’ organization, is nothing short of heroic. And inspiring. But, well, I’m sure that all of the F.T.G.E.’s verbal abhorring and condemning of slavery is also greatly appreciated.

Even better than I thought: victory for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers against the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, too

On Friday I mentioned that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers had just announced victory in the Burger King penny-a-pound pass-through campaign. It turns out that the news is even better than I thought. The news reports that have come out since the announcement reveal that not only did Burger King agree to join the penny-a-pound, but the Florida Tomato Growers’ Exchange (the cartel and legislative lobby which represents 90% of Florida tomato farm owners) has also substantially caved in the face of pressure from the CIW and its supporters. Although they are still saying that member farms should not participate, they’ve given up on the hardball tactics they were trying to use to enforce cartel discipline.

Whether workers actually get the increase hinges on tomato growers’ participation.

McDonald’s and Yum! Brands, the world’s biggest fast-food chain and restaurant company, respectively, already have agreed to the raise; Yum!, parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and more, signed on in 2005; McDonald’s in 2007.

Workers got the extra money for two seasons, then the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange threatened $100,000 fines to any grower member who participated, which stalled the payouts. They’ve since been collecting in escrow. About 90 percent of the state’s tomato growers belong to the exchange.

But the exchange announced Thursday it would no longer threaten members with those fines, said executive vice-president Reggie Brown, in response to inordinate and inappropriate focus on the (fines) by the media.

— Amy Bennett Williams, Ft. Myers News-Press (2008-05-24): Tomato pickers celebrate deal with Burger King

Brown is still muttering baseless and murky threats about federal antitrust laws and how participating in the pass-through program could somehow subject growers to lawsuits. (Subjected to lawsuits by whom? Is that supposed to be a prediction or a threat?) So there is still a danger of some very dirty pool and government union-busting here. But the FTGE looks like it’s on the ropes, and their retracting the threat of fines makes it much more likely that individual farm owners will begin participating in the pass-through program again, if nothing else as an incentive for attracting workers away from non-participating farms — an incentive which it costs the farm owners nothing to offer.

In the meantime, the fast-food participants have announced that they will continue to honor the penny-per-pound agreement and pay into the escrow account in case growers change their minds:

McDonald’s and Yum Brands, the world’s biggest fast-food chain and restaurant company, respectively, have agreed to the raise …. Yum, parent company of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and more, signed on in 2005; McDonald’s in 2007.

Workers received the extra money for two seasons, but then the threatened fines from the exchange stalled payouts. Both companies have been honoring the agreement with the raise amount collecting in escrow.

They say they will continue to honor the agreement.

It’s the right thing to do, and we encourage others to follow our lead, said Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch. While we continue to set aside monies for the affected workers, we’re disappointed that the intended recipients are being penalized.

Now that the threat of fines is gone, members and supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are wondering what it might mean.

If the (threats of fines) are in fact being lifted, that would be good news, said coalition co-founder Lucas Benitez. We hope our agreements with Yum and McDonald’s will be allowed to again function as they had in the past and workers received a fairer wage.

— Amy Bennett Williams, Ft. Myers News-Press (2008-05-23): Tomato growers’ group relents on imposing fine for giving pickers raise

Eric Schlosser, who has been doing some very good work in reporting on the C.I.W.’s struggle, offers an analysis that combines some incredibly muddled history with some admirably clear-sighted analysis of the current position of the C.I.W. within the farmworkers’ struggle:

This may be the most important victory for American farmworkers since passage of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975. That bill heralded a golden age for farm workers. But the state government apparatus it created, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, got taken over by the growers in the 1980s and watered down the reforms. In Florida, the Coalition has chosen a different path, avoiding government and putting pressure on the corporations at the top of nation’s food chain. The strategy clearly works and can be emulated by other workers in other states. In the absence of a government that cares about the people at the bottom, here’s a way to achieve change.

— Eric Schlosser, quoted by Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation (2008-05-23): Sweet Victory: Coalition for Immokalee Workers Wins

The muddle, of course, has to do with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board and the mythical golden age for farmworkers. Actually the ALRB is exactly what strangled the dynamism of the once-vibrant United Farm Workers, by pulling California farmworkers’ unions into the smothering embrace of bureaucratic patronage, which had strangled the dynamism of the rest of the labor movement for decades under the Wagner/Taft-Hartley system — thus capturing a once revolutionary movement and converting it into just another arm of the State-domesticated labor establishment. It should be no surprise that within a decade the ALRB had been completely captured by the farm bosses; government boards are always captured by the most powerful and best-connected players. Any look at history or at the basics of political economy should quickly demonstrate that Schlosser’s in the absence of is really a statement of universal truth, not a remark on the sad state of affairs today: there will never be a government that cares about the people on the bottom. It’s the State that largely puts them on the bottom in the first place and then keeps them there. Any scraps that it may throw down from the master’s table are intended to keep the rest of us just barely fed enough to keep begging, instead of giving up and taking matters into our own hands.

What Schlosser is right about is that the C.I.W.’s strategy works, and deserves emulation. What I’d want to add, and stress, is that it works not despite the fact that they have avoided entangling themselves in the government labor bureaucracy; it works because they have. The C.I.W. has won all these struggles precisely because they have used creative fight-to-win tactics (especially secondary boycotts) that would be completely illegal if they were subject to the bureaucratic discipline of the NLRB. It’s precisely the freedom that they enjoy as a wildcat union, ineligible for NLRB recognition, which has allowed them to disregard the usual modesty in demands and politeness in means that the Taft-Hartley rules demand.

These victories with the FTGE and Burger King are not the end. The C.I.W. has announced that it will now challenge grocery stores and other fast food restaurants to join Yum Brands, McDonald’s, and Burger King in the pass-through agreement. Every victory in this campaign has made the next victory come quicker: the Taco Bell boycott took four years for victory (from 2001 to 2005); the C.I.W. won an agreement from McDonald’s after two years of active campaigning (from March 2005 to April 2007); and these victories in campaigns against Burger King and the FTGE took just over one year (from April 2007 to May 2008). Lucas Benitez has indicated that the C.I.W. will most likely target Chipotle and Whole Foods next — that is, major tomato buyers who each have a significant stake in maintaining a brand image of corporate social responsibility. There’s good reason to hope that the trend will continue and these campaigns will lead to a speedy victory.

Fellow workers, this past week’s victories for creative extremism and wildcat unionism are both an inspiration and a reminder. We should never forget that the workers have more power standing with our hands in our pockets than all the wealth and weapons of the plutocrats and politicians. Yes, we can do it—ourselves. And we will.

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