How to Fight for "Freedom from Want" and Win: A Q&A with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Oct 10, 2013Richard Kirsch

On Wednesday, October 16, the Roosevelt Institute will present the 2013 Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Awards, honoring individuals and organizations whose work exemplifies FDR's vision of democracy. Click here to RSVP for the free public ceremony. Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch spoke to Greg Asbed, Gerardo Reyes, and Nely Rodriguez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the recipient of this year's Freedom from Want Medal, about their group's unique organizing model.

Richard Kirsch: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is receiving the Freedom from Want Medal at the Roosevelt Institute's Four Freedoms Awards next week. What does "freedom from want" mean for your members? 

Coalition of Immokalee Workers: For as long as anyone can remember, farmworkers have been this country's worst paid, least protected workers, facing abject poverty, physical abuse, and daily humiliations in the fields. "Freedom from want" for us means not only earning a fair wage for the hard and essential work we do, but being treated with the respect and dignity we have earned through the vital contribution we make to our society every day. A world cannot be considered truly just as long as those who put food on our tables cannot afford to feed their own families.

RK: Can you tell me a little more about the working and living conditions your members faced? 

CIW: For generations, the farmworkers who pick our country’s fruits and vegetables have suffered almost unimaginable human rights violations, from systematic wage theft to sexual harassment and humiliating verbal and physical abuse. These injustices are as well-documented as they are widespread. In the extreme, farmworkers face situations of modern-day slavery – held against their will, under the threat or actual use of violence (beatings, pistol whippings, shootings), and forced to work for little to no pay.

The good news is that the Fair Food Program, through its human rights-based, market-enforced Code of Conduct -- which includes worker-to-worker labor rights education, independent workplace monitoring, and a worker-triggered complaint resolution process – is changing those conditions in the tomato fields of Florida.

RK: "Freedom from want" is more than being free from deprivation. What do your members hope for in their lives? 

CIW: Our members want nothing more, and nothing less, than to lead what most people would consider a "normal" life. Our members want to be able to provide their families with good food, a decent home, and a life they can enjoy together. Today, even though conditions are improving, farm labor remains a job that not only impoverishes workers economically, but socially as well, by demanding that workers be available from before dawn to after dusk.

Farm work steals the hours of the day when families spend time together. Mornings preparing breakfast for your children before school, weekends relaxing around the house or on family outings, those are the moments of which a family life is made. Having to pull up stakes and move the family to follow the harvest, children missing crucial weeks of school and living in a constant state of uncertainty, makes family life more difficult. Stability, dignity, and a measure of economic security are the things we want, not just for ourselves, but more than anything else, for our children. 

RK: FDR railed against the "economic royalists," the corporations, banks, and wealthy individuals of the day who thought they should rule the economy. Who are the economic royalists that CIW is taking on? 

CIW: In today's food system, the kings who would rule our world are the multi-billion dollar retail food companies, from fast-food chains with tens of thousands of restaurants to supermarkets like Walmart, which has food sales greater than its three closest competitors combined. These companies have come to dominate the U.S. produce market, leveraging their unprecedented volume purchasing power to command unsustainably low prices from their suppliers. At the farm level, those ever-lower prices are translated into sub-poverty wages for the workers who harvest the fruits and vegetables sold to these massive chain stores, because labor costs are essentially the only flexible input in raising a crop.

RK: CIW has been remarkably successful in standing up to the economic royalists of the food business, fast food chains, and supermakets. What has been your strategy?

CIW: Our Campaign for Fair Food seeks to harness the volume purchasing power of the food giants and reverse its impact. Where before, their market power created an inexorable downward pressure on farmworker wages and working conditions, that same power, if redirected by consumer demand, can be used to improve wages and require their suppliers to comply with more modern, more humane labor standards. This is not just a theory. It is working today in Florida's tomato fields.

Our Fair Food Program, with its penny-per-pound premium paid by participating retailers going to fund a bonus in workers' weekly paychecks, is designed, in part, to help farmworkers earn a just wage that can support a family. And it is making a dent in farmworker poverty, with over $11 million paid in premiums in since January 2011. But it is also addressing the broader definition of want that we are discussing here by bringing workers increased dignity and the respect that comes from partnering with growers to create a fairer and better industry.

RK: What does it take to get corporations to agree to join the Fair Food Program?

CIW: The Fair Food Program depends on the support of multi-billion dollar fast-food, foodservice, and supermarket chains to work. Without their penny-per-pound premium fueling improved wages, and without their purchasing power buttressing the human rights standards in the Fair Food Code of Conduct, none of the progress we are seeing today in the fight against sexual harassment, wage theft, and even modern-day slavery would be possible. But, unfortunately, it has been our experience that corporations don’t jump to support these changes on their own.

And so it has been necessary to travel across the country educating consumers about what they can do to help. We mobilize major actions -- everything from two-week long marches to week-long fasts -- and local protests where consumers and farmworkers take action, shoulder to shoulder, calling on companies like Publix, Kroger, and Wendy's to join the Fair Food Program and make a real investment in human rights. That consumer demand and public pressure has resulted in11 multi-billion dollar companies signing on to the program and the transformation of the Florida tomato industry from one of the most abusive to one of the most progressive sectors in the U.S. agricultural industry today.

RK: What has been the key to your success?

CIW: The single most important factor in our success is that the Fair Food Program is truly a worker-designed, worker-driven social responsibility program. The vast majority of corporate social responsibility programs are created and controlled by corporations themselves, and so, quite simply, they are designed to protect the corporations' interests. The Fair Food Program, with its principal architect being a workers' organization, has a unique design and structure, all constructed with one goal in mind: to protect farmworkers' rights.

In doing that, the Fair Food Program also improves the agricultural industry as a whole, through direct economic benefits such as lower turnover and increased productivity, and through the marketing advantages created when an otherwise indistinguishable commodity becomes a product that can be differentiated on the supermarket shelf as having been produced under humane conditions. That makes the Fair Food Program uniquely effective as a means for protecting human rights and simultaneously uniquely attractive as a business model for growers and buyers looking to succeed in the 21st century marketplace.

RK: What leadership role do members play in your work?

CIW: When we began organizing in the early 1990s, we had a motto: Todos somos lideres (We are all leaders). That has always been one of our guiding principles, and that is why we have organized -- from day one to this day -- on a foundation of broad-based, grassroots leadership, not around an individual leader. Our leadership comes from the community itself -- young, mostly immigrant leaders whose experience in the fields and on the front lines of our organizing battles are the keys to their ability to assume a leadership role in the CIW.

Our members travel across the country representing the CIW and the Campaign for Fair Food in conferences, churches, universities, and before the press, they lead community meetings and debate strategies, run our community radio station, negotiate with multi-billion dollar corporations, investigate and resolve labor complaints, go undercover to identify modern-day slavery operations, and educate their fellow workers in the fields about their rights under the Fair Food Program. Without a broad and ever-changing base of community leadership, none of this would be possible. 

RK: What can progressives learn from CIW in the struggle to create an economy that is based on people being able to live with dignity? 

CIW: What has worked for us is an unflagging commitment to our vision of a fair food system. We have been fighting for nearly 20 years, and during that time our vision has never changed. We fight for work with dignity, respect in the fields, a just wage that can support a family, and freedom from forced labor. Our organizing has gone through many phases, shifting as our strategies changed, but our goals have remained fixed.

Today, we are making the concrete, measurable, and sustainable changes that we visualized 20 years ago, and that is because we never gave up, never gave in, and never compromised on our core principles. Believe in whatever it is you are fighting for, be steadfast but flexible in how you fight for it, and be willing to walk away from the table when necessary. If your vision is sound and you refuse to give in, you will, ultimately, win.

RK: You started in Florida. What’s next?

CIW: The Fair Food Program was born in Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital of the state. Florida provides 90 percent of the domestically grown tomatoes consumed in the U.S. from the months of November to May. But the model for worker-led, market-based social responsibility taking root today in Florida's tomato fields is already expanding beyond Florida up the East Coast, and its unique principles and mechanisms are being studied in other crops and other industries.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

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