LANDOVER, Md. (PAI) -- Day by day for the last eight years, Santiago Perez has toiled in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Fla. It's not fun.
"Often, the temperature is above 100 degrees. There's the pressure of your boss breathing down your neck. You get 10-12 minutes for lunch and no water breaks. There's been physical violence and you could get fired without the boss suffering any consequences," he told Press Associates in Spanish through an interpreter.
And all this for a wage of $9,000-$11,000 - but only if he picked at least two tons of tomatoes a day.
That wage, of pennies per pound picked, loaded into large buckets, hadn't changed for 30 years, until advent of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a fledgling union for the 30,000 tomato harvesters in the Florida fields, some of them teens.
CIW mobilized public pressure nationwide on the companies - grocery chains and restaurants - who are the big end users of the Florida pickers' tomatoes. Its organizers went into the fields to talk with the workers, learning what they needed.
CIW negotiated a pact with the tomato growers for a wage hike - a penny per pound - better working conditions, a cooperative grievance procedure and health and safety improvements. The improvements are financed by slightly higher prices the growers charge to their big customers: Grocery chains and fast food restaurants.
But there's a loophole, and that's what brought Perez and two dozen allies to the D.C. suburb of Landover, Md., headquarters of Giant Food, a big grocery chain that has refused to sign the pact. It's become a market for the 10% of Florida tomato growers who don't want to pay workers a more decent wage. The other 90% agree with CIW.
CIW led a protest on April 17 in front of the firm's Landover building, right while Giant was hosting its stockholders' meeting. CIW's petition demanded Giant and its parent, Dutch-based Royal Ahold, sign the pact and start treating its workers right. Giant replied it has its own code of conduct for the tomato fields, but took the papers.
Leonel Perez, leader of the protest, explained the group is touring the east coast to bring more publicity to the plight of the pickers - and to put more pressure on Giant and other chains that are holding out against the "Fair Food" contract CIW drafted.
"We're calling on Giant to do the right thing, to finally eliminate the abuses" in the tomato fields by refusing to provide an outlet for those growers who mistreat, and in some cases even enslave, the workers, Leonel Perez said.
"Ten major competitors of Giant are helping to enforce" the Fair Food rules in the fields, he added. They include the Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King and McDonald's fast food chains and the Trader Joe's and Whole Foods grocery chains, as well as Aramark, one of the nation's leading providers of sports stadium and arena concessions.
And CIW intends to continue its campaign, with the help of national and local groups, until Giant and other holdouts join the pact and start treating their tomato pickers right, he said. That means consumer education and even refusal to patronize chains, such as Giant, that hold out, other speakers said.
All this is designed to help Santiago Perez and his colleagues. He says workers like him often stay 15-30 years in the fields - men and women both. Some 30% of tomato pickers are women, CIW says.
But even if conditions improve, the years you spend picking tomatoes "doesn't depend on the workers, but on the growers," Santiago Perez says. "When you get old, you can't find work as easily, and they attempt to discard you."
Photo: Coalition of Immokalee Workers and community supporters march to Publix, March 10, 2012, in Lakeland, Fla., as part of their penny more per pound campaign. (PW/Joshua Leclair)