Immigrant farmworkers take on Exploitation King

“We no longer have own our slaves we can just rent them.”

These words, told to CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow back in November 1960 by a grower in Florida, still hold true today. Farmworkers in Immokalee, Fla., need to pick two tons of tomatoes to earn $56 for a day’s work. For almost all the workers, it takes 10 to 12 hours to pick those two tons.

Twelve years ago, a group of Immokalee workers, mostly Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants, formed a coalition to combat abuse by the growers. The Coalition Of Immokalee Workers, CIW, has grown into a movement with allies all over the world. They have been successful in exposing their mistreatment by the growers, including physical abuse and horrific living conditions, amounting to modern-day slavery.

But most important, they have been successful in getting two major buyers of tomatoes, Yum Brands (owner of KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and other major chains) and McDonald’s, to pay an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes that are picked by the coalition’s workers and to commit to respect for basic workers’ rights in the fields. This has increased the workers’ pay from 45 cents to 77 cents per 32 pound bucket, and minimized abuse in the fields of growers selling to McDonald’s and Yum.

After McDonald’s and the complete Yum family (Taco Bell had agreed to sign on first two years ago) entered into an agreement in April of this year, the CIW focused on Burger King. However, Burger King was not as cooperative as their biggest competitor, McDonald’s. Instead, Burger King has launched a very aggressive campaign, not only aiming to keep BK out of any agreement, but also teaming up with the tomato growers to undermine the Yum Brands and McDonald’s agreements.

On Nov. 30, 600-plus people gathered in front of the offices of Goldman Sachs (a major holder of Burger King stock) in downtown Miami to begin a nine-mile march to BK headquarters in west Miami. This was the CIW’s biggest action to date on Burger King.

After a dozen speakers, the voice on the sound truck gave the word, “Whose streets? Our streets!” — a reminder to all that this was same location as the famous protest against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), almost exactly four years ago.

Five hours and 9 miles later the march grew to over 1,000, and it turned into a rally at the BK headquarters, it grew even bigger. The CIW saw this event as a huge success. Participants came from all over the country and carried the message back with them.

That message is that Burger King and the tomato growers of southwest Florida need to give up their plantation mentality and come to terms with the fact that slavery was outlawed in this country over 150 years ago. BK could well afford the $250,000 it says the penny a pound would cost it. Many see it as the same old capitalist story — greed and the power to control other people’s lives: two things the growers and Burger King do not want to give up, but in the end will have to.

To follow this unfolding story and learn how to support the CIW in your community, go to www.ciw-online.org.