by Kimberly Hunter
In a modern David vs. Goliath, Florida farmworkers and faith-based supporters of the Campaign for Fair Food bicycled 200 miles from Immokalee – one of Florida’s poorest towns – to Lakeland – home of Florida’s largest corporation
On the day after Labor Day – after more than 200 miles of pedaling and pedaling under a scorching summer sun — farmworkers from Immokalee, FL dismounted borrowed bicycles to arrive at last to their destination: the headquarters of Publix Supermarkets, Florida’s largest corporation and the eighth biggest private company in the U.S.
For well over two years, Publix has ignored all of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ correspondence requesting to meet and discuss the grocery giant’s potential participation in the Fair Food accords’ industry efforts to improve tomato-picker wages and work conditions.
Accordingly, on the first workday back after the holiday honoring the dignity of labor, the cyclists sought to invite the supermarket’s CEO — Ed Crenshaw — to visit Immokalee personally and learn firsthand about farmworker poverty and the CIW’s Fair Food program.
All along their journey, dozens of supportive parishes blessed the riders with meals, housing, prayer, and fellowship. In Ft. Myers and Port Charlotte, St. Columbkille and St Maximilian Kolbe shared food with the pilgrims and invited them to tell their story. In Venice, the Epiphany Cathedral provided a supper at which Bishop Dewane gave a special blessing to the farmworkers before sending them back on their way. Pax Christi Manasota supporters Lee and Carol Ann Breyer hosted the delegation at their home overnight as they were cycling through Ellenton and invited their Pax Christi neighbors over for a fellowship dinner to welcome them.
On the final day of their pilgrimage, 75 faith-based allies joined the delegation for a prayer service in front of Publix’s Lakeland headquarters. But once again, despite the prayer vigil outside his office, Mr. Crenshaw and Publix refused to meet with the workers, instead sending a public relations agent to receive them at a security checkpoint. The agent greeted the delegates with the same defenses Publix spokespeople have been repeating for months.
However, what the Publix PR representative dismissed as a “labor dispute” unrelated to his company the New York Times called this summer “possibly the most successful labor action in the U.S. in 20 years,” whereby the CIW and 90% of Florida’s tomato farms have agreed to a new code of conduct that promises to bring about an unprecedented transformation of farm labor wages and working conditions.
Readers may remember the CIW’s first step in the Campaign for Fair Food, a 2003 boycott of Taco Bell. Now in 2011, with the support of nine multi-billion dollar retail food corporations — among them Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King and Whole Foods — over 30,000 farmworkers will begin to see concrete changes in the fields this season, including assured access to shade, the right to report abuses without fear or retaliation, the ability to form health and safety committees in the fields, zero-tolerance provisions for forced labor and sexual harassment, and a wage increase funded by a penny-per-pound premium paid by participating retailers.
Together these worker-led improvements will transform and hold accountable an agricultural industry where a lack of rights and widespread labor abuses created a climate where more extreme violations of human rights could flourish. Along with its Fair Food Campaign, the CIW also regularly trains law enforcement officers in how to recognize forced labor; since 1997 has helped uncover 6 slavery cases in the state of Florida, resulting in their selection for the US State Department’s top award for work against human trafficking last year — the Hero Acting to End Modern-day Slavery award.
Despite these victories, Publix — along with supermarket Trader Joe’s — refuses to pay one penny more per pound to do its part in raising farmworker wages and has not agreed to condition its purchases on suppliers’ compliance with the new code of conduct. With fast-food and foodservice leaders on board, Publix and Trader Joe’s continued rejection of the Fair Food advances establishes a dangerous example for the supermarket industry that threatens to undermine these landmark yet fragile gains.
As the CIW continues to seek an agreement with Publix, they invite faith-based supporters to join their efforts by delivering a letter to their local Publix manager and by contacting Publix CEO Mr. Crenshaw directly:
For Pax Christi readers who do not live in Publix’s region, the CIW is also asking Trader Joe’s customers to participate in the Fair Food agreements. You can deliver letters and petitions to your local Trader Joe’s and also send them a letter at Trader Joe’s, PO Box 5049, Monrovia, CA 91017. If you are in New York City, there will be a fair food festival calling on Trader Joe’s to join in the growing movement for Fair Food on September 24th and upcoming activities at Trader Joe’s Southern California Headquarters as well.