My protest marching skills are a bit rusty, having last been put to use in 1968 on behalf of Eugene McCarthy and his thwarted bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. But on a bitter afternoon in Boston recently, I sloshed through a few inches of slushy snow with more than 900 supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots farmworkers' organization based in Florida. We tramped from Boston's Copley Square to a Stop & Shop supermarket a couple of miles away. With a brass band, clever signage, and rousing warm-up speeches by Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, and Lucas Benetiz, of the CIW, it was a friendly, festive event whose purpose could not have been more serious.
Sixty members of the CIW had traveled by bus from Florida, sleeping on church floors and bathing at homeless shelters along the way, to make a simple request. They want Stop & Shop, a northeastern chain of supermarkets owned by the international conglomerate Ahold, to pay them one penny more per pound for the tomatoes they pick. Less than chump change to the $40-billion-a-year Ahold, a penny per pound is the difference between making $50 and $80 during a 10-hour workday for a typical tomato picker—$5 an hour versus a barely minimum wage of $8 an hour. Without the additional penny, laborers earn the same amount for a 32-pound bucket today as they did 30 years ago. They receive no benefits of any kind, have no sick leave, and are not paid extra for overtime. Most earn less than $12,000 a year. On the day we marched to that Stop & Shop, fresh slicing tomatoes were on sale for $1.99 a pound. Paying one penny more per pound for an out-of-season luxury that no one really needs seems a modest sacrifice.