An Attack on the Fair Food Movement: Legal Services Goes After Farmworkers Who Speak up for Themselves

On the ground organizers have long viewed lawyers with ambivalence; often not sure whether they were friends or foes of social movements seeking justice for the most disempowered and marginalized communities in our society.  After Florida Legal Services filed a groundless law suit involving the Fair Food Program’s penny per pound, the argument that lawyers are in fact a grave threat to social justice just gained a little more credence. 

Over the years Florida Legal Services has consistently and inexplicably undermined the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, defying common wisdom by in essence arguing with success.    Today, the Fair Food Campaign and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are one of the premier social justice campaigns and organizations in this country.  Co-founded and run by farmworkers, including my dear friend and colleague RFK Laureate winner Lucas Benitez, the CIW has been working in the heart of Florida agricultural in Immokalee for almost two decades.  For over 10 years, they have worked tirelessly to make large corporate buyers of tomatoes accountable for profiting off of abuses as extreme as slave labor, beatings and other violence, sub-poverty wages, chronic sexual harassment, and wage stealing.  Last fall, they achieved a victory that is transforming the tomato industry through human rights, increasing income and implementing a complaints-driven code of conduct monitored by workers themselves, with unprecedented rights based education on the clock and on the farm for over 30,000 workers.

This all began with the victory against Taco Bell after a three year boycott.  Lucas Benitez said at the time,
"After three years of pickets, national tours and repeated frustrations, … that the campaign’s success is a bit overwhelming. .. You feel a kind of energy you’ve never felt before because you actually can win and that the truth of our exploitation would be enough to convince others."

How did Florida Legal Services respond to this victory by farmworkers on behalf of themselves? "… I have difficulty seeing how this leads to much change on the ground for tomato workers in Immokalee," said Rob Williams, the executive director of the Farmworker Justice Project. The nonprofit advocacy group is under Florida Legal Services’ wing.

This pattern repeated itself time and time again, with farmworkers succeeding through their own coalition, and Florida Legal Services deriding their efforts.  Lawyers for Florida Legal Services have even publicly insulted the farmworkers at CIW stating in the press that “their primary motivation is less improving farmworkers’ lives than generating publicity, power, influence and notoriety for the Coalition” (Greg Schell, managing attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth and attorney of record on the lawsuit involving Fair Food Campaign).

 Now Florida Legal Services has crossed the line from public dismissals of success, to an effort to undermine the strategy in which the members of the CIW and the Fair Food Campaign have invested their collective efforts, aspirations and dreams.  The facts are simple.  For years, growers refused to pass through the “penny per pound” (price premium) to workers the CIW won with such great effort from large corporate buyers.  So the money was put aside by the corporations as an act of good faith.  Last year, when the entire tomato industry through the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE) agreed to participate in the agreements, everyone got to work implementing this extraordinary victory.  The money started going to workers after the FTGE agreements kicked into play.  Rather than wasting limited and valuable resources to do the impossible – identify workers who migrated through Florida during previous seasons, the money was distributed to workers there at the time.  The growers agreed to implement the bonus system in this way, as it had always been planned.  This way the CIW ensured that money was not in fact wasted on lawyers, investigators and other professionals, but rather got to workers immediately and in its entirety.  Florida Legal Services has now sued the corporations that are part of human rights agreements with CIW claiming none of this money has been paid, despite documented evidence to the contrary.

Florida Legal Services in fact was told by CIW counsel before filing suit that this is how the money was distributed, as bonuses, which is always how it was characterized, and for current workers.  So why would Florida Legal Services initiate a suit that undermines a highly respected premier and successful community organization and threatens their ability to draw in more large buyers in order to successfully implement one of the greatest social justice achievements of our era?   It is hard to fathom what the answer might be, except to wonder if they simply are not able to accept that poor people can speak and advocate for themselves, and can’t bear to accept the notion that lawyers are there to serve poor communities, not speak for them or tell them what to do.  The reality is Florida Legal Services has betrayed the community with this action, as well as damaged the ability of other lawyers and communities to work together towards social change.   

by Cathy Albisa, Executive Director, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative