From India’s Dandi march in March 1930 to the Civil Rights marches from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, there is a great tradition of walking for human rights in the month of March. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers continues this proud legacy with its current 200 mile march for Rights, Respect and Fair Food (March 3rd -17th).
Beginning in Fort Myers, Florida, the city closest to Immokalee, and ending at supermarket giant Publix headquarters in Lakeland, Florida, the CIW is also retelling a bit of its own human rights history as well. Thirteen years ago, they staged a march from the tomato fields to the Growers’ Association in Orlando. Then, as now, they are carrying a statue of liberty holding a bucket of tomatoes. The following year, they turned a new page in their organizing, launching the first-ever farmworker boycott of a major fast food company—the national boycott of Taco Bell—calling on the fast food giant to take responsibility for human rights abuses in the fields where its produce is grown and picked.
Today, after winning historic agreements with Taco Bell, ten other major food retailers, and the Growers’ Association to accept that responsibility via the legally binding Fair Food Program (FFP), the march for Rights, Respect and Fair Food aims to ensure this human rights progress continues. Standing in the way is Publix, Florida’s largest corporation, a $28 billion supermarket that prides itself in its commitment to customer service, but fails to recognize the humanity of the workers that pick its produce.
Publix’ refusal to join the FFP is depicted in a comedic but educational skit Immokalee farmworkers are performing during the march for some host communities, one that also retells the history of the Campaign for Fair Food. With the agriculture industry portrayed as a large (cardboard) truck stuck in a ditch, the play shows workers trying in vain to free the truck on their own, and then enlisting the help of an initially reluctant faith leader and a student. When the augmented team fails to move the truck, they recruit the even more reluctant partners– fast food retailers, represented by the Taco Bell Chihuahua, Ronald McDonald, and the Burger King-King. As the truck begins to move, a man representing Publix blocks it. Deaf to the pleas of truck liberators to join them, it stands firm. The group leaves to recruit more hands, committed to freeing the truck.
The truck liberators – Florida’s farmworkers – make up the core of the march. The faith community provides hospitality and prayer for the marchers. Students from across the country are choosing to spend their spring breaks getting blisters and sleeping on gym floors. Some retailers – Compass Group and Bon Appetit – joined the walk in South Sarasota, and the Pacific Growers provided lunch for the marchers near Bradenton. The worker-leaders from Immokalee not only stage the play, but conduct all public communication with host communities, give interviews to local media, and lead special events, such as an International Women’s Day ceremony that moved many to tears.
Built upon a simple human rights vision and its underlying values, the Campaign for Fair Food continues to grow in size and power. The call for dignity at work is universally understood, as is apparent in the diversity of the marchers, which include small farmers, artists, teachers, nurses, restaurant workers and even unemployed persons.
While Publix is the focus of the current action, it will not be the last. Krogers and Wendy’s are next, until all farmworkers can enjoy their human rights Using the “truth force” coined by Gandhi in 1930 and embraced by Civil Rights leaders in 1965, the fight for human rights continues its march. With each step it gathers more steam, people, and inspiration, connecting the past to the present, and testifying to a new day for those who toil in the fields. Given the history of sub-human treatment of farmworkers, this is truly an inspiration for all of us who aspire to a transformed society based on human rights. Let us all march on.