Tomato Pickers Win Higher Pay. Can Other Workers Use Their Strategy?


Florida’s tomato pickers took on some of the country’s biggest retailers and fast-food chains – and won, transforming working conditions in the tomato fields. Now they and their allies are trying to take the fight to new fields and new industries.

MARCH 9, 2017  IMMOKALEE, FLA.—On a bright Sunday morning, about two dozen tomato pickers from this dusty south Florida farming town pile into white vans and drive a half hour to Naples, a wealthy coastal city of palm trees, art galleries, and waterfront mansions. They pull up at a Wendy’s on US 41, a busy six-lane thoroughfare, and for the next hour, joined by local supporters, march up and down the sidewalk, chanting slogans and brandishing signs denouncing the fast-food chain. A Naples television crew films them while motorists stare, a few honking or flashing a thumbs-up as they pass.

Tactics like this protest outside Wendy’s, repeated in cities across the country, have helped make the Coalition of Immokalee Workers one of the most successful worker organizations in the country. By applying pressure to corporations at the top of the supply chain, the big retailers and fast-food chains that buy tomatoes, the CIW has helped tens of thousands of mostly Hispanic immigrant workers who pick the bulk of the nation’s winter tomato crop. It has lifted wages, improved working conditions, and put an end to widespread sexual harassment, forced labor, and other abuses that made the Florida tomato fields notorious even by the harsh standards of American farm labor.

“They have transformed the situation in the fields,” says Susan Marquis, dean of the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School, who is writing a book about the tomato pickers. “It’s an inspiring story.”

Now the question is whether a labor movement forged and tested in the Florida tomato fields might work elsewhere. The CIW has expanded to six other states, mostly in the South, and to new crops, including peppers and strawberries. Workers and worker advocates inspired by the tomato pickers or working in alliance with them are also trying to help construction workers in Texas, dairy workers in Vermont, and garment workers in Bangladesh.

“Workers in other industries are realizing what we’re doing here,” says Lupe Gonzalo, a 36-year-old immigrant from Guatemala. Ms. Gonzalo began picking tomatoes in Florida 16 years ago and says she saw conditions improve dramatically because of the CIW’s efforts. Now she’s one of its leaders. “Before you were seen as a machine to make money,” she says. “Now we’re seen as human beings.”

Efforts like the CIW’s may be more important more than ever, say worker advocates. One reason is the decline of union influence. Another is globalization. International supply chains and layers of subcontracting are increasingly obscuring the sources of food and other consumer goods—and the conditions for workers who produce them.

“We’re all working together to see how we can push this model out to where we can replicate the CIW’s success,” says Gregory Regaignon, research director for the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a London-based nonprofit that monitors the intersection of human rights and business around the world. “Where there are gaps, where unions are not present, I do think there’s a lot of potential.”

Many challenges remain. Nonunion consumer-driven campaigns are still small and relatively untested, especially when compared with the long history of union organizing. The Trump administration’s new crackdown on unuathorized immigrants also raises new questions. Can a movement devoted to organizing low-wage workers gain momentum when many of its members worry that they or their family members might be deported?

“There’s a lot of fear,” says Margaret Gray, a professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., and an expert on food and agricultural movements.

Still, the tomato pickers have notched several successes, which stand in sharp contrast to the wider struggles of organized labor, as union membership in the private sector drops to historic lows and more states adopt antiunion legislation. The CIW works apart from unions. It’s one of a growing number of “worker centers” that advocate on behalf of some of the poorest and most vulnerable workers, often immigrants, and often framing labor issues as questions of human rights.

A shift in focus

Formed in 1993, the CIW tried to improve wages and working conditions for tomato pickers by pressuring their employers, the Florida growers. Eventually they decided to shift their focus to where real leverage lies, with the corporations that buy the tomatoes and sell or serve them to the public. A four-year boycott yielded an agreement with Taco Bell in 2005, and other big companies followed, including McDonalds, Burger King, and Whole Foods. The retail giant Walmart signed on in 2014.

So far, 14 major corporations have signed on to the CIW’s “Fair Food Program.” The Fair Food Program requires companies to pay a few cents a pound extra for tomatoes, most of which goes directly to the pickers. It also requires them to buy from growers who commit to improved working conditions, including access to shade, drinking water, and bathrooms. An independent organization, the Fair Food Standards Council, monitors and enforces the agreement.

The tomato pickers and their allies call this approach “worker-centered social responsibility.” It targets well-known brands and, in contrast to corporations’ own ethics codes, use agreements that can be independently monitored and legally enforced. Another essential feature is close worker involvement. In Florida, the tomato pickers were able to define small but important details such as what constituted a full bucket of tomatoes – not mounded, but level with the brim. Pickers receive regular training on the details of the Fair Food Program and access to a 24-hour hotline to report violations.

In this way, experts say, the tomato pickers avoided two shortcomings that have undermined other consumer-driven campaigns on behalf of low-wage workers: poor compliance and a lack of worker participation.

“The way in which they’ve handled these two large problems is remarkable,” says James Brudney, an expert in labor law at Fordham University in New York. “There’s no reason this model can’t work across the United States.”

From Florida to Vermont

One group that’s worked closely with the tomato pickers is Migrant Justice, a nonprofit in Burlington, Vt., that is trying to help hundreds of dairy workers in that state.

In 2014, Migrant Justice invited Ben and Jerry’s to join a program that it called Milk with Dignity, which would bring independent monitoring to the farms from which the company buys milk. Ben and Jerry’s, a subsidiary of the multinational Unilever, declined, arguing that its own corporate ethics code already protected workers. Migrant Justice responded with a nationwide protest. After a few weeks of bad publicity, with demonstrations outside ice cream shops in more than a dozen cities, the company gave in. The two sides are still negotiating terms of an agreement.

“It’s actually a fairly complicated agreement,” says Brendan O’Neill, campaign coordinator for Migrant Justice.

Dairy farms in Vermont once relied on family and local labor, but in recent years have turned to immigrant labor, usually Hispanics. “They have great cow skills,” says Harold Howrigan, a dairy farmer and president of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, a supplier to Ben and Jerry’s. “They’re not afraid of work.”

Most farmers treat their workers well. But a Migrant Justice survey revealed problems at some farms, with complaints about substandard housing, long hours without time off, and wages below the federal minimum. If Milk with Dignity succeeds with Ben and Jerry’s, similar deals might be struck on behalf of dairy workers in other regions, says Mr. O’Neill. “This is just the beginning.”

Cleaning up construction

One of the nation’s most dangerous construction markets – the state of Texas – is the focus of a similar campaign by the Workers Defense Project. A 2013 report by Workers Defense and researchers at the universities of Illinois and Texas found that the fatality rate among Texas construction workers exceeded the national average. Texas is also a state where union membership is low, worker protections are few, and many workers are undocumented immigrants.

Workers Defense formed in 2002 to help them. It recovered unpaid wages, secured medical care, arranged training, and addressed other issues. Eventually, however, it grew dissatisfied with its case-by-case approach. Inspired by the tomato pickers, it shifted its focus from contractors and subcontractors to the developers in charge. In 2012, it persuaded the Austin City Council to require Apple, which hoped to build an operations center in the city, to guarantee construction workers a range of benefits in exchange for $8.6 million in tax breaks. These benefits included higher wages, safety training, workers compensation insurance, and independent monitoring.

Since then, Workers Defense has persuaded other developers to adopt what it calls “Better Builder” standards. A bigger victory came last week, when the Austin City Council passed an ordinance that grants swifter permit review to developers who participate in the Better Builder program.

“Texas is booming, and neighborhoods, renters, elected officials and other community groups across the state are having conversations about what responsible growth and development looks like,” says Robert Delp, who directs the Better Builder program.

Chamber of commerce opposes move

The Austin Chamber of Commerce has denounced the ordinance as “more red tape” and “a step backwards.” But unions and some developers have welcomed it. “We really feel that we’ve got to support efforts like this to raise the industry as a whole,” says Jeremy Hendricks, an official with Laborers International Local 753 in Austin. “It’s really a model that can be expanded across the South.”

Probably the most ambitious attempt to force corporations to take responsibility for workers at the bottom of the supply chain is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Negotiated after the collapse of a Bangladesh clothing factory in 2013, which killed 1,134 workers, the Accord has built upon the decades-long “anti-sweatshop” movement on university and college campuses. Developed in consultation with the Florida tomato pickers, among others, the Accord requires factories to make safety improvements, submit to independent inspections, and allow the participation of Bangladesh trade unions. The agreement covers 1,646 factories and more than 2 million workers.

More than 200 corporations have signed on, including Adidas, Fruit of the Loom, and Abercrombie & Fitch. (Many clothing retailers in the United States – including Walmart, the Gap, and Target – have shunned the Accord and started a rival program that critics say lacks the same labor protections.)

All has not gone smoothly. According to the Accord, safety improvements are behind schedule in almost all the factories. In January, officials sent a letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina protesting the detention of 15 workers and the firing of 1,500 others for demanding higher wages.

The tomato pickers “made a tremendous contribution to this whole approach,” says Scott Nova, executive director of the nonprofit Workers Rights Consortium and one of the architects of the Accord. In particular, he says, the CIW showed that any agreement must take industry economics into account.

Labor experts say there is growing interest in consumer-driven campaigns on behalf of workers. But they warn that matching the tomato pickers’ success won’t be easy.

“It’s not something you can replicate instantaneously,” says Janice Fine, a professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey and an expert on worker centers. “It’s the result of a lot of work for a long time, a lot of painstaking work building and organizing people in a community for a lot of years.”

It’s also not seen as a replacement for unions. “We have over 100 years of labor history,” says Andrew Shrank, a labor expert at Brown University in Rhode Island. “There’s a … lot of evidence that strikes have gotten workers a lot. There’s not a record of sustained success among consumer driven campaigns.”

One big challenge is funding. Unions pay for their efforts through dues; worker centers usually depend on philanthropic organizations.

“There are so many well intentioned people out there, and so few resources,” says Adelphi’s Professor Gray. “I’ve seen so many efforts get sidelined because the immediate survival needs of workers can trump the long-term organizing goals.”

The Trump administration’s immigration crackdown may make organizing immigrant farm workers even harder than it already is, says Renan Salgado, who works on human trafficking issues for the Worker Justice Center of New York, based in Rochester. “The idea of them coming forward to get some justice and organize around fair pay, or anything, is not something they’re going to want to jeopardize their status for.”

Others are seeing a surge of activism. In Texas, immigrant groups are trying to rally against the federal crackdown against unauthorized immigrants and fighting the efforts of Texas lawmakers to strip immigrants of the protections they have enjoyed in so-called sanctuary cities like Austin.

“Folks are standing up for their rights and speaking out,” says Mr. Delp at Workers Defense. “There’s also fear. It’s both.”

Foreign challenges

Outside the United States, the lack of a strong civil society – “where people don’t live in fear” – limits efforts to organize farm workers, says Greg Asbed, one of the CIW’s founders. He says this would make it hard to expand the CIW’s Fair Food Program to Mexico, a growing source of American tomatoes. “No human rights can be effectively enforced in that context,” he says.

But many people have turned to the tomato pickers for help and advice – from pickers in Morocco, planners of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and European Union officials worried about slavery in European supply chains.

One of the biggest challenges may be simply to keep consumers engaged. The tomato pickers have enlisted the support of student activists, faith communities, and other groups. But it doesn’t always work. Wendy’s has long resisted the CIW’s efforts, buying its tomatoes in Mexico and elsewhere. Last April the CIW launched a national boycott of the company, beginning with a “Month of Outrage” that included protests around the country.

The company hasn’t budged. In a statement last fall, a Wendy’s spokesperson insisted that the company already requires producers to follow “responsible business practices.” And “we don’t believe we should have to pay another company’s employees.”

But perseverance may be the most important lesson.

“If it were easy for new ideas to take shape and have an impact, it would happen all the time,” says Mr. Asbed. “This is a brand new paradigm.”