Tomato Workers Turn to Hunger Strike

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers hopes a six-day fast will to convince Publix to sign its Fair Food Agreement.

Florida tomato workers, Publix supermarkets, Courtesy of Coalition of Immokalee Workers
First Whole Foods, then Trader Joe's—will Florida tomato workers win over Publix? (Photo: Courtesy of Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) should be celebrating. Last week Trader Joe’s signed a Fair Food Agreement with the Florida-based labor justice group. The agreement grants basic rights and higher wages to Florida tomato harvesters.

But the celebrations were short-lived. The CIW announced that 50 of its members and their supporters would be going on a fast. For six days, beginning March 5, the Fast for Fair Food will take place at the headquarters of Publix Supermarkets, a $25-billion, Florida-based company that operates more than 1,000 stores in the Southeast.

“We are fasting today so that tomorrow none of our children are forced to surrender their dignity or to suffer hunger just to work,” Darinel Sales, one of the workers who will be taking part, wrote in an email. “We are fasting so that the people in charge of Publix can soften their hearts and sit with us to construct a reality in which prosperity is not based on the blood, sweat, and humiliation of farmworkers."

History is repeating itself in the tomato fields.

In 1997 six members of the CIW went on a month-long hunger strike. Their request was modest. They wanted the corporate tomato growers who employed them to enter into a dialogue about working conditions on the farms.

The bosses refused, even after one worker became so weak that he had to be hospitalized.

But in the long run, that hunger strike far exceeded its goal. Prominent religious and political leaders, including the archbishop of Baltimore and former President Jimmy Carter, leant their support to the CIW’s cause. More than a decade of activism followed, during which the CIW helped bring to light and prosecute several cases of abject slavery and other gross human rights abuses in Florida agriculture. Finally, in late 2010, the same corporate agriculture executives who would not so much as speak with the people who picked their tomatoes sat down with members of the CIW to sign the Fair Food Agreement.

The agreement brought the workers higher wages, a grievance system, and some basic rights. With the stroke of a pen, the Florida tomato industry went from being perhaps the most repressive employer in the nation’s agricultural sector to being the most enlightened. The two former rivals came together in what the CIW calls “a remarkably productive collaboration.”

A strength of the Fair Food Agreement is that it links all levels of players in the tomato business in a unique partnership to improve working conditions: the men and women who pick and pack the fruits, the agricultural companies that operate the farms and packing facilities, and—critically—the end buyers of the tomatoes. Restaurant chains (including such giants as McDonald’s and Burger King) and food service providers support the agreement, which calls on them to pay an extra penny per pound directly to the workers, a raise of nearly 50 percent. But with the exception of Whole Foods Market and now Trader Joe’s, not a single grocery chain has agreed to participate.

No food conglomerate has an excuse, least of all Florida-based Publix. Not only are the state’s tomato workers its customers, but the Publix website boasts about the firm’s “community involvement,” “diversity and inclusion,” and “commitment to our market areas.” It proclaims itself to be Florida’s “neighborhood grocer.”

Maria Brous, Publix’s director of media and community relations, did not return telephone calls. The company has said in press statements that it would be more than willing to pay a penny more per pound if that amount was included in the price the growers charged, but it refuses to pay pickers directly. (Which is odd because under the Fair Food Agreement the extra penny is, in fact, included in the price.) Slavery, Publix says, should be prosecuted under existing laws. And if labor conditions are too strenuous in the tomato industry, the company thinks workers should simply find another employer.

Like the farm owners in the 1990s, executives at Publix have steadfastly refused all requests to enter into dialogue with the CIW. They would do well to remember the famous words of the philosopher and writer George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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