In its efforts to end the labor abuses in Florida’s tomato fields, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) can give thanks this holiday season for some remarkable successes in 2012.
After years of foot dragging, the restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill and the supermarket chain Trader Joe’s signed the CIW’s Fair Food Agreement, which gives workers a one-penny-per-pound raise and establishes zero tolerance for sexual harassment and slavery, once all-too common in the Sunshine State’s agriculture industry. The two new signatories joined 10 other major fast food and food service corporations in supporting Fair Food.
Unfortunately, 2012 will also go down as the year that the workers’ rights group (named after a migrant community in Southwestern Florida) faced one rebuff after another from supermarkets. With the exceptions of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market, not a single grocery chain has signed the agreement.
Singularly perplexing is the refusal of Publix, which generates $27 billion in sales per year from 1,050 stores in five southeastern states. Publix is based in Florida. Its sleek, glass corporate offices are set beside a lake on park-like grounds only a short drive from the state’s tomato fields. The CIW has tried to approach the company dozens of times. Coalition supporters frequently hold rallies at its stores. This spring, nearly 100 protesters held a six-day hunger strike at the entrance to the chain’s headquarters. To no avail.
Publix’s response this year has been puzzling, to say the least. Over Labor Day weekend, Clay Thomas, assistant pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, took a break from drafting his weekly sermon to pick up a sandwich at his local Publix, where a group of Fair Food demonstrators had gathered. Although he was wearing a T-shirt bearing a CIW logo in solidarity with the marchers, Thomas was not participating in the action, which had ended before he arrived at the store. Nonetheless, he said in an interview, he was met in the parking lot by Mark Codd, Publix’s director of labor relations. According to Thomas, the high-ranking manager photographed him and then said that he could not go into the store.
Explaining that he was merely there to pick up something for lunch and getting no reply, Thomas proceeded to the deli counter and ordered his sandwich. “I did ask the clerk to hold the tomatoes,” he said.
Just as Thomas was about to be handed his order, two police officers appeared and requested that he leave the store immediately. As they escorted him to the door, the officers told him that he was banned from coming back to that supermarket for a year.
That was not the only run-in Codd had that afternoon with a member of the clergy. He also approached Donald Thompson, a United Methodist minister who was taking part in the demonstration, and told him that McDonald’s and Taco Bell had stopped participating in the Fair Food Program.
Neither Codd nor Maria Brous, Publix’s director of media and community relations, returned phone calls and emails requesting clarification.
In the 18 months the Fair Food Agreement has been operative, over $8 million has been paid directly to workers, according to Laura Safer Espinoza, a former New York State supreme court judge who is head of the Fair Foods Standards Council, an independent organization based in Sarasota that is charged with auditing all aspects of the Fair Food Agreement. “Our forensic accounts meticulously monitor both buyers and growers and they have been able to reconcile every penny—no pun intended,” she said.
Espinoza said that no one from Publix had ever contacted her organization to ask about the ultimate destination of the Fair Food funds. “Of course, they are welcome to do so. I’m available to talk. Anytime they want.”
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, CIW is asking supporters to sign a petition asking Publix to come to the table. Demonstrations are scheduled at more than two dozen Publix stores over the holiday. The organization suggests that folks at home with their families take a few moments to watch the news report CBS filmed two years ago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s famous 1960 documentary Harvest of Shame, which tells a story of farm worker abuse. The broadcast is pertinent today as it was a half century ago. And the CIW also asks Americans to take a moment before the holiday meal to give thanks to the men and women who pick the food on our tables.
Would you pay an additional penny per pound to support farm workers? Tell us in the comments.
A two-time James-Beard-Award-winning journalist, Barry Estabrook is the author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. He was a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. His work has also appeared in the New York Times “Dining” section and the New York Times Magazine, Men’s Health, Saveur, Gastronomica, TheAtlantic.com and many other national magazines. He has been anthologized in The Best American Food Writing 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. His website is www.politicsoftheplate.com.