The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has never been a group to shy away from a big fight. Since the farm labor and civil rights organization was founded in 1993 by a handful of tomato pickers in the small south Florida town of Immokalee, the CIW has fought continually against bigger, richer adversaries—from fast-food chains to the $650 million industry that employs many of its staff members. Consistently, be it through hunger strikes or protests or marches, the CIW has won.
The biggest victory yet in the coalition’s effort to raise the wages and improve the working conditions of tomato pickers came about in a far different way, however. Yesterday Walmart, the world’s largest grocer, agreed to join the coalition’s Fair Food Program—and it made the decision voluntarily. There was no protest, no petition, no pressure on the giant retailer—tactics the CIW used to convince the likes of Taco Bell and Trader Joe’s to pay just a penny more per pound for tomatoes.
“No other buyer of tomatoes has the buying power and influence that Walmart holds with it,” Geraldo Reyes Chávez, a farmworker and CIW staff member, said of the deal.
“I feel this is a wake-up call for the rest of the retail industry," Chávez said, "the rest of the supermarkets especially”—a sector of the food industry where the CIW has previously gained little ground. “The fact that Walmart is joining what we created to deal with abusive conditions in the fields, and using their buying power to support these, it’s going to be really big in terms of how other buyers, for example Publix [a Florida-based supermarket chain], are behaving in front of this great opportunity to do things right.”
Doing things right, in CIW terms, involves not only paying workers an additional 1.5 cents per pound for tomatoes but also abiding by five other human rights–related standards laid out in the Code of Conduct of the Fair Food Standards Council, an independent third party tasked with implementing the Fair Food Program. The seeming pittance of a per-pound raise has a huge economic impact for these workers, boosting wages from around $50 per day to $80. Between 2011 and 2013, all of those extra pennies amounted to more than $11 million in Fair Food Premiums added to workers’ base wage of 50 to 60 cents per 32-pound bucket.
Barry Estabrook’s 2011 book about the Florida tomato industry, Tomatoland, helped raise awareness of the horrid working conditions, in some instances amounting to modern-day slavery, behind the off-season tomatoes grown in Florida. Yesterday’s announcement, he said, “is the happiest news to come down since I started following this story in 2006 and 2007. I don’t think you can understate how important this is going to be.”
It’s important not only because the grocer represents a huge percentage of the retail market but because of the domino-effect approach CIW has successfully brought to bear in other sectors of the food industry. In the fast-food and food-service fields, CIW fought the longest and hardest to get its first Fair Food Program agreement signed—the second was easier, the third even more so.
“Until Walmart came aboard, about half of the tomatoes that were picked [in Florida] weren’t covered by the full force of the agreement—that’s what the supermarkets represent,” Estabrook says. Now that the first domino has rather effortlessly fallen, history suggests the rest of the industry will likely follow.
Walmart did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chávez says the deal came about in an organic manner, starting when a Walmart executive spoke on the same panel with two CIW representatives at a conference a few years back. The conversation that started there turned into the negotiations that brought about the deal. And unlike other agreements signed by corporations in the past, Walmart is joining the Fair Food Program as something of a collaborator. In addition to following the Code of Conduct, the company will work to bring its tomato suppliers based in other states into accordance with Fair Food Standards—and potentially help expand the program to other crops as well.
“It is the first time that a corporation, while entering into the Fair Food Program with us, is basically agreeing to work with us on that specific point to cover workers beyond Florida and beyond other crops,” Chavez said.
Fritz Roca, an agriculture economist at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, says the previous Florida-only focus of the Fair Food Program is the biggest threat to its long-term sustainability.
Roca says the CIW “is all focused on Florida growers, and the extent that Florida can maintain its market share will determine if this is a good deal for workers or not.” In other words, if the higher price of Fair Food Standards–approved tomatoes helps growers in another state or, more likely, in Mexico, become the leading winter tomato supplier, the increased wages and improved working conditions won’t pay off for Florida workers over the long term.
The more collaborative deal Walmart signed could help alleviate that concern, but Fritz says enlisting other American growers won’t halt international competition. “I don’t know what leverage Walmart can have over a grower in Mexico or even Puerto Rico,” he said. “I don’t know if they could enforce the Fair Food Standards” anywhere outside the 50 states.
The CIW’s Chávez doesn’t seem too concerned about the Fair Food Program becoming a victim of its own success just yet. Instead, he’s celebrating what the Walmart deal means to Florida’s some 33,000 tomato pickers—himself included.
“To us this represents an incredible change for dozens of thousands of workers across the state in economic terms but also in terms of the support for human rights and labor rights of workers,” he says. “It also shows the power of the market and how it can improve the wages, improve the lives of the workers.”