Our Food, Their Struggle: Farmworker Organizing

June 11, 2014

Two student readings give an overview of conditions facing U.S. farmworkers, past efforts at farmworker organizing, and the current successes of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Questions for discussion follow each reading.

To the Teacher: 

Many people have begun to look for organic or locally grown food in the grocery store or restaurant. But how often do we consider those who work to bring us our food? 
 
Farmworkers working in the fields in California, Florida, Texas, and other states (and countries) are a critical component of the food chain that provides us with the fruits and vegetables that we eat. However, millions of farmworkers are paid poverty-level wages and labor under difficult and often exploitative conditions. The abuses faced by these workers were made famous by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the 1960s. Although the UFW's efforts resulted in some improvements, migrant farmworkers still face injustice today, so they continue to organize for better conditions.  
 
This lesson consists of two readings. The first reading gives an overview of some the conditions facing farmworkers in the United States. The second reading profiles the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization working to improve conditions for farmworkers today. Questions for discussion follow each reading.

 

Student Reading 1:

Exploitation in the Fields

Many people have begun to look for organic or locally grown food in the grocery store or restaurant. But how often do we consider those who work to bring us our food? 

Immigrant farmworkers working in the fields in California, Florida, Texas, and other states (and countries) are a critical component of the food chain that provides us with the fruits and vegetables that we eat. However, millions of farmworkers are paid poverty-level wages and labor under difficult and often exploitative conditions. The abuses faced by these workers were made famous by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the 1960s. Although the UFW's efforts resulted in some improvements, migrant farmworkers still face injustice today, so they continue to organize for better conditions.  
 
Farmworker Justice, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving conditions of farmworkers through government lobbying and legal defense, describes some of the demographics of those who work in the fields:
 
An estimated 2 million farmworkers work on farms and ranches in the United States. Including farmworkers' spouses and children, there are roughly 4.5 million farmworkers and family members in the U.S. The large majority of farmworkers are immigrants, and the majority of those immigrants (53%) lack authorized immigration status under current U.S. laws. 
 
According to the most recent report of the Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey (from 2001-02):
  • Foreign-born workers make up 78% of the workforce
  • United States citizens make up 25% of the workforce
  • Legal permanent residents make up 21% of the workforce
 
In general, education and literacy among farmworkers are limited. On average, 7th grade is the limit of farmworkers' formal education.
 
Farmworker Justice goes on to describe the socioeconomic difficulties faced by agricultural employees:
 
Farmworker communities generally deal with a high level of poverty; few farmworkers have employment benefits or access to unemployment benefits. According to data from 2001-2002:
  • At least 30% of farmworkers earned wages placing them below the poverty line
  • Annual income for an individual was roughly $10,000 - $12,500
  • Annual income for farmworker families was roughly $15,000 - $17,500
  • The average hourly wage was $7.25.
 
Most farmworkers do not receive much needed benefits like sick leave, paid vacation or health insurance. Because many agricultural employers are exempt from unemployment taxes, many farmworkers are not eligible for unemployment benefits even though they perform jobs that are seasonal and intermittent.
 
Despite the high level of poverty, most farmworkers do not receive any public benefits. In 2001-2002, only 8% of farmworkers received food stamps, 11% received WIC (a supplemental nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) and 15% received Medicaid.
 
 
One farmworker, 40-year-old Odilia Chavez of Madera, California, provided a first-hand account of her experience in the fields. Chavez was quoted in a November 6, 2013, article for a Modern Farmer magazine article by Lauren Smiley. Chavez stated:
 
I'd never worked in a field. It was really hard at first — working outdoors with the heat, the daily routine. But I've certainly learned. In a typical year, I prune grapevines starting in April, and pick cherries around Madera in May. I travel to Oregon in June to pick strawberries, blueberries and blackberries on a farm owned by Russians. I take my 14-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son with me while they're on their summer break. They play with the other kids, and bring me water and food in the field. We'll live in a boarding house with 25 rooms for some 100 people, and everyone lines up to use the bathrooms. My kids and I share a room for $270 a month.
...
 
You come home really tired. I'll come home, take a shower, put lotion on my hot feet, and be ready for the next day. I'm usually in bed by 9:00 to get up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to make and pack some tacos for the day. Also, undocumented workers don't have any medical insurance — so the majority of us just buy over-the-counter pills for any problems. Luckily, I haven't had many health issues yet.
 
 
Organizing seasonal migrant workers to improve conditions in the fields has been a notoriously difficult task. Perhaps the most famous and successful organizing drive began in 1962, when Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW).  Chavez had grown up in a family of migrant farmworkers. He left school in the seventh grade and went to work in the fields full-time so that his mother wouldn't have to. After years of picking peas, lettuce, cherries, beans, corn, grapes and cotton, Chavez joined Huerta, a young civil rights activist, in creating the NFWA, whose aim was to improve the lives of farmworkers.  
Rick Tejada-Flores, director of the 1997 documentary Fight in the Fields, summarizes the emergence and success of the NFWA: 
 
From 1962 to 1965 Cesar Chavez and a small group of organizers traveled up and down California's agricultural valleys, talking to people, holding house meetings, helping with problems, and inviting farmworkers to join their new organization. They didn't call the National Farmworkers Association a labor union, because people had such bad memories of lost strikes and unfulfilled promises. It was a slow and tedious process.
 
Everything changed on September 8, 1965. On that day another farmworker group, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), struck the Delano table grape growers. Most of AWOC's members were Filipinos who had come to the U.S. during the 1930s.
 
One week later the NFWA voted to join the strike. Among the joint leadership were Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla from NFWA, and Larry Itliong, Andy Imutan and Philip Veracruz from AWOC...
 
The farmworkers wanted people to see their strike as something bigger and more dramatic — a battle for justice and human dignity. It became the cause, la causa! The strikers reached out to church groups and student activists. Both had been drawn to the civil rights struggles in the South, and both responded to the "David vs. Goliath" battle taking place in Delano. The public was also attracted to the farmworkers commitment to non-violence. Chavez saw non-violence as both a moral principle and a tactic. Under his leadership, the farmworkers movement would adopt non-violence as its guiding philosophy...
 
By 1967 farmworkers were enlisting consumers in their battle. When the Giumarra Corporation tried to disguise their shipments by using other grape growers' labels, the farmworkers began a national boycott of all table grapes. Striking farmworkers spread out across the country, forging alliances with students, churches, and consumers and other union members to try to stop the sale of grapes...
 
At its height, more than 14 million Americans helped by not buying grapes. The pressure was irresistible, and the Delano growers signed historic contracts with UFWOC in 1969. 
 
What had the farmworkers won? There was an end to the abusive system of labor contracting. Instead jobs would be assigned by a hiring hall, with guaranteed seniority and hiring rights. The contracts protected workers from exposure to the dangerous pesticides that are widely used in agriculture. There was an immediate rise in wages, and fresh water and toilets provided in the fields. The contracts provided for a medical plan, and clinics were built in Delano, Salinas and Coachella.
 
 
The UFW was able to make considerable gains for farmworkers in the 1960s and 70s. However, immigrant farmworkers continue to be one of the most vulnerable populations of working people in the country, and conditions in the fields remain harsh.
 
 

For Discussion: 

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. How would you describe the working and living conditions that farmworkers typically face?
 
3. Why might it be difficult to organize migrant farmworkers? What are some of the factors that might inhibit collective action within this group?
 
4. What were some of the strategies that the UFW used to push for change? 
 
5. What tangible gains were the United Farm Workers able to achieve? 
 
 
 

Student Reading 2:

Farmworkers Rallying for Justice: The Case of the Immokalee Workers

Farmworkers in different parts of the country continue to organize to improve working conditions for those in the fields. 
 
One of the most visible and successful campaigns to emerge in the past decade has been led by the Coalition of Immokalee Worker (CIW), a group of farmworkers  and activists based in Southern Florida. The CIW has spearheaded the Campaign for Fair Food, which lobbies major corporations to improve pay for workers, investigate worker complaints, and buy only from growers who comply with a program of improved labor standards.
 
In an April 24, 2014 New York Times article, labor and workplace reporter Steven Greenhouse highlights the CIW's remarkable successes:
 
By enlisting the might of major restaurant chains and retailers — including Walmart, which signed on this year — the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has pressured growers that produce 90 percent of Florida's tomatoes to increase wages for their 30,000 workers and follow strict standards that mandate rest breaks and forbid sexual harassment and verbal abuse...
 
So far, the agreements between retailers and growers are limited to Florida's tomato fields, which in itself is no small feat considering that the state produces 90 percent of the country's winter tomatoes.
 
But gaining the heft and reach of Walmart — which sells 20 percent of the nation's fresh tomatoes year-round — may prove far more influential. To the applause of farmworkers' advocates, the retailer has agreed to extend the program's standards and monitoring to its tomato suppliers in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia and elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard. Walmart officials say they also hope to apply the standards to apple orchards in Michigan and Washington and strawberry fields in many states.
 
"This is the best workplace-monitoring program I've seen in the U.S.," said Janice R. Fine, a labor relations professor at Rutgers. "It can certainly be a model for agriculture across the U.S. If anybody is going to lead the way and teach people how it's done, it's [the CIW]."
 
Since the program's inception, its system of inspections and decisions issued by a former judge has resulted in suspensions for several growers, including one that failed to adopt a payroll system to ensure pickers were paid for all the time they worked...
 
Amassing all these company partnerships took time. The workers' coalition organized a four-year boycott of Taco Bell to get its parent company, Yum Brands, to agree in 2005 to pay an extra penny a pound for tomatoes, helping increase workers' wages. In 2007 the coalition sponsored a march to Burger King's headquarters in Miami, pushing that company to join the effort. Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Chipotle and Subway have also signed on.
 
 
Although the CIW started without a large membership, over the years it has swelled its ranks through several aggressive organizing campaigns. As the organization explains on its website:
 
The CIW began organizing in 1993 as a small group of workers meeting weekly in a room borrowed from a local church to discuss how to better their community and their lives...  Combining three community-wide work stoppages with intense public pressure - including an unprecedented month-long hunger strike by six members in 1998 and an historic 234-mile march from Ft. Myers to Orlando in 2000 - the CIW's early organizing ended over twenty years of declining wages in the tomato industry.
 
By 1998, farmworkers had won industry-wide raises of 13-25% (translating into several million dollars annually for the community in increased wages) and a newfound political and social respect from the outside world. Those raises brought the tomato picking piece rate back to pre-1980 levels (the piece rate had fallen below those levels over the course of the intervening two decades), but wages remained below poverty level and continuing improvement was slow in coming.
 
While continuing to organize for fairer wages, the CIW also turned its attention to attacking involuntary servitude. Over the past 15 years, 9 major investigations and federal prosecutions have freed over 1,200 Florida farmworkers from captivity and forced labor, leading one US Attorney to call these fields "ground zero for modern slavery."
 
The CIW was key in the discovery, investigation, and prosecution of seven of those operations. Through these efforts, they helped pioneer anti-trafficking work in the US, contributing to the formation of the Department of Justice Anti-Trafficking Unit and the passage of the landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000. 
 
In 2001, having won some wage increases for Florida tomato pickers and investigated some of the country's earliest cases of modern-day slavery, the CIW did a deep analysis of the industry to understand where the power to make true systemic change resided. It became clear that the corporate food industry as a whole - companies such as current campaign targets Kroger, Publix, and Ahold USA  - purchased a tremendous volume of fruits and vegetables, leveraging its buying power to demand the lowest possible prices from its suppliers, in turn exerting a powerful downward pressure on wages and working conditions in these suppliers' operations.
 
 
The CIW is currently engaged in a two-year campaign targeting Wendy's in an effort to get the fast food giant to meet the demands of the Campaign for Fair Food. Just Harvest USA, an organization that works in coalition with the CIW and other labor rights organizations, explains the campaign:
 
Of the five largest fast food corporations in the country -- McDonald's, Subway, Burger King, Taco Bell (Yum! Brands), and Wendy's -- Wendy's stands alone as the only one who has refused to join the Fair Food Program and respect the rights and dignity of farmworkers in its supply chain. 
 
Wendy's is one of the very largest buyers of tomatoes in the restaurant industry, an industry that for decades purchased low cost tomatoes whose harvest relied on the exploitation of workers. Given its market power, Wendy's has not only an opportunity, but an obligation to work with the tomato industry to be part of the solution to Florida's longstanding history of farmworker abuse and poverty: the Fair Food Program.
 
As Wendy's positions itself to implement sustainable business practices and promote its sourcing of "honest ingredients," it must realize that respect for human rights and worker participation are integral components of the genuine sustainability that today's consumers expect and demand.
 
 
Farmworker advocates are calling on consumers to contact Wendy's to tell the company to participate with the Campaign for Fair Food. 
 
The CIW has achieved past gains in large part through its ability to engage the public in support of its campaigns, with sympathetic consumers signing petitions, expressing their concerns to corporations, and attending public demonstrations. 
 

For Discussion: 

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. According to the reading, what are some of the demands of the Campaign for Fair Food? 
 
3. What are some of the CIW's past achievements? What is the nature of their current campaign?
 


Considering activism:
Small and whole-group discussion

Ask students to break into groups of 3 to 5.  Give students in each group five minutes to discuss each of the questions below.
 
1.  Are you concerned about the working conditions of people who produce the fruits and vegetables you eat? Why or why not?
 
2. What do you think could be done to permanently improve conditions for farmworkers?
 
3.  Should our class consider taking some action to support farmworker organizing or support improved conditions for farmworkers in some other way? If so, what could we do?
 
Reconvene the whole class and ask the groups to report on their discussion.  If there is interest, support the class in taking action in support of farmworkers.  
 
 
-- Research assistance provided by Yessenia Gutierrez.