Despite apparent victories, a labor union fighting Floridaâs tomato industry canât stop seeking more publicity by attacking its employers.
The Immokalee, Fla.-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has secured agreements from two smaller Florida organic vegetable grower-shippers. It is also working with an initiative developed by Whole Foods Market Inc., Austin, Texas, to support the coalitionâs penny per-pound initiative designed increase tomato pickersâ pay.
Notice the fighting words used by CIW spokesman Lucas Benitez in a June news release trumpeting the agreements with the growers.
âFor nearly two seasons, the campaignâs promise of fair wages for Floridaâs farmworkers has been held hostage by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange,â he said.
Is that the way you would work with an opponent to secure an agreement?
I donât think such fiery words would help your cause by further insulting your employers.
Floridaâs tomato industry contends that, instead of helping tomato workers, the CIWâs call for the extra pay through its frequent boycotts and protests against fast-food operations â and now, calls for major retailers to join the CIWâs cause â would in reality harm tomato workers.
Hurt instead of help
As pay scales get too far out of line, the fear is that growers, facing escalating input and production costs, wouldnât have a competitive product. Buyers would source lower-priced Mexican tomatoes.
Benitez, in an interview with The Packer, said the groupâs deals are designed to keep buyers buying Florida tomatoes.
Itâs been hard for Floridaâs tomato growers and shippers to respond to the outrageous charges leveled against them. Media coverage of the issue frequently claims growers enslave and mistreat workers.
Growers try not to say too much in response to such stories. No matter what they say, the growers often come off as villains.
Bob Spencer, vice president and sales manager of West Coast Tomato Inc., Palmetto, Fla., hasnât been hesitant to speak up for the industryâs progressive practices.
Spencer and other grower-packers point to the Socially Accountable Farm Employers program, co-developed by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which has independent inspectors auditing tomato fields and packinghouses.
Strict labor audits
Growers and packers arenât allowed to be involved in the rigorous audits, which help ensure Florida growers comply with employment laws and do not harass their workers. Auditors hold confidential interviews with workers.
Itâs a transparency not seen in most other industries. Spencer said he doesnât see such rigorous auditing occurring in the hotel industry, which has primarily Spanish-speaking workers.
Through a $25,000 contribution via the Florida Tomato Exchange, growers such as Spencer are helping workers by supporting groups such as the RCMA, which had its newly renamed âTomato Tournament for Totsâ golf benefit in May.
The 10-year-old event generated $100,000 to help fund childcare centers that provide reading instruction and other social programs.
RCMA executive director Barbara Mainster said the results were stunning, especially in light of the poor economy.
In the past, growers helped RCMA find a building here and there for childcare and donated to RCMAâs nonprofit causes via groups such as the FFVA. Now, Mainster said, individual growers are increasingly financially supporting the organization.
Those growers, Mainster said, never say ânoâ when the RCMA requests help.
Do you agree with Doug Ohlemeier's analysis of the relationship between Florida tomato growers and their fieldworkers? Leave a comment and add your opinion to the discussion.
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