Despite apparent victories, a labor union fighting Florida’s tomato industry can’t stop seeking more publicity by attacking its employers.

Doug Ohlemeier
Eastern Editor

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 coalition’s penny per-pound initiative designed increase tomato pickers’ pay.

Notice the fighting words used by CIW spokesman Lucas Benitez in a June news release trumpeting the agreements with the growers.

“For nearly two seasons, the campaign’s promise of fair wages for Florida’s farmworkers has been held hostage by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange,” he said.

Is that the way you would work with an opponent to secure an agreement?

I don’t think such fiery words would help your cause by further insulting your employers.

Florida’s tomato industry contends that, instead of helping tomato workers, the CIW’s call for the extra pay through its frequent boycotts and protests against fast-food operations — and now, calls for major retailers to join the CIW’s cause — 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, wouldn’t have a competitive product. Buyers would source lower-priced Mexican tomatoes.

Benitez, in an interview with The Packer, said the group’s deals are designed to keep buyers buying Florida tomatoes.

It’s been hard for Florida’s 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., hasn’t been hesitant to speak up for the industry’s 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 aren’t 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.

It’s a transparency not seen in most other industries. Spencer said he doesn’t 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 “Tomato Tournament for Tots” 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 RCMA’s 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 “no” when the RCMA requests help.

E-mail dohlemeier@thepacker.com

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