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Immokalee workers target fast-food giant

April 6, 2007 | Page 15

THE COALITION of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is targeting fast-food behemoth McDonald's to improve their wages and working conditions in the farms of Florida.

The CIW's "2007 McDonald's Truth Tour: Behind the Golden Arches" will culminate with a rally at the hamburger giant's global headquarters near Chicago April 13 and a "Carnaval and Parade for Fair Food, Real Rights and Dignity" in Chicago the following day.

MARC RODRIGUES lives in Immokalee, Fla., works with the Student/Farmworker Alliance and has been organizing the "Truth Tour." He spoke to Socialist Worker's SHAUN HARKIN about conditions Immokalee workers face and the goals of the campaign.

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SOUTHWEST FLORIDA is one of the U.S.'s most important agricultural centers. Can you talk about conditions for Immokalee workers there?

What you can do

For more information on how to support the CIW's McDonald's campaign, visit the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Student Farmworker Alliance Web sites.

Activists in Chicago can learn about the CIW struggle at a meeting "Immigrant Workers and the Fight for Labor Rights," co-sponsored by the Chicago Workers Collaborative, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, International Socialist Club, Mexican Students of Aztlán, Student-Farm Alliance and UIC Students for Immigrant Rights. The meeting is Friday, April 6 at 12 p.m. at the African American Cultural Center, 830 S. Halsted St., Addams Hall, Room 200.

 

ACCORDING TO the Florida Tomato Committee, "Florida produces virtually the entire fresh market of field-grown tomatoes in the United States from December through May each year, and accounts for about 50 percent of all of the domestically produced fresh tomatoes in the United States each year."

The well-documented conditions under which these tomatoes are harvested include sub-poverty wages and a lack of fundamental rights.

Pickers are paid virtually the same per bucket piece rate today as they were in 1980. At today's rate, workers must pick nearly two and a half tons of tomatoes to just earn minimum wage for a typical 10-hour day. Also, Florida farmworkers have no right to overtime pay, even when working 60-70 hour weeks, and no right to organize or bargain collectively.

In the most extreme cases, workers face conditions that meet the strict legal standards for prosecution under modern-day slavery statutes. In collaboration with the CIW, federal civil rights officials have prosecuted five slavery operations, involving over 1,000 workers, in Florida's fields since 1997. One federal prosecutor called Florida "ground zero for modern-day slavery."

One of the reasons why farmworkers are paid so little is their historic exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act and other basic protections and rights that most other workers enjoy.

Another huge reason is the increasing power of giant corporations, such as McDonald's, that are able to demand from the Florida-based growers a vast amount of tomatoes for a very low price, applying a downward pressure on farmworker wages and conditions.

HOW IS the Coalition of Immokalee Workers organized?

THE CIW is a community-based organization, of the workers and by the workers, that organizes on a non-hierarchical basis heavily influenced by popular education and peasant movements in Haiti, Guatemala and southern Mexico. It aims to raise the consciousness of the Immokalee farmworker community to defend its own rights and struggle for higher wages, better working conditions, and an overall reform of the agricultural industry.

The CIW does this through weekly meetings, leadership development and political education, and its own worker-run community radio station, "radio conciencia" (consciousness radio).

Two key mottoes that guide and influence the CIW's work are "we are all leaders" and "consciousness plus commitment equals change." Besides doing day in and day out community based organizing, The CIW is also on the frontlines of the struggle against modern-day slavery.

WHY ARE you targeting McDonald's?

THE CIW is targeting McDonald's because of the immense power and influence it holds over the agricultural industry and because of its role in causing and perpetuating farmworker poverty through its high-volume, low-cost tomato purchasing practices.

Whenever Yum Brands (parent company of Taco Bell) and McDonald's have taken certain steps toward "social responsibility" in the past, such as changing the ways they treat farm animals, the other fast food corporations basically had to fall in line. We're thinking something similar will happen if, and when, we win the McDonald's campaign.

HOW DO you view the CIW struggle in the context of the struggle for immigrant rights more generally?

THE CIW always says that the agricultural industry is an "equal opportunity exploiter," whether the farmworkers in question are enslaved Africans, poor black sharecroppers, whites, or today's immigrants.

The CIW's struggle is first and foremost a struggle for human rights in an industry whose horrible and inhumane conditions pre-date the fact that currently the majority of the workforce is immigrant.

That being said, when it does come to the question of immigration, the CIW is opposed to guest-worker programs and has a holistic analysis of immigration that points to factors such as U.S. military intervention and free trade agreements that force people off their land and force them to end up in Immokalee as farmworkers.

In general, the CIW is highly supportive of, and considers itself a part of, the recent exciting wave of immigrant protests across the country.

WHAT WILL be happening in Chicago April 13 and 14 and how can the campaign be supported?

THIS HISTORIC national mobilization for farmworker justice will launch a new phase in our campaign. People can get involved by doing pickets, sending letters, organizing local solidarity groups and researching the contractual ties between their universities and McDonald's.

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