From the fields to the streets

Farmworkers, their families and supporters took the fight for justice in the fields into the streets in a march on April 16-18 called by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Activists marched more than 20 miles from Tampa to Lakeland, Fla., where they brought their demands to the headquarters of the Publix supermarket chain.

Silvia Giagnoni is a college teacher and journalist based in Montgomery, Ala., and author of the forthcoming book Fields of Resistance: The Struggle of Florida's Farmworkers for Justice. Here, she reports on the Immokalee workers' fight.

Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and student supporters lead a freedom march of hundreds (Jeff Weinberger)Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and student supporters lead a freedom march of hundreds (Jeff Weinberger)

PERSISTENCE. BACK in 1992, when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was formed and started its struggle for justice in the fields, Immokalee was a horrible place to end up. Farmworkers lived in fear, knowing that, when abused, no one would stand up and defend them.

After 17 years, there are still many workers who are too afraid of the possible reprisals at the hands of their bosses or associates to disclose the nature of their mistreatments. In addition, there is little social and cultural acceptance for these individuals. As a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center shows, low-income Latinos in the South are today an oppressed group, regardless of their immigration status.

However, the CIW has become a haven where farmworkers can find solace, friendship, solidarity and, more than anything else, hope.

But it takes persistence. The struggle for farmworkers rights has a long history in this country: Every gain ahead was hard-fought and often not fully secured. According to the 2008 USDA report, farmworkers are still "among the most economically disadvantaged working groups."

This past weekend, the CIW and its allies gathered in Central Florida to march to end the abuses in the fields. They also protested against food retailer colossus Publix.

The Farmworker Freedom March started off on April 16 in downtown Tampa. Hundreds of students, clergy people, and new and long-time supporters of the coalition drove as many as 30 hours (from New York City, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Illinois) to join the workers of Immokalee and their families in this protest to bring justice to the fields of Florida.

The CIW is demanding that Publix raise the pickers' wages one penny per pound of tomatoes to comply with the agreement that fast-food chains such as Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King and Subway, along with other supermarkets (Whole Foods) have already signed.

Specifically, Aramark, a major food service company, recently followed the example set by Compass Group when it agreed in September to pay 1.5 cents more per pound of tomatoes and to abide by the Code of Conduct for agricultural suppliers compiled by the coalition.

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LAST DECEMBER, the CIW came to Lakeland to stage its first protest at Publix headquarters: 500 people attended the Walk for Farmworker Justice. So far, Publix, the largest supermarket in the Southeast, has turned a blind eye to the grassroots organization in the same way as the majority of the food retailers underestimated the CIW's determination and its wide network of supporters.

Publix, adopting a corporate strategy similar to other companies who eventually capitulated and signed the agreement with the CIW, released a statement last Thursday: "The CIW's complaints should be addressed with the employers of the workers, not with the retailers and their customers."

For the record, the CIW originally targeted the growers through a series of local actions that led to the historic 1997 raise in farmworkers' wages. At the end of the 1990s, however, the coalition began to target the largest fast-food chains in an effort to put further pressure on the growers and to develop a fair food culture that involved corporations' labor practices as well.

While the CIW keeps increasing awareness among consumers (especially college students through the Student Farmworker Alliance), food retailers have been called to task, and a new business model of collaboration (though hard-fought) between a worker-based organization and corporate giants has developed. This model, however, presumes a shared, collective responsibility for social injustice.

The Farmworker Freedom March was also an opportunity to recommit to the cause; once more, an act of persistence. The enthusiasm of the people who took part in the march was contagious. Many local people along the route showed support for the protesters by honking their horns, smiling or otherwise showing their true interest in knowing more about the reasons for the march.

On Saturday alone, I counted six Publix trucks that honked their horns in signs of support for the protesters. On the other hand, a few cursed at the crowd or showed racist and hateful signs, expressing their scorn in ways that recall the most vocal tea parties activists.

But the marchers' energy seems bottomless, and on the wet Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people marched from Publix in downtown Lakeland to the St. Joseph's Catholic Church chanting "No lluvia no viento puede parar el movimiento." (No rain or wind can stop the movement).

The St. Joseph's open-air recreation area hosts the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum. The museum, which has toured the Sunshine State since the end of February, reproduces the truck used by the Navarrete family to imprison their workers and exhibits replicas of the tools and arms used by the convicted men, and pictures and media coverage of the uncovering of the slavery cases.

The Navarretes locked the workers in the truck overnight. The captives had to sleep on the floor with no mattresses or blankets and were forced to urinate and defecate in a corner of the truck. In December 2008, Cesar and Geovanni Navarrete were sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for enslaving and beating nine workers.

On Saturday evening, after walking for 10 miles from Plant City to Lakeland, we gathered as close as we could get to the Publix headquarters. An artificial lake divided the protesters from the building, but the message sent by the speakers reached for the sky above.

As the sun began to set, several religious leaders, including Orlando Bishop Thomas Wenski, led the prayer vigil from the CIW green truck. They invoked "The God of Freedom;" the crowd responded reciting Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous words that speak of the persistence of the righteous: "Until justice rolls down like waters."

Eventually, the righteousness of the CIW's cause and the farmworkers' persistence will be rewarded, and justice in the fields one day not too far will, indeed, prevail.