Published on March 02 2011 - 5:00 AM
My protest marching skills are a bit rusty, having last been put to use in 1968 on behalf of Eugene McCarthy and his thwarted bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. But on a bitter afternoon in Boston recently, I sloshed through a few inches of slushy snow with more than 900 supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a grassroots farmworkers' organization based in Florida. We tramped from Boston's Copley Square to a Stop & Shop supermarket a couple of miles away. With a brass band, clever signage, and rousing warm-up speeches by Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, and Lucas Benetiz, of the CIW, it was a friendly, festive event whose purpose could not have been more serious.
Sixty members of the CIW had traveled by bus from Florida, sleeping on church floors and bathing at homeless shelters along the way, to make a simple request. They want Stop & Shop, a northeastern chain of supermarkets owned by the international conglomerate Ahold, to pay them one penny more per pound for the tomatoes they pick. Less than chump change to the $40-billion-a-year Ahold, a penny per pound is the difference between making $50 and $80 during a 10-hour workday for a typical tomato picker—$5 an hour versus a barely minimum wage of $8 an hour. Without the additional penny, laborers earn the same amount for a 32-pound bucket today as they did 30 years ago. They receive no benefits of any kind, have no sick leave, and are not paid extra for overtime. Most earn less than $12,000 a year. On the day we marched to that Stop & Shop, fresh slicing tomatoes were on sale for $1.99 a pound. Paying one penny more per pound for an out-of-season luxury that no one really needs seems a modest sacrifice.
After nearly two decades, the effort to improve working conditions in the tomato fields of Florida has reached a crucial milestone. Last November, the CIW reached a watershed agreement with the huge farms that grow and pack most of the field-raised fresh tomatoes Americans eat at this time of year. Called the Fair Food principles, the terms of the agreement include a strict code of conduct, a complaint resolution system, a health and safety program, and an educational process.
Importantly, the growers agreed to pass a penny-per-pound increase along to workers if—and this was a crucial "if"—their customers would accept it. Large restaurant franchises such as McDonald's, Burger King, and Yum! Brands (which owns Taco Bell) came aboard, as did Bon Appetit Management Company, Compass, Aramark, and other industrial food-service companies. But with the notable exception of Whole Foods Market, not a single supermarket chain has offered to participate. As one member of the coalition told me, "We have built a conduit for a fair wage, but the supermarkets have to fill it."
Before the Fair Food agreement, American grocery shoppers could have viewed the atrocities to which the Florida tomato workers are subjected as somebody else's problems. But with the agreement, every time we put a tomato in our grocery carts, we become part of the problem—or the solution. The refusal of supermarkets like Stop & Shop, Giant, Publix, and Trader Joe's to do what large restaurant and food service companies have done makes it all but impossible to buy a Florida winter tomato from a produce section in good conscience.
After the rally and march, it was easy to feel optimistic. But by the time I read the next morning's newspapers, that hope had faded. Suzi Robinson, spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, who did not return my calls, told a reporter from The Boston Globe that the company would not dictate worker compensation to suppliers (even though the workers were asking only for something that the suppliers had already agreed to). "It is not our place to enter into direct wage negotiations with employees of our suppliers,'' she said. "We will pay market price to suppliers who comply to our standards.''
Robinson also told the reporter that Stop & Shop holds its suppliers to the standards of its parent company, Ahold, which include provisions that bar suppliers from violating basic human rights, mandate workers' right to collectively bargain, and provide for workplace health and safety.
That is a perplexing statement, given that the CIW has been instrumental in bringing nine cases of abject slavery to prosecution in Florida, freeing more than 1,000 workers who had forced into involuntary servitude, a crime that is much less likely to happen in fields governed by the Fair Food Principles.
After leaving Boston, the CIW headed south toward Florida. Their first stop was a Trader Joe's branch in New York City. Blame that glow of optimism, but I thought they would surely get a warmer welcome from that bastion of feel-good food. Wrong. A representative of the company refused to so much as accept a letter from the workers explaining their position and requested that they leave. Most supermarket managers approached by the CIW accept the letters cordially. (A Trader Joe's spokeswoman did not return my calls, either.)
Working their way home, the CIW members plan to stop in Landover, Maryland, home to Giant Food Stores (another Ahold brand), and Atlanta, where the southeastern grocery chain Publix has a divisional office. A final stop is scheduled on March 5 at a Publix in Tampa. Perhaps they'll get a warmer reception in their home state, but it seems doubtful.
But there is still room for optimism. At the Boston Rally, CIW member Lucas Benetiz said, "This greed has to change. The executives at Ahold want what is best for their children; we want the same for ours. We will not stop."
Given the CIW's slow but steady series of victories against some of the biggest corporations in the world in its battle for Fair Food, the supermarket executives would be well advised to heed those last four words.
Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. His work on a dairy farm and fishing boat taught him that writing about food was easier than producing it. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com.