General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Justice in the Tomato Fields: Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Lucas Benitez
Lucas Benitez

General Assembly 2008 Event 2046

Presenters: Lucas Benitez, Brigitte Gynther, Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, and Rev. Aaron McEmrys. Sponsored by UUA Staff.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker organization in southern Florida, has freed more than 1,000 immigrant and native-born workers from slavery rings and negotiated landmark agreements with Taco Bell, Burger King, and McDonald's to improve tomato pickers' wages and conditions.

The reference to slavery rings may sound exaggerated, but it is fact. To cite just one example, "in 2004 Ramiro and Juan Ramos were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery and firearms charges, and the forfeiture of over $3 million in assets. The men, who had a workforce of over 700 farmworkers in the citrus groves of Florida, as well as the fields of North Carolina, threatened workers with death if they were to try to leave. The case was brought to trial by the Department of Justice after two years of investigation by the CIW. The Ramoses harvested for Consolidated Citrus and Lykes Brothers, among others. More recently, in 2007, Florida employer Ron Evans was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison on drug conspiracy, financial re-structuring, and witness tampering charges, among others. Johns was 2004 Chairman of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, the powerful lobbying arm of the Florida agricultural industry. As of 2007, he remained the Chairman of the FFVA's Budget and Finance Committee." (Adapted from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers website. See also "Ending Slavery for Pennies," from The Nation.)

Lucas Benitez, the featured speaker at this workshop, drove the vehicle in which the three witnesses against the Ramoses escaped their enslavement.

Presenters said the agreements with Burger King, McDonald's, and Yum! Brands (whose subsidiaries include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver's, and A&W) are that those corporations will pay the workers an additional penny per pound for the tomatoes the corporations purchase.

That small amount for the corporate purchasers gives the workers a salary increase of approximately 75 percent. That's because the pay for the workers—about 40 cents for each 32-pound bucket picked—hasn't changed significantly in more than 30 years. The growers are pressured by costs for the machinery and supplies they need and by low-bid purchase agreements from the large buyers. That's why the important solution is agreements with those buyers to increase their payments and earmark the increase to go directly to the workers.

Presenters noted that the agreements and the arrests and convictions to date are significant but modest steps toward achieving fair treatment for these agricultural workers. More needs to be done. Actions that Unitarian Universalists and other concerned consumers can take include:

Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida
1107 New Market Road
Immokalee, FL 34142;

  • Send a donation to the Campaign for Fair Food (same address);
  • Invite a CIW farmworker to speak to your congregation;
  • Picket a Subway or Chipotle restaurant;
  • Write to the President of Subway:

Mr. Fred DeLuca, President
Subway Headquarters
325 Bic Drive
Milford, CT 06460;

  • Write to the CEO of Chipotle:

Mr. Steve Ells, CEO
Chipotle Mexican Grill
1543 Wazee St., Ste. 200
Denver, CO 80202
(Chipotle was spun off as a separate corporation just a few months before the CIW reached agreement with McDonald's.)

Reported by Bill Lewis; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley