NEW YORK — During the early evening hours of August 19th the street in front of the new Trader Joe’s store on 6th Avenue and 20th Street in NYC was filled with about 200 chanting, placard carrying demonstrators and a brass band, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra. Organized by a group representing the tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and supported by their many allies, it was part of a campaign to get the Trader Joe’s market chain to agree to join with Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, and Burger King who are already working with the CIW to improve the working conditions and wages of the farm workers who pick the tomatoes that these stores sell. Essentially, that would mean that Trader Joe’s would have to pay an additional penny a pound for their tomatoes. The agreement between the Florida growers and these retailers requires that the retailers demand more humane standards from their Florida tomato suppliers, and for that they will agree to pay a higher price for the more fairly produced tomatoes, and they will only buy from growers who meet those higher standards. The Immokalee workers are trying to establish the principle of “Fair Food”.
The CIW is responding to a human rights crisis in Florida’s tomato fields. Pickers earn 40-50 cents for every 32 pound bucket of tomatoes that they harvest. That pay rate has not risen since 1978. A worker has to pick 2.5 tons of tomatoes to earn a minimum wage for a 10 hour day.
In 2008 2 farm labor employers in Immokalee each got 12 year prison sentences for enslaving tomato harvesters. The pickers were held against their will, beaten, chained, and locked up at night. During the past decade there have been 7 convictions of tomato growers, involving over 1,000 workers, for servitude/slavery.
The CIW did not gain the power to represent the workers easily. They began organizing in 1993 in a room in a local church. Their goal was to better their lives and the lives of their community. It took 3 community wide work stoppages, a month long hunger strike by some of them, strong pressure on the growers from groups that supported the workers, and a historic 234 mile march in 2000 from Ft. Meyers to Orlando to enable them to gain recognition and win industry wide raises of 13% – 25% for the harvesters.
As people passed Trader Joe’s they were handed leaflets explaining the action and very many stopped to talk. The demonstrators explained that they were not asking anyone to boycott the store yet. Postcards signed by people in the street that were addressed to Dan Bane, Trader Joe’s CEO, urging him to work with the CIW to ensure fair wages and working conditions for the farm workers, were delivered to the store manager.
After about 90 minutes, as the colorful signs and musical instruments were packed up, there was one final militant chant, “We’ll be back and we’ll be stronger. We won’t take this any longer.”