Saturday, July 19, 2008

We Support: Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Consciousness + Commitment = Change: How and why we are organizing...

CIW Worker The CIW is a community-based worker organization. Our members are largely Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida.

We strive to build our strength as a community on a basis of reflection and analysis, constant attention to coalition building across ethnic divisions, and an ongoing investment in leadership development to help our members continually develop their skills in community education and organization.

From this basis we fight for, among other things: a fair wage for the work we do, more respect on the part of our bosses and the industries where we work, better and cheaper housing, stronger laws and stronger enforcement against those who would violate workers' rights, the right to organize on our jobs without fear of retaliation, and an end to indentured servitude in the fields.

From the people, for the people: Who we are...

Picking Melons Southwest Florida is the state's most important center for agricultural production, and Immokalee is the state's largest farmworker community. As such, the majority of our more than 2,500 members work for large agricultural corporations in the tomato and citrus harvests, traveling along the entire East Coast following the harvest in season. Many local residents, and thus many of our members, move out of agriculture and into other low wage industries that are important in our area, including the construction, nursery, and tourist industries. The community is split, roughly, along the following ethnic/national origin lines: Mexican 50%, Guatemalan 30%, Haitian 10% and other nationalities (mostly African-American) 10%.

We are all leaders: Our history...


We began organizing in 1993 as a small group of workers who met weekly in a room borrowed from a local church to discuss how to better our community and our lives. In a relatively short time we have managed to bring about significant, concrete change.

Combining community-wide work stoppages with intense public pressure -- including three general strikes, an unprecedented month-long hunger strike by six of our members in 1998, and an historic 230-mile march from Ft. Myers to Orlando in 2000 -- our early organizing ended over twenty years of declining wages in the tomato industry.

By 1998, we had won industry-wide raises of 13-25% (translating into several million dollars annually for the community in increased wages) and a new-found political and social respect from the outside world.

Those raises brought the tomato picking piece-rate back to pre-1980 levels (the piece-rate had fallen below those levels over the course of the intervening two decades), but wages remained below poverty level and continuing improvement was slow in coming. At the same time, the phenomenon of modern-day slavery was establishing a foothold in Florida's fields. While continuing to organize for fairer wages, we also turned our attention to attacking involuntary servitude in our state. From 1997-2001, we helped bring three modern-day slavery operations to justice, resulting in freedom for over 500 workers from debt bondage.

Since then, our Anti-Slavery Campaign has earned national and international recognition, based on its innovative program of worker-led investigation and human rights education, and a track record of real success. Our latest victory against indentured servitude came in January of 2007, when a crewleader by the name of Ron Evans was sentenced to 30 years in prison. You can read more about the Evans case and the CIW's work against the most extreme forms of farm labor exploitation by clicking on the following link: "Labor camps keep workers in servitude with crack cocaine," Naples Daily News 9/06. The Evans case was the sixth major servitude case in the past ten years in which the CIW has played a key role in the discovery, investigation, and prosecution of the operation, helping to liberate well over 1,000 workers.

The CIW is a co-founder of the national Freedom Network USA to Empower Enslaved and Trafficked Persons. We are also co-founders and Southeastern US Regional Coordinator for the Freedom Network Training Institute, conducting trainings for law enforcement and social service personnel in how to identify and assist slavery victims, as well as advocating for the full prosecution of all traffickers, including corporations and their sub-contractors. At the state level, we are members of the US Attorneys Anti-Trafficking Task Forces for Tampa and Miami, as well as Florida State University’s statewide Working Group against Human Trafficking through its Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.

In 2001, we turned a new page in our organizing, launching the first-ever farmworker boycott of a major fast-food company -- the national boycott of Taco Bell -- calling on the fast-food giant to take responsibility for human rights abuses in the fields where its produce is grown and picked. The fast-food industry as a whole -- including industry giants such as McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, and Wendy's -- purchases a tremendous volume of fruits and vegetables, leveraging its buying power to demand the lowest possible prices from its suppliers. Through this unprecedented market power, the fast-food industry exerts a powerful downward pressure on wages and working conditions in its suppliers' operations.

The Taco Bell boycott gained broad student, religious, labor, and community support in the nearly four years since its inception, including the establishment of boycott committees in nearly all 50 states and a fast-growing movement to "Boot the Bell" from college and high school campuses across the country. Large scale national actions helped move the boycott forward. For example, in 2003 we organized a 10-day hunger strike outside of Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, CA -- one of the largest hunger strikes in US labor history, with over 75 farmworkers and students fasting during the 10-day period -- galvanizing the support of national religious, labor, and student organizations and thousands of individuals. During that strike we posed Taco Bell’s executives one question: “Can Taco Bell guarantee its customers that the tomatoes in its tacos were not picked by forced labor?” The company had no answer. In 2004 and 2005, we organized cross-country tours featuring marches and actions in Louisville, KY, and Irvine, CA, lifting the campaign to new heights.

In March 2005, amidst growing pressure from students, churches, and communities throughout the country, Taco Bell agreed to meet all of our demands to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers in its supply chain. The boycott victory was celebrated by observers including former President Jimmy Carter, former guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, Tom Morello, and the 21 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The Hispanic Caucus said of the accord, "This is a truly historic agreement, marking perhaps the single greatest advance for farm workers since the early struggles of the United Farm Workers. To the the workers and organizers of CIW, we express our deepest gratitude for their determined work for their own dignity and their historic contribution to advancing the cause of labor rights." Click here to read a detailed analysis of this historic agreement.

Following the successful conclusion of the Taco Bell boycott, the national network of allies that had helped carry that campaign to victory consolidated to form the Alliance for Fair Food, signalling the fast-food industry that the Campaign for Fair Food would not stop at Taco Bell. Since its birth in March of 2006, the AFF has become a powerful new voice for the respect of human rights in this country's food industry and for an end to the relentless exploitation of Florida's farmworkers.

And in April of 2007 -- following a two-year battle with the largest restaurant chain in the world, McDonald's -- the Campaign for Fair Food took an important new step forward. With an announcement at the Carter Center in Atlanta (President Jimmy Carter's center for conflict resolution), McDonald’s and the CIW reached a landmark accord that not only met the standards set in the Taco Bell agreement, but also committed the fast-food leader to collaborate with the CIW in developing an industry-wide third party mechanism for monitoring conditions in the fields and investigating abuses. You can read more about the details of the McDonald's agreement by clicking here.

Over the past several years, through the Campaign for Fair Food and our anti-slavery work, Immokalee has evolved from being one of the poorest, most politically powerless communities in the country to become today a new and important public presence with forceful, committed leadership directly from the base of our community -- young, immigrant workers forging a future of livable wages and modern labor relations in Florida's fields. In recognition of their work, three CIW members were recently presented the prestigious 2003 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, the first time the award has gone to a US-based organization in its 20 years of existence. In recent years, the CIW and the Campaign for Fair Food have been recognized by several other institutions, including the World Hunger Year's 2006 Harry Chapin Self-Reliance Award, the Freedom Network's 2006 Wellstone Award, and the 2005 Business Ethics Network's BENNY Award.

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