[Marxism] Tomatoes of Wrath

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 26 07:27:43 MDT 2011

Tomatoes of Wrath
Posted on Sep 26, 2011

By Chris Hedges

It is 6 a.m. in the parking lot outside the La Fiesta supermarket 
in Immokalee, Fla. Rodrigo Ortiz, a 26-year-old farmworker, waits 
forlornly in the half light for work in the tomato fields. 
White-painted school buses with logos such as “P. Cardenas 
Harvesting” are slowly filling with fieldworkers. Knots of men and 
a few women, speaking softly in Spanish and Creole, are clustered 
on the asphalt or seated at a few picnic tables waiting for crew 
leaders to herd them onto the buses, some of which will travel two 
hours to fields. Roosters are crowing as the first light of dawn 
rises over the cacophony. Men shovel ice into 10-gallon plastic 
containers from an ice maker next to the supermarket, which opens 
at 3:30 a.m. to sell tacos and other food to the workers. The 
containers—which they lug to pickup trucks—provide water for the 
pickers in the sweltering, humid fields where temperatures soar to 
90 degrees and above.

Ortiz, a short man in a tattered baseball cap and soiled black 
pants that are too long and spill over the tops of his worn canvas 
sneakers, is not fortunate this day. By 7 a.m. the last buses 
leave without him. He heads back to the overcrowded trailer he 
shares with several other men. There are always workers left 
behind at these predawn pickup sites where hundreds congregate in 
the hopes of getting work. Nearly 90 percent of the workers are 
young, single immigrant men, and at least half lack proper 
documents or authorization to work in the United States.

Harvesting tomatoes is an endeavor that comes with erratic and 
unpredictable hours, weeks with overtime and weeks with little to 
do and no guarantees about wages. Once it starts to rain, workers 
are packed back onto the buses and sent home, their workday 
abruptly at an end. Ortiz and the other laborers congregate at the 
pickup points every morning never sure if there will be work. And 
when they do find daywork they are paid only for what they pick.

“I only had three days of work this week,” Ortiz says mournfully. 
“I don’t know how I will pay my rent.”

Ortiz, who along with many others among these migrant workers 
sends about $100 home to Mexico every month to support elderly 
parents, works under conditions in these fields that replicates 
medieval serfdom and at times descends into outright slavery. He 
lives far below the poverty line. He has no job security, no 
workers’ compensation, no disability insurance, no paid time off, 
no access to medical care, Social Security, Medicaid or food 
stamps and no protection from the abusive conditions in the 
fields. The agricultural industry has a death rate nearly six 
times higher than most other industries, and the Environmental 
Protection Agency estimates that of the 2 million farmworkers in 
the United States 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning every year.

But this may change as one of the most important battles in the 
history of migrant labor is launched by the Coalition of Immokalee 
Workers (CIW). If this battle succeeds it will nearly double the 
wages of the farmworkers who labor in the $600 million 
tomato-growing industry. A victory over the supermarket chains 
also would hold out the possibility of significantly alleviating 
the draconian conditions that permit forced labor, crippling 
poverty and egregious human rights abuses, including documented 
cases of slavery, in the nation’s tomato fields. If the CIW 
campaign—which is designed to pressure supermarket chains 
including Publix, Trader Joe’s , Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Ahold 
brands Giant and Stop & Shop to sign the CIW Fair Food 
Agreement—fails, however, it threatens to roll back the modest 
gains made by farmworkers. It depends on us.

“We are standing on the threshold of achieving significant change 
in the agricultural industry,” Marc Rodrigues, with the 
Student/Farmworker Alliance, tells me later in the day at the CIW 
office in Immokalee. “But if the supermarkets do not participate 
and support it then it will not go any further. Their lack of 
participation threatens to undermine what the workers and their 
allies have accomplished. They represent a tremendous amount of 
tomato purchasing. They wield a lot of influence over conditions 
in the field. For those growers not enamored of the concept of 
workers attaining rights and being treated with dignity, they will 
know that there is always a market for their tomatoes with no 
questions asked, where nothing is governed by a code of conduct or 
transparency. If we succeed, this will help lift farmworkers, who 
do one of the most important, dangerous and undervalued jobs in 
our society, out of grinding poverty into one where they can have 
a slightly more decent and normal life and provide for their 

The next major mobilization in the campaign will take place at 
noon Oct. 21 outside Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters in 
Monrovia, Calif. This will follow a week of local actions to 
target supermarkets across the country. To thwart the campaign, 
the public relations departments of Trader Joe’s, Publix and other 
supermarkets are churning out lies and half truths, as well as 
engaging in unsettling acts of intimidation and surveillance. 
Publix sent out an employee posing as a documentary filmmaker to 
record the activities of the organizers.

“Publix has a cabal of labor relations, human relations and public 
relations employees who very frequently descend from corporate 
headquarters in Lakeland, Fla.—or one of their regional 
offices—and show up at our demonstrations,” says Rodrigues. “They 
watch us with or without cameras. They constantly attempt to 
deflect us: If we attempt to speak to consumers or store managers 
these people will intercept us and try to guide us away. These 
people in suits and ties come up to us and refer to us by our 
first names—as if they know us—in a sort of bizarre, naked attempt 
at intimidation.”

If you live in a community that has a Whole Foods, which is the 
only major supermarket chain to sign the agreement, shop there and 
send a letter to competing supermarkets telling them that you will 
not return as a customer until they too sign the CIW Fair Food 
Agreement. Details about planned protests around the country can 
be found on the CIW website.

Workers in the fields earn about 50 cents for picking a bucket 
containing 32 pounds of tomatoes. These workers make only $10,000 
to $12,000 a year, much of which they send home. The 
$10,000-$12,000 range, because it includes the higher pay of 
supervisors, means the real wages of the pickers are usually less 
than $10,000 a year. Wages have remained stagnant since 1980. A 
worker must pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes to make minimum wage during 
one of the grueling 10-hour workdays. This is twice what they had 
to pick 30 years ago for the same amount of money. Most workers 
pick about 150 buckets a day. And these workers have been rendered 
powerless by law. In Florida, collective bargaining is illegal, 
one of the legacies of Jim Crow practices designed to keep blacks 
poor and disempowered. Today the ban on collective bargaining 
serves the same purpose in thwarting the organizing efforts of the 
some 30,000 Hispanic, Mayan and Haitian agricultural laborers who 
plant and harvest 30,000 acres of tomatoes.

The CIW, which organized a nationwide boycott in 2001 against Taco 
Bell, forced several major fast food chains including Yum Brands, 
McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Compass 
Group, Bon Appétit Management Co., Aramark and Sodexo to sign the 
agreement, which demands more humane labor standards from their 
Florida tomato suppliers and an increase of a penny per bucket. 
But if the major supermarkets too do not sign this agreement, 
growers who verbally, sexually and physically abuse workers will 
be able to continue selling tomatoes to the supermarkets. This 
could leave at least half of all the fields without protection, 
making uniform enforcement of the agreement throughout the fields 
difficult if not impossible.

“Supply chains are very opaque and secretive,” says Gerardo Reyes, 
a farmworker and CIW staff member. “This is one of the reasons a 
lot of these abuses continue. The corporations can always feign 
that they did not know the abuses were happening or that they had 
any responsibility for them as long as there is no transparency or 

One of the most celebrated modern cases of fieldworker slavery was 
uncovered in November 2007 after three workers escaped from a box 
truck in which they had been locked. They and 12 others had been 
held as slaves for two and a half years. They had to relieve 
themselves in a corner of the truck at night and pay five dollars 
if they wanted to bathe with a garden hose. They were routinely 
beaten. Some were chained to poles at times. During the days they 
worked on some of the largest farms in Florida. It was the seventh 
such documented case of slavery in a decade.

“As long as the supermarket industry refuses to sign this 
agreement it gives the growers an escape,” says Reyes. “We need to 
bring the pressure of more buyers who will sign the agreement to 
protect the workers. We have gotten all of the major corporations 
within the fast food industry and food providers to sign this 
agreement. Two of the three most important buyers within the 
industry are on board. But if these supermarkets continue to hold 
out they can put all the mechanisms we have set in place for 
control at risk. If Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s and other supermarkets 
say the only criteria is buying from those growers who offer the 
lowest possible price then we will not be able to curb abuses. If 
the agreement is in place and there is another case of slavery 
then the growers will be put in a penalty box. If we do not have 
the ability to impose penalties then there will always be a way 
for abusive growers to sell. The agreement calls on these 
corporations to stop buying from growers, for example, that use 
slave labor. Without the agreement there is no check on these 

“Supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s, insist they are responsible 
and fair,” Reyes goes on. “They use their public relations to 
present themselves as a good corporation. They sell this idea of 
fairness, this disguise. They use this more sophisticated public 
relations campaign, one that presents them as a friend of workers, 
while at the same time locking workers out of the discussion and 
kicking us out of the room. They want business as usual. They do 
not want people to question how their profits are created. We have 
to fight not only them but this sophisticated public relations 
tactic. We are on the verge of a systemic change, but corporations 
like Trader Joe’s are using all their power to push us back.”

Members and supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will 
march from a Trader Joe’s store at 604 W. Huntington Dr. in 
Monrovia, Calif., to the market chain’s headquarter a mile away, 
starting at noon Oct. 21. The farmworkers organization is 
demanding that Trader Joe’s support the human rights of the men 
and women who harvest tomatoes sold in its stores. For more 
information, click here, send an email to 
damara at justharvestusa.org or telephone (510) 725-8752.

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