At Florida Tomato Protests, Backlash

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Coalition of Immokalee Workers


After more that 15 years of petitions, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and lobbying efforts, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)--a group trying to alleviate the abysmal labor conditions in Florida's tomato fields (including slavery)--take adversity as a given in their battle to secure living wages from the giant corporations that control the state's produce industry. Florida grows the vast majority of winter tomatoes consumed in this country, so it's a fight in which everyone who eats a fresh tomato during the cold months has a stake.

But a recent series of events has left the coalition feeling baffled, queasy, and angry.

For the past several weeks the CIW has been holding demonstrations at stores operated by Publix Super Markets, Inc., a Florida-based company that operates more than 1,000 markets in five Southeastern states. Publix has been unresponsive to years of requests that it join the coalition's Campaign for Fair Food, a program that mandates steps to prevent human trafficking and gives field hands a one-penny-per-pound raise (hardly a princely sum to a $24-billion a year corporation like Publix, but enough to add $20 to a picker's $50 daily take, the difference between abject poverty and a living wage).

Could there be an undercover spy at work who had an obsession with very young children?

At an evening vigil in front of the courthouse in Ft. Myers, where a year earlier several members of a Southwestern Florida family were convicted of enslaving 12 immigrant tomato workers, CIW member Greg Asbed felt a presence behind him as he snugged a blanket around his son, who was nodding off to sleep in a stroller. Asbed wheeled around and came face-to-face with a stranger pointing a video camera over his shoulder directly at the child's face. The cameraman did not identify himself.

A day later, while walking a picket line in front of a Publix in Sarasota, Lucas Benitez, another CIW member, noticed that a cameraman focused on his one-year-old baby each time that Lucas passed him. "I thought it was kind of weird because he didn't identify himself or say anything," said Benitez in a telephone interview. "I was worried."

During a Port Charlotte demonstration, Jordan Buckley, also of the CIW, wondered why store officials were allowing one particular photographer unfettered access, while preventing others from filming at all on company property.

"Why are they letting you shoot," Buckley asked. "What's your name? Do you work for Publix?"

"No," the photographer said, giving the name Thomas McGuigan. "I'm just an old hippie doing a documentary about the modern protest movement." When Buckley got home, he did a quick Google search and found that a person named Thomas McGuigan was employed at Publix video division.

Could there be an undercover spy at work who had an obsession with very young children?

"I wonder how Publix PR people would feel if they were in the same position--if there was a stranger who was found later to be falsely identifying himself filming their children?" said Benitez, when I spoke to him.

"The bottom line for me is, spy on me, well, shame on you, that's wrong. But spy on my kid, what need does Publix have for that?" said Asbed.

Presented by

Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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