Victory in the Tomato Fields


Coalition of Immokalee Workers

One penny a pound might not seem like a very big raise, but when you pick a ton of tomatoes a day, as a Florida farm worker can, one penny represents a raise from $50 to $70, the difference between poverty and a livable (though still paltry) wage. And it doesn't seem radical to suggest that growers should abide by a reasonable code of conduct that includes a mechanism to address complaints, a health and safety program, and training sessions.

With tomatoes selling for between two and four dollars a pound in supermarkets, you wouldn't think that granting the folks who harvest them those rights would be particularly onerous for the multi-million-dollar agricultural corporations that grow and pack most of the tomatoes we eat. So it was baffling that when the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) initially proposed such changes, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents virtually all the tomato farmers in the state, threatened to levy $100,000 fines against any member who cooperated. Reggie Brown, the Exchange's executive vice president, went so far as to claim before a senate committee that going along with the CIW could constitute restraint of trade and be a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. When I interviewed Brown in his office near Orlando in June, he told me bluntly: "We don't have any contact with CIW."

The growers had always contended that they could not increase wages because it would put them at a competitive disadvantage. So the CIW decided to take the issue to their buyers.

What a difference a few months makes.

On Tuesday, the Exchange and the CIW announced that they had reached an agreement that would extend the CIW's Fair Food Principles, as the program is called, to companies representing 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry.

The CIW's struggle dates back to 2001. The growers had always contended that they could not increase wages because it would put them at a competitive disadvantage. So the CIW decided to take the issue to their buyers, which include restaurant corporations and fast-food chains, beginning with Taco Bell. It took four years, but in 2005 the Mexican fast-food company came aboard, and was followed by McDonald's, Burger King, and Subway. Eventually food service companies that deal with universities, museums, hospitals, and other institutions, such as Compass, Aramark, and Sodexo, also joined. Earlier this fall, the CIW achieved a major victory when two of Florida's large tomato growers, Pacific Tomato Growers and Six L's, broke ranks and came aboard.

The new program will be rolled out over the next two growing seasons. This year, Pacific and Six L's will work with the CIW to iron out practical details of what is being called the Fair Food Code of Conduct. Next year 10 other large growers will adopt the code.

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"We realize this is a work in progress," the participating farms said in a joint statement. "It will not be completed overnight. As we move forward, we can be certain that labor complaints will continue to arise in the foreseeable future, but it is how we deal with these complaints in their new partnership that will serve to demonstrate that we are serious and that our approach is working. As time goes by we are confident that we will be able to weed out the bad actors and, working together, build a stronger, more sustainable industry."

"This is a watershed moment in the history of Florida agriculture," Lucas Benitez of the CIW said in a statement. "With this agreement, the Florida tomato industry—workers and growers alike—is coming together in partnership to turn the page on the conflict and stagnation of the past.

"Make no mistake," Benitez added. "There is still much to be done. This is the beginning, not the end, of a very long journey."

The next stop on that journey is coming to a grocery store near you. With the notable exception of Whole Foods, the supermarket industry still stubbornly resists the CIW's overtures.

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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 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
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