This article originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a non-profit worker’s rights organization in South Florida, was able to celebrate another victory in October when Chipotle Mexican Grill announced that it would finally sign on to the group’s Fair Food Program (FFP). The program guarantees that the company will buy tomatoes only from farms certified to observe fair labor practices, including the establishment of health and safety boards and allowing worker-to-worker education sessions on company time. In addition, buyers like Chipotle agree to pay an extra “penny-per-pound premium” on tomatoes from FFP-certified farms.
The victory comes after years of pressure by CIW on the burrito chain. For years, Chipotle has refused to sign onto the program, claiming that it would exert an undue degree of control over the company’s business. In 2011, founder and CEO Steve Ells told Coloradan Magazine that the company’s situation with the CIW “would be like you giving to a charity, and then the charity protesting you for not signing a contract forcing you to do what the charity tells you to do in the future.”
When Chipotle sidestepped the CIW in 2009 to negotiate a “penny-per-pound” agreement directly with East Coast Growers and Packers, one of Florida’s largest tomato growers, the group penned a letter to Ells with over 70 sustainable food advocates, food writers, chefs and family farmers as cosigners. Barry Estabrook, a Vermont farmer and author of the 2009 tomato industry exposé Tomatoland, was one of those co-signers.
“Their absence was noticeable, since Chipotle prides itself on being sustainable,” Estabrook said. “The ultimate irony is that, how can something be sustainable if somebody who picks it can’t sustain a lifestyle?”
“The ultimate irony is that, how can something be sustainable if somebody who picks it can’t sustain a lifestyle?”
The CIW is based in Immokalee, Fla., in the heart of southwest Florida’s tomato-growing country. The city has been a poster child for abuses within the industry ever since Edward R. Murrow brought it to national attention in 1960 with his documentary Harvest of Shame. Today, Immokalee’s overwhelmingly Hispanic population provides a major portion of farm labor during tomato season, with 10,000 to15,000 workers coming from the area. The average farmworker earns between $10,000 and $12,500 per year.
In 1993, laborer Luís Benitez started the CIW with a mission to improve industry working conditions in four areas: low wages, theft of wages, crew-leader violence against workers, and a general lack of respect from employers. After nearly two decades of work, CIW has not only gotten eleven major fast food chains to agree to sign onto their Fair Food Program (FFP), but helped to exposed slavery-like conditions for over 1,000 workers.
One of the CIW’s greatest assets might seem like a weakness on the surface. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (or “Wagner Act”) excludes farm workers, a Roosevelt administration tactic to gain support from Southern politicians at the time of the bill’s passing. This means farm workers cannot unionize through the NLRA’s secret-ballot election system, and aren’t protected against employer retaliation for attempts to unionize.
Conversely, labor unions covered by the NLRA are barred from organizing “secondary boycotts,” such as actions directed not against an employer but its suppliers or customers. Since the CIW is not a labor union covered by the NLRA, it can take actions against the big buyers of tomatoes in the United States, like fast food restaurants and grocery-store chains. Much like early boycotts initiated by the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the 1960s and 1970s—also possible since the union was not covered by the NLRA—the CIW has organized high-profile boycotts of Yum! Brands (the corporate owner of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut) and Burger King in the past decade.
During the Chipotle campaign, the coalition did not go so far as to stage a boycott of the chain. Instead, it staged protests on the company’s home turf, in Colorado. A rally outside Chipotle’s Denver headquarters involved several dozen sustainable food activists and local clergy stacking 153 tomato buckets in a pyramid, representing the number of buckets a field laborer must fill in a day to make minimum wage. The announcement that Chipotle would sign on to the FFP came just two days before a mass demonstration was to take place at the Chipotle Cultivate Festival, a national gathering of chefs, farmers, and musicians that likely would have drawn massive publicity to the CIW’s cause.
Gerardo Reyes, a farmworker and CIW staff member, told Dollars & Sense that although the “penny-per-pound” doesn’t amount to a massive increase in worker pay—since 2001 it’s yielded a total of $7 million split between tens of thousands of seasonal workers—the FFP is an essential step in improving working conditions in an industry rife with “slavery-like conditions.”
“One of the important things to remember that when people talk about sustainability is that there’s always been a blind spot when it comes to farmworkers,” Reyes said. “It’s always about the environment, buying locally, and respecting the rights of animals. All of that of course is very important, but it’s a little incomplete, because the reality is that without workers there is nothing. Organic or inorganic.”