One penny per pound of tomatoes: that is the premium to which advocates for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Program (FFP) are asking corporations to commit. As Florida’s largest privately-owned company Publix is the current focus of the CIW’s campaign to expand the FFP, which also stipulates that companies commit to purchase only from produce growers who adhere to more humane labor standards for agricultural workers.
Once a month, members of the University of West Florida’s Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) picket outside of Pensacola Publix stores in support of CIW’s efforts, and have recently received an increasing amount of support according to Johnny Ardis, an advisor to the PSA.
“The PSA is basically spearheading the campaign, but PSA members aren’t the only people helping,” said Ardis. “Community members join the pickets, and most recently the local AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations] has taken interest and is going to be participating with us, starting this month.”
The CIW is a worker-based human rights organization that began meeting in 1993 in Immokalee, Fla., a farming community located among the tomato fields of the Southwest region of the state. In the nearly 20 years of its existence, the coalition has achieved significant victories toward improving working conditions for farm laborers, including shifting from the industry norm of paying sub-poverty, “per bucket” picking wages, an improvement that the FFP’s one cent per pound premium helps to achieve.
Along with the FFP and national Campaign for Fair Food, the CIW operates an Anti-Slavery Campaign that seeks to raise awareness of modern slavery and also participates in investigations, helping to liberate over 1,200 forced workers to date.
“They were touring the Southeast with a U-Haul truck that had been retrofitted to replicate an actual truck that was used to hold migrant farmworkers literally in slavery a few years ago,” said Ardis of his and the PSA’s first exposure to the CIW. That was approximately three years ago when the group heard of the CIW’s Modern Day Slavery Museum tour, and offered to host the museum at UWF.
“The PSA took interest in the whole issue and decided that we would start doing pickets at Publix, because Publix is one of their main targets right now to get to sign the Fair Food Agreement, which many corporations have done,” said Ardis.
Since 2009, Publix has refused to join the FFP. “They feel like this is a labor dispute and they’re not connected with the actual labor situation, so they have no responsibility,” Ardis stated. “Any corporation that buys such large quantities has influence down the supply chain. They might not have a legal responsibility, but we feel they have a moral responsibility.”
Walmart joined the Fair Food Program in January 2014, making it the twelfth major corporation to do so, along with others including McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Chipotle Mexican Grill.
The PSA has alternated pickets between Wendy’s—the only major fast food chain yet to join the FFP—and Publix. The group now pickets once a month on the sidewalks surrounding Publix, and hands out flyers to drivers exiting the parking lot.
“For the most part, people are just curious,” Ardis stated. “We get some people who are a little upset with us, because maybe Publix is their favorite grocery store and they don’t like us bringing any negativity toward it, but we also have people honking their horns and giving us the thumbs up because obviously they’re aware of the situation and they support us.”
The local CIW supporters also take other steps, namely collecting signatures on letters to Publix managers explaining why they’d like to see Publix join the FFP. “We’re around at different festivals and public events getting manager letters signed, letting people know about the situation and spreading awareness,” said Ardis. “After each picket we go in and present the store manager the letters we’ve gotten signed since the last picket.”
In hopes of raising more awareness about the changes the CIW is working to effect, Open Books will host a screening of “The Coalition of Immokalee Workers vs. Taco Bell,” a feature originally aired on PBS’s newsmagazine “NOW” in 2005, two months after the fast-food company reached an agreement with CIW and joined the FFP. The film has shown twice before locally, once at UWF and once at Ever’man Natural Foods.
“We’re setting up another screening hopefully to gather more support, people to join the campaign, people to join the pickets, and people to contact Publix,” said Ardis. “We encourage people to get a manager letter and when they go shopping, present their letter to the manager or even write the corporate office down in Lakeland, Florida.”
The PSA traveled to Mobile, Ala. to protest the grand openings of two new Publix stores there in 2013. Ardis stated that Mobile activists supported the Pensacola group’s efforts during those pickets, but he knows of no other groups that picket regularly in this region. Ardis and the PSA welcome anyone who would like to participate in a picket to do so. The PSA provides signs, and all supporters are welcome, regardless of how long they can stay.
And though the CIW’s campaign to reach an agreement with Taco Bell eventually resulted in a boycott, right now advocates of the FFP are hoping that with enough support, Publix will join the growing list of corporations supporting the initiative.
“Right now, it’s just [about] persuasion and encouragement,” said Ardis.
FILM SCREENING: THE COALITION OF IMMOKALEE WORKERS VS. TACO BELL
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday, April 7
WHERE: Open Books, 1040 N. Guillemard St.
COST: Free, but donations are accepted
UWF PSA PICKET AT PUBLIX
WHEN: Noon, Saturday, April 12
WHERE: Publix Super Market, 5055 N. 9th Ave.
DETAILS: 474-1495 or firstname.lastname@example.org