Anatomy of a Struggle: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

If there is ever to be any effective pushback against the hegemony of capital, we will need bases of power, organized expressions of sustained popular resistance to exploitation and repression.  The contemporary political landscape of neoliberal media message management, social atomization and political alienation  can seem harsh and desolate for those of us looking for direction, for effective means of participation and expression of solidarity.

Today I’ll take a look at the struggle of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for some measure of justice and dignity in the fruit and vegetable fields of Florida, their history, the impressive solidarity network they have built, some recent victories, and some ongoing and upcoming efforts and actions that offer us all an opportunity to participate in solidarity.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead.


Everything starts small.  There’s really no other way to start something.  Anything that starts out big starts out being the continuation of something else that allows it to be big.    The Coalition of Immokalee Workers  in its beginning was no different from any effort at organizing ever undertaken.

We began organizing in 1993 as a small group of workers meeting weekly in a room borrowed from a local church to discuss how to better our community and our lives. In a relatively short time we have managed to bring about significant, concrete change.

Combining three community-wide work stoppages with intense public pressure – including an unprecedented month-long hunger strike by six of our members in 1998 and an historic 230-mile march from Ft. Myers to Orlando in 2000 – our early organizing ended over 20 years of declining wages in the tomato industry.

By 1998 we had won industry-wide raises of 13-25% (translating into several million dollars annually for the community in increased wages) and a new-found political and social respect from the outside world.

Those raises brought the tomato picking piece rate back to pre-1980 levels (the piece rate had fallen below those levels over the course of the intervening two decades), but wages remained below poverty level and continuing improvement was slow in coming.

In addition to the basic labor issues of wages and working conditions, the CIW almost from its inception has encountered and taken action confronting a social evil with deep roots in Florida agriculture:  slavery.  At about the same time CIW was gaining its first economic achievements, they secured their first, landmark  judgment finding a  notorious agricultural labor contracting firm guilty on slavery-related counts .

… Finally, in October 1996, an indictment was brought in the U.S. District Court in South Carolina, against Miguel Flores, Sebastian Gomez, and two of their recruiters, on charges of conspiracy, involuntary servitude, extortion, illegal possession of a firearm, use of a firearm in the commission of a violent crime, transporting and harboring aliens, and unlawful entry into the United States after deportation. The judge considered the defendants a high flight risk, and ordered them held without bail.

In May 1997 – nearly five years after the CIW started its campaign against the Flores slavery ring – the defendants entered a plea of guilty. This left only the sentencing hearing. Julia Gabriel, the tiny woman with the big story to tell, came forward to speak for a severe sentence. She told her story, and that of friends and co-workers who had been threatened and brutalized, and when she finished, she said, “That’s what I saw. And everything they did to others, they had no compassion for them. A lot of people were hurt. And there were a lot of victims, because they were very sure of themselves, and they could do anything. And they took advantage of the people, and that’s why I’m here, so that they will receive a harsh sentence, because they hurt a lot of people…and these people did nothing to them. These people are victims….And now is the moment of sentencing, and what I want is for them to see that…if they are prisoners…they will see what they did to other people.”

Campaigns against and prosecutions of  growers and contractors for the enslavement of agricultural workers has remained one of CIW’s defining trademark issues, and their efforts in exposing enslavement and human trafficking have resulted in a growing list of successful prosecutions in recent years (for details  click here ):

U.S. vs. Cuello — In 1999

U.S. vs. Tecum – In 2001

U.S. vs. Lee – In 2001

U.S. vs. Ramos – In 2004

U.S. vs. Ronald Evans — In 2007

The cases uncovered have in fact been so numerous that  a Miami Herald columnist was moved to write :

The details coming out in federal court made for a shocking story, except farm crew slavery stories and the brutal exploitation of undocumented workers have long since lost their shock value in Florida. The Navarrete case made The Naples Daily News, but the state’s major media outlets paid little attention.

No one really wants to know about the origins of those cheap tomatoes.

In continuing the anti-slavery struggle, CIW has created a nationally-recognized  mobile anti-slavery museum, tracing the history of slavery in Florida and US agriculture from its beginnings right up to the present.  Through its exhibits and educational materials, the mobile museum makes clear that the pattern of enslavement in Immokalee and other agricultural areas of Florida is one of continuity, that slavery never disappeared in Florida agriculture, and that today’s fight against slavery by the CIW is a continuation of America’s centuries-old abolitionist struggle.

Despite their early victories, by the late 1990s, the CIW was running up against the limits of what their organizing in the fields could accomplish, particularly since agricultural workers are specifically  excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.  Any negotiated agreement with growers or labor contractors was solely at the whim of the businessmen, and after the restoring of the 40-45 cents per bucket rate, the growers refused to offer any further negotiations.  The CIW was at a crossroads strategically.

However, one of the CIW’s early campaigns, the 230-mile Ft. Myers to Orlando march, had galvanized a small but dedicated core of support among the students at some of Florida’s universities.  Born out of this, the  Student/Farmworker Alliance became a dynamic organizing effort among college and even high school students with a single focus of solidarity and a support for the struggle of CIW and Florida agricultural workers.

As it turns out, the Miami Herald columnist was at least to some degree wrong, it seems there are many all across the country that do care where their tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables come from, and the conditions under which they are grown and harvested.  CIW has continued to reach out, to build new solidarity organizations and coalitions, to find new partners and new supporters.  

To maximize its coalition work, CIW takes a multiform approach to building support, solidarity and coalitions.  On the one hand, it builds its own dedicated solidarity organizations, such as the  Student/Farmworker Alliance and  InterFaith Action, and an increasing effort at local community organizing such as that happening in  NYC,  Denver, and  Austin .  At the same time CIW continues building more traditional coalitions working in partnership with established human rights, civil rights, labor and other organizations, as manifested in the   Alliance for Fair Food .

At the same time that CIW began building its solidarity network, it had identified the commercial food industries, fast food chains, supermarkets, and food services companies, the growers’ customers,  as a viable angle of leverage on the growers.  With a growing army of student supporters, a demographic of teens and young adults goes right to the core of fast food marketing strategy.  Taking a tip from the  UFW’s organizing effort among California agricultural workers,  in 2001 the CIW launched its first  national boycott, of Taco Bell .      

It was a move of stunning boldness, a small workers’ organization numbering no  more than 3,000-4,000 poor workers, in a small geographical region, with a support network limited to a few Florida college campuses and churches, taking on the flagship of the global Yum! brands fast-food empire.  A relentless campaign with annual strategies, goals and themes was undertaken to build the boycott and ratchet up the pressure on Taco Bell.  Organizing among the Student Farmworker Alliance grew rapidly, eventually spreading to 300 college campuses and 50 high schools.  Marches, tours, teach-ins, rallies, hunger strikes, picketing, and direct actions, and constantly organizing organizing organizing for four years led ultimately to  victory on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2005 :

In what both sides called an unprecedented agreement, the fast-food company said it will increase the amount it pays for tomatoes by a penny per pound, with the increase to go directly to workers’ wages. Taco Bell said it will help the farmworkers’ efforts to improve working and living conditions.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group made up largely of indigent immigrants who work tomato fields in southwest Florida, and representatives of Taco Bell and its corporate parent, Yum Brands Inc., announced the agreement at a news conference at Yum headquarters in Louisville. The farmworkers had traveled there for a protest on Saturday.

Although they praised the outcome, both sides stressed that the fast-food industry as a whole needs to do more.

“Now we must convince other companies that they have the power to change the way they do business and the way workers are treated,” said Lucas Benitez, a founding member of the workers coalition.

With victory in the Yum! brands campaign, the self-confidence of CIW, SFA, and their supporters has been sky-high, and the victories have followed by the bucketful.  One after another McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway have accepted the CIW standards, including the cardinal point of a Penny More a Pound.  The CIW are too pragmatic to back down one bit on their central demand.  The members and supporters of CIW are never in doubt about what they’re fighting for, what is victory and what is defeat, and what the objective measures of success and failure are.  (Isn’t that refreshing?)

And now the successes have spread beyond the fast-food chains, and most of the top industrial food service companies such as Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo, and Bon Appetit Management Company have accepted the CIW standards as well.  In a landmark reflecting the success of the overall campaign, after almost 15 years of truculent resistance, in 2010 the  Florida Tomato Growers Exchange  has finally dropped its refusal to negotiate with CIW and has accepted the CIW standards.

The agreements require those companies to demand more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers (including a zero tolerance policy for slavery), to pay a price premium for more fairly produced tomatoes, and to shift purchases to growers who meet those higher standards. Many Florida tomato growers now agree to pass along the pay premium to their tomato harvesters, and to abide by a code of conduct under which workers have a voice and slavery is not tolerated.

A  NYT article on the agreement  provides the numbers driving all sides in the struggle:

Tomatoes are a $1.3 billion industry in the United States, and Florida farmers lead the nation, producing $520 million worth of the crop, followed by California. Workers earn, on average, an estimated $10,000 to $12,000 a year. The new agreement could increase earnings to about $17,000 if new buyers come to the table.

It turns out that a Penny a Pound makes a real difference to a tomato picker.

Now there is only one last bastion of resistance to the tide of change in the Florida fields, and the universal acceptance of the pay rates and working standards demanded by the CIW:  the supermarkets.

As a result of these agreements, we are on the cusp today of an unprecedented transformation of farm labor conditions in Florida’s tomato fields, but the pace, depth and breadth of that transformation will ultimately depend on the participation of all the major purchasers of Florida’s tomatoes.

Despite widespread support for the innovative, collaborative solution at the heart of the Campaign for Fair Food, the supermarket industry (with the lone exception of Whole Foods) has yet to do its part, and is thus the only remaining obstacle in the way of long-awaited, urgent change in the fields.

The  CIW explains  why the supermarket industry’s rejectionism is now a stumbling block that threatens to undermine all the progress achieved to date:

[The] solution to farm labor exploitation and abuse contained in the Fair Food principles depends on the participation of all the major purchasers of Florida tomatoes. Each buyer must contribute its fair share — its penny-per-pound — for the pay raise to reach its full potential. Each buyer must commit to direct its purchases to those growers complying with the code of conduct — and away from those who don’t — for working conditions to get better and stay better.

The solution is only as strong — the raise is only as big, the change in working conditions is only as durable — as the number of buyers that support it. In the words of the FTGE’s Reggie Brown, “Everybody in the system has to be invested for it to work.” And indeed, the nine leading food corporations that have already signed Fair Food agreements with the CIW are paying into the system and conditioning their purchases on compliance with the code.

But those food corporations that have not yet signed — principal among them supermarket industry leaders, with the sole exception of Whole Foods — are not. And now it is becoming increasingly clear that the strategy of those supermarket leaders, in particular Publix and Ahold, is to shirk their responsibility to pay into the system, short workers of their portion of the pay increase, and refuse to tie their purchases to the Fair Food principles.

And so the CIW and its allies have launched the  “Do the Right Thing Tour”  as part of their Fair Food campaign to bring the supermarkets into line with the rest of the food industry in accepting the CIW’s standards.  The name was chosen based on a well-known quote from Publix supermarket founder George Jenkins:

“Don’t let making a profit stand in the way of doing the right thing.”

As of this date, it appears Publix has NOT been doing the right thing with regard to its agricultural workforce.  Profit does seem to be standing in the way.

As with the prior campaigns in the fast food and food-service industries, the CIW is targeting specific supermarket corporations for individual attention and action campaigns.  In the case of the supermarkets, the initial targets are being chosen to provide national opportunities for solidarity and participation of those supportive of the CIW struggle.   The chosen targets for the initial campaign are Publix, Kroger’s, Trader Joe’s, and Ahold (Stop & Shop), who have been a bunch of Aholds without the final “d” in this matter.

If any of those supermarkets are in your area, and particular if you are a shopper at any of them, CIW encourages you to write to their executives to “demand Fair Food from your supermarket” or to deliver a letter to the manager of your local store ( click here  for details .)  They also have an educational DVD and organizing materials for those interests in launching a solidarity group in your local community or an your campus.

Public demonstrations are upcoming in  Boston, “the March to Stop sweat Shops” Sunday, February 27 , and in  Tampa (Publix) Saturday, March 5 .  (I plan to be at the Boston rally.)


In a peoples struggle, the subjective matters too, perhaps even more; how do the workers in CIW see themselves?  It appears that the CIW workers rather deliberately and explicitly identify themselves in a radical, class-conscious and anti-capitalist tradition, as attested to by this post by the CIW to the website of perhaps the most famous of all American radical working-class organizations, the  IWW or “Wobblies” :

The most important, practical sense in which the CIW shares an organizing culture with the IWW is in the emphasis on consciousness as the basis of action. We have several mottoes that serve to express the practical/philosophical bases of our organization, one of which is “Consciousness + Commitment = Change”. The saying puts consciousness as the fundamental, first ingredient in the process of making change, as it was in the work of the IWW. And like with the IWW (as well as the peasant movements of today in Latin America and the Caribbean, from which we also draw a great deal of inspiration for our organizing approach), we use images, art, theater, and music to capture the problems of low wage workers’ lives, present those problems for reflection, and arrive at a unified, class-based solution to those problems.

We can see that sense of conscious identification with the Wobblies by the CIW workers reflected in the logos of the two groups.  I would rate it highly unlikely that the graphic similarity between the logos is purely a matter of coincidence.


More on the political and social similarities the CIW sees between itself and the early Wobblies:

The composition of our membership and our community, of course, is another dimension of our reality in which we find a lot of resonance with the IWW. Like the Wobblies, CIW members are recently arrived immigrants, speaking a multitude of languages with a higher illiteracy rate than the rest of the country, the most transient of laborers in the country today, and the absolutely poorest of all workers in the country today. All those things serve to make a successful organizing approach with undocumented farmworkers in Immokalee very different from that employed in organizing an auto plant or a service workers in more stable, less diverse, better-off labor forces.

That reality forces us to be more political, more public, more class conscious, than other worker organizations, as does the fact that farmworkers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, leaving farmwork the one major industry today in which exists essentially the same dynamic as when the IWW was most alive — where only through strikes and direct workplace actions could pressure be brought on the bosses to make concrete change.

In fact, that’s why we have had to organize three general strikes here in Immokalee since 1995. Strikes like the IWW’s “social general strikes”, our strikes are community-wide actions where workers, regardless of workplace or company, come together to fight for a new relationship with the companies based on greater power and respect for workers, a better “going wage”, and overall better conditions due to the improved position of power staked out by the workers coming together against the industry as a whole. Our strikes have always been industy-wide, even including the active participation of workers across industries (orange pickers and day-haul workers striking together with tomato pickers for a raise in the tomato picking piece rate.

The mention of their identification with “peasant movements of today in Latin America” is reflected in the use of the term “encuentro” for their events initiating, planning and preparing for their campaigns.  The “encuentro” is a key part of the political language and culture of the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico, and serves along with the IWW connection to show that the CIW consciously places itself within a very well-defined stream of anti-capitalist thought and movement, of syndicalism and libertarian socialism.

Better than anything I can say, though, the following 25-minute documentary allows the workers of Immokalee to talk about their lives and what the CIW means in their lives, in their own words (English subtitles.)  While it is several years old now, from 2004, the messages from the CIW workers and organizers are almost all timeless and universal.  The indignities of oppression overcome through the dignity of struggle.


  1. for those who have been plucked from the Orange.

  2. now, but I plan to when I’m back at a computer next weekend.

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