Immokalee workers hunger strike for bargaining rights
Jason Adams
January 1998

Farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida (30 miles east of the Naples and Ft. Myers coast) began a hunger strike on December 20, 1997 to publicize the refusal of the growers to recognize the bargaining rights of their union. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, (CIW) is a part of a growing non-affiliated labor movement known as "Worker's Centers" which are primarily based in the agricultural industry. Worker's Centers consist of all of the things that bigger AFL-CIO unions do, but they are run directly by the workers themselves. Everyone has complete direct democratic power, and if the workers want to strike, they strike instead of waiting for direction from above. According to Laura, a spokesperson for the CIW, they have had a general strike, in which all residents of Immokalee have refused to work, they have broken a modern day slave-trade involving Mayan Indians, and they generally rely on the tactics of "wildcat strikes" where workers will strike to get what they want as opposed to signing contracts with the growers. I interviewed Greg Asbed, another spokesperson for CIW, on Dec. 29. The following is a transcript:

JA: I've heard that the coalition is trying to get farm owners to come to the bargaining table. And I was wondering if you could give me a little history on the situation of farmworkers in this area and for the Coalition itself.

CIW: Like most communities of poor workers, the farmworkers here have seen their wages just drop slowly but surely over the past twenty years and lose an incredible amount of value. Farmworkers here average about $9,000 a year without any kind of benefits, no overtime pay, no health insurance, sick pay, vacation pay, pension or anything.

About two years ago one of the biggest companies here, Pacific Land Co. tried to drop wages even further. That was when the coalition first appeared in the news because we organized a general strike here in town to block that further cut in wages. We occupied the central spot where the crew leaders come to get workers in the morning and for five days we led a general strike here that reversed that decision by the company and at least maintained wages where they were before that. Today's actions are a continuation of that whole process.

Now we're not just blocking cuts, we're working to reverse twenty years of falling wages. This season began with a signature card campaign, about 2,000 workers signed signature cards calling for a raise in the piece rate for tomato pickers. We wrote letters to the tomato companies and they refused to talk to us so we did a series of strikes out here in the community. That brought one company in, and through dialogue we reached an agreement for a raise, but the other companies have refused to listen. The six workers who started the hunger strike nine days ago decided that it was time to take it to another level to really express just how desperate this community really is for a better life.

JA: How did it get to the point where workers were willing to hunger strike and are they saying that are actually willing to die?

CIW: That's a question for the growers to answer. The growers have to decide how important it is to them as a principle to not change when they ask for a raise. That's what the growers are standing on right now is principle. They feel that farmworkers should not have anything above the shoulders, just hands and arms and legs so they can go out there and work like a good tractor. But the minute that farmworker starts to think and say, 'Wait a minute, for twenty years you have been paying me less and less, and I have a family to support and I can't do it on what you pay me anymore', then they don't recognize them. You know, you're perfectly recognizable as a worker when they need you to go out there and work like a donkey, but when you ask for a raise, you can't be recognized. That's the principle that the growers are standing on, and if they're willing to let people die for that principle than I guess that what the hunger strikers say is that's what they'll have to do.

JA: So what condition are they in at this point, and have you gotten much contact from the growers in response?

CIW: We've gotten no contact from the growers whatsoever. The hunger strikers are in an increasingly weakening condition. Their blood sugar levels, which is what the paramedics measure every day, are dropping consistently. They're coming close to levels that they would normally treat for people if they were not on a hunger strike, in fact some of them are below those levels. But they are not into the critical levels yet. The guys are getting weaker, you can see it. They're having a harder time getting around, getting up in the morning, and energy-wise. But they're extremely motivated to get up to Tallahassee and talk to the governor, so we're going to be doing that tonight.

JA: I read an article a few weeks ago about the problem of child labor in Florida's fields, and a guy I was talking to yesterday in Naples was telling me that there's an underground slave trade going on in this area...

CIW: They're two separate things, it's not child slavery. But the child labor is just a symptom of the low wages. Everything really goes back to this central issue of low wages because it's not that the parents think that their kids should be in the field. Or that they don't think that they should be in school, but the parents who do take them there, first of all cannot afford daycare.

A mother I was talking to the other day says that she makes about $34 a day in the fields, she has to pay $12 of that the minute she gets home to get her two kids out of daycare. That leaves her with $22 without anything else. Not to mention rent, food, and the things you need to reproduce as a person. She can't handle that so a lot of people who do have children are faced with that choice. And those who take their kids to the field do it only because they don't make enough money to lead a decent human life already.

The issue of slavery is one that the coalition has been involved in. We were involved in the most recent and... the biggest slavery case. [This led to the most significant conviction in the history of farmworker peonage prosecution-eds]. This was just brought to justice with the sentencing of a guy named Miguel Flores and another guy named Sebastian Gomez who ran a slavery operation out of Immokalee and LaBelle for the past four or five years.

The Coalition led the investigation because the Justice Department and the FBI weren't really equipped to deal with the idea that Mayan Indians were being held in slavery. They don't have the investigative capacity to do that, but the community itself does. Since the Coalition is involved in the liberation of this community in all different ways, we were involved in the investigation, took the information to the authorities, they took it through the federal court in South Carolina and sentenced the two guys to 15 years in prison. That wiped out a huge slice of that sort of thing in this area.

JA: Which grocery stores in Florida get their produce from the growers that you're striking against...

CIW: Just about all of them, Publix, Winn-Dixie, just about all the major stores get their produce from here.

JA: Then I guess it would be hard to boycott a specific store, so how can Floridians help to support your strike?

CIW: The first thing they can do is call the governor, and let him know that this is not just a wage dispute but it is really a community issue, and it is a state-wide issue. Because the governor is less than likely to bring his weight to the issue, hiding behind the excuse that 'this is just a wage dispute between employees and employers'.

This is not the case. This entire town of Immokalee is composed of farmworkers. It's economy is based on the wages that are earned in the field, and every time those wages lose value, the economy here shrinks. The stores, the restaurants, the service sector cannot survive, and there is no chance of development for more jobs or better jobs for this area whatsoever. And Immokalee is on the map, it is a town in Florida, it is under the Governor's watch as Governor, and he needs to keep that in mind and not just say that this a question of employees and employers. There is no other town like this. There is no other town of McDonald's employees, there's no other town of Wal-Mart employees, this town is made up of farmworkers, so it is an issue for the entire community.

JA: Laura had said earlier that the CIW has a participatory model, and I was wondering how this differs from the United Farm Workers and do you feel that you are getting more support from the workers as far as the fact that they are more democratically involved?

CIW: Oh yeah, absolutely! But you know anytime you say anything that distinguishes the United Farm Workers from a different form of work you run the risk of sounding like you're anti-UFW or anti-union which we are not. But there are certain differences that are important. This approach that the CIW has been working with for several years is an approach more rooted in the Latin American and Caribbean tradition of community organizing. It's based on education, it's based on what we call consciensiacion which involves video, and street theater which 400 or 500 people will come and watch at night. We do a constant process of education based around the idea of worker's rights and economic rights.

The idea that working at a wage that has fallen every year for the past twenty years while the cost of living goes up every year is not something that you're obliged to do simply because you're an immigrant, or simply because you're poor. You have the right to fight for that, and our community is marked by turnover constantly and so we have new people every year, people who don't know anything of the history of the struggle here, who don't know anything of the history of workers in this country, don' t know of their rights, because they are new to this country. That in and of itself has demanded that we take this approach that is rooted more in individual worker awareness that then leads to action as opposed to organizing on a strictly union model.

The other key difference is that the UFW for better or for worse focuses itself on Cesar Chavez as a symbol and as a single leader. That has left in a certain way a legacy of inaction on the part of workers themselves because time after time workers express the idea that the reason things haven't changed is because there is no great leader. No great individual who will lead us out of this misery, and that's a real negative message to give to somebody because obviously change didn't happen, even in Cesar Chavez's case because he was leading people out of misery. It happened because of all the people who committed themselves to make this change. That part of the story never gets out. One of our basic mottos is "we are all leaders" and another is "from the people for the people" and we constantly reinforce that. The day that each day, each person wakes up with the capacity to make a change is the day that we do make that change.

The work we do is the basis for an incredible amount of wealth in this area, and as such we should be able to see the fruits of our work, and also as people we all have certain rights to live as people and support our families. That idea of each person's individual worth is the basis of our work as well, and there are a thousand other differences. The way that we work is determined by the community that we work in. It's a mobile community, a changing community, a community of many different immigrant cultures that has a thousand different forces acting to inhibit collective action. So we have to spend most of our efforts trying to counteract those forces, and encourage collective action. Our direction is towards general strikes as opposed to contracts with particular companies and we're making change.

JA: I guess farmworkers, since they are migratory, would be under the heading of contingent labor which is the fastest growing workforces in the country...

CIW: Yeah, this is not at all, by any means just a farmworker issue. That is specifically why this group has decided not to call itself the Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers, even though that it what is the majority of the people in this town, we decided to call it the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Because people move in and out of farmwork, they move as soon as they can out of farmwork because it pays so badly. But there isn't really anywhere outside of farmwork that pays that much better and in the local paper the other day they reported in a study by the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities in D.C. that the gap between the rich and the poor in nearly every state has widened since the 1970's. On average the top 20% of families with children saw their incomes increase by 30% or nearly $27,000 to $117,500 since the 1970's. By contrast, the bottom 20% saw their wages, in inflation adjusted dollars, decrease by 21% to $9,250. That's a drop of $2,500.

Our complaint is that the piece rate in 1977 was at 45 - 60 cents a bucket. Today in 1997, the piece rate is at 35-40 cents and sometimes as low as 25 cents a bucket. That is just one example of what is happening across this country. The 20% they are talking about are not farmworkers, they are the working poor of this country. $9,500 is not a wage on which you can live, and what's worse is that it is almost invariably free of any kind of benefits, as a contingent worker. Whereas people who live at the $117,500 level do get benefits, they do get health insurance and everything else. In fact, their compensation is much more than what they get in terms of income. So, it's two classes that are moving far apart in this country and we are a community that is standing up and trying to make a change. That is what is happening, so it's not just a farmworker issue in a lot of ways.

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