Interview with Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

DB - The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is named for a town in Florida, isn't it?

Lucas Benitez - Immokalee is in southwest Florida, in the middle of the Everglades. It's a town made up of agricultural workers, most of them immigrants -- low paid workers. The bulk of these workers are Mexican, Haitian, and Guatemalan. In some ways, it's more a labor reserve than a town, an unincorporated area where the population nearly doubles to 30,000 people during the season when the growers need workers.

Every day here, thousands of people wake up at 4:00 in the morning to beg for a day's work in the central parking lot in town. And every Friday, they get checks from three or four different companies. No company has a fixed workforce. There are only the changing faces of Immokalee workers picking, planting and pulling plastic every day.

The Immokalee area is one of the most important agricultural areas of the United States, growing tomatoes and other vegetables, a great deal of which is used by the fast food industry. It's one of the most productive agricultural regions because of its ideal climate. Vegetables are produced in cycles throughout the winter, largely for markets throughout the rest of the country. Orange and tomato are the two largest cash crops.

DB - Florida has a really terrible reputation for farmworkers, worst of all the states in the United States, because of its long history of bringing in workers from other areas, especially the Caribbean, often treating them virtually as slaves. Over the years, stories have come out of Florida of workers held prisoner in labor camps and forced to work in conditions far below those in states like California and Arizona. What is life like for Florida farmworkers right now?

LB - It's one of the most backward states in relation to organizing agricultural workers. Many people remember "Harvest of Shame," the documentary filmed thirty years ago which dramatized the horrendous conditions facing workers in the fields. Thirty years later all that has changed are the faces. Immokalee workers are mostly Mexican, Central American and Caribbean, but the horrendous conditions are the same. As surprising as it may seem, we still have debt bondage in the fields of Florida.

During the past five years we have taken before the Department of Justice documentation of three slavery operations existing here in our midst. One southwest Florida operation held over 400 people in bondage, forcing them to work 10-12 hour days, six days a week, for as little as $20. They were watched by armed guards in both the fields and camps. After years of investigation, the employer was sentenced in 1997 to fifteen years each in federal prison. Another employer is serving three years for having held 30 other workers in two trailers in a swamp near Immokalee. The CIW's anti-slavery program is in the process of investigating the third case.

DB - What is the reason, Lucas, why these terrible conditions exist in Florida? What's so special about Florida?

LB - First and foremost, it's the South. We have politicians here who are tied to agribusiness and therefore who are not interested in promoting laws that would improve the state of workers in this area. It's very hard to sustain worker-led organizing drives that can take on the injustices lived every day by agricultural workers.

DB - Isn't the effort in Immokalee part of a larger movement to organize workers in the South?

LB - Despite its well-earned reputation as hostile territory for labor, the South is home to several of the most militant organizing efforts in the country today, including the fight of the Charleston longshoremen and our own campaign here in Immokalee. Creative, community-based and highly politicized organizing campaigns are increasingly common, including UNITE for Dignity in Miami, Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina, and the Miami Workers Center.

These all display a grassroots militancy growing up in the heart of the South. In some ways, the South's anti-labor atmosphere actually made these new aggressive organizing tactics necessary to shift the balance of power between workers and their employers and win even the most modest changes.

Today the South has undergone a dramatic shift in population that has transformed its labor force, especially the low-wage workforce. In some ways, the South has more in common now with 21st century Los Angeles than it does with 1960s Montgomery. That doesn't negate the importance of Black workers here. It simply means that there is an important new issue in the Southern reality -- the rapid and widespread influx of immigrant workers.

DB - There have been some efforts by the United Farm Workers to organize in Florida. At one point, the workers who picked oranges for Minute Maid Orange Juice, owned by Coca Cola, were organized and worked under UFW contract. Then Coke sold the ranches and tore up the agreement. There were efforts to organize sugarcane workers, and most recently workers at Quincy Mushroom were finally able to get a UFW contract. But this represents only a tiny fraction of the many tens of thousands of farmworkers who actually work in Florida.

LB - That's correct. When Minute Maid/Coca Cola sold their assets, that was the end of the bargaining agreements for these workers. And mushrooms, which involve year-round labor in a fixed work site, are a different world from the migratory, day-haul labor here in Immokalee. That is why we have been compelled to take on different and often innovative methods of organizing so that we can put pressure on the employers to improve our conditions.

DB - What are those methods? The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has become well known for using the organizing traditions workers bring with them from their countries of origin. Have you found that this provides a way of organizing workers who, in the eyes of a lot of the labor movement, are considered almost unorganizable?

LB - We are rooted in the concept that we are worker-led. Each and every one of us is a leader, and we have to have ties, deep roots in the community. We use the method of popular education to tie us to all the different communities that exist in Immokalee. It's a method strongly rooted in Mexico, Guatemala, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, which is based on the need to raise consciousness.

Though the workers from these regions who come to Immokalee are newly arrived, they recognize that these are the same methods of organization that existed in their country. They identify with them and see that, though their situation may have changed, they must become leaders in this new situation too. It may be a slow method in terms of raising consciousness, but it's a lasting one, and creates changes that will not disappear. It's been embraced by the grassroots and by the community.

Our theme is that consciousness plus commitment equals change. Though many of the workers cannot read, we use methods that are appropriate, such as movies, popular theater, and cartoons and drawings, which enable everyone to reflect upon their lives, upon their situation, and to understand more clearly what is happening around them.

The people who originally formed the Coalition consisted of people who used these techniques in rural organizations in Haiti, Mexico and Guatemala. They decided they had to use them in this new environment in order to find solutions to the problems of the Immokalee farmworker community.

DB - Some of the things that the Coalition does are similar to unions, like strikes. But there are other ways in which the coalition is very different from a classical union. What kind of organization is the Coalition?

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LB - The CIW is a community-based labor organization. We carried out three community-wide general strikes, in '95, '97 and '99. We organized a month-long hunger strike in 1997-98 by six CIW members and a two-week long march across the southern half of Florida. And most recently, we took two buses of farmworkers and supporters on a cross-country caravan, the Taco Bell Truth Tour. We're not a top-down organization. All these actions really depend on the rank and file, the grassroots, so in that sense, perhaps, that's our identity. Where we differ from many unions is that we operate from a basis of constant political education of our members, which facilitates participation. We also take on community issues, like housing or police misconduct, as an integral part of our work. These are probably the two most important distinctions.

DB - Growers in Florida and along the East Coast have been very active in urging the federal government to expand the existing program for bringing guest workers into the country. Who wants the guest workers and why is the Coalition so opposed to the expansion of this program?

LB - The growers are lobbying for a new guest worker law on the grounds that there is not enough labor available to grow and harvest the crops in the South. These workers could come from any country. There's no specific targeted place of origin -- anyplace where unemployment and hunger produce people desperate to work. But it's a lie that there's not enough labor already here to harvest crops. Every day in the papers you can read about the numbers of unemployed workers. The problem is that most workers in this country do not want to do the work we do for the wages we're paid. We average $7,500 a year, and the conditions of exploitation are such that any reasonable person would prefer receiving unemployment benefits if possible. So the answer to the guest worker lobbying effort is to raise wages, improve working conditions and create better relations in the fields with agricultural workers.

DB - Who are the growers in south Florida?

LB - When we talk about the growers here, we're not talking about a family rancher with two or three hundred acres. We're talking about big business. These are large, multinational corporations that grow all the way from southern Florida up the East Coast to Pennsylvania. Gargiulo produces all the way up the coast and in California as well. The company was the main target of the UFW in its strawberry campaign in Watsonville, California. Six L's Packing Company is another one. The corporations here have land in Puerto Rico and some produce in Mexico as well. Just for the past year, Six L's had an income of $150 million.

DB - Lucas, one of the major corporations buying products from Immokalee growers is Taco Bell. Why has the Coalition of Immokalee Workers accused Taco Bell of being responsible for a lot of the bad conditions you've described?

LB - We work in the sweatshops in the fields for Taco Bell. We think Taco Bell should take responsibility for the conditions under which the tomatoes for their chalupas and their tacos are grown and harvested. This is really no different from the conditions of Nike workers in Asia. The only difference of course is that we are here.

Taco Bell has a lot of leverage. Just a simple phone call to the growers here to say, "You've got to resolve the situation of the workers; you've got to improve their conditions," would change everything overnight. Growers here don't want to lose their multi-billion dollar contracts with Taco Bell. We're asking for just one cent. If Taco Bell paid one additional cent per pound of tomatoes, and if that money were funneled directly to the workers, the piece rate for tomatoes we pick would nearly double. Right now we get 40 to 45 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes.

Taco Bell not only has the responsibility to do what is right, it has the power to do it. It is a multi-national corporation with $5.2 billion in annual sales, and is part of Tricon, the world's largest restaurant system with $22 billion in annual receipts. Taco Bell's tremendous global revenues are based on cheap ingredients for the food they sell, including cheap tomatoes picked by farmworkers in Florida paid sub-poverty wages. We are tired of subsidizing Taco Bell's profits with our poverty.

DB - So, if Taco Bell paid one cent a pound more for the tomatoes that go on the tacos and the chalupas, that wouldn't raise the price in the restaurant?

LB - Obviously, they don't put a whole pound's worth of tomatoes in each taco and each chalupa, so no, it wouldn't. Maybe it could raise the price of each taco and chalupa by a quarter of a cent.

DB - If customers of Taco Bell understood that if they paid one penny more for a taco or a chalupa, that it would double the wages of the workers in Florida, and if they understood what the wages and conditions for workers actually were, I think almost every customer would be happy to pay an extra penny.

LB - Not only do we agree with you, we are confirming that through our own work. We've created and forged an alliance with students, and they're some of the largest consumers of the tacos and chalupas. They understand that that one cent could benefit us, and they've helped and supported us. But we have to change the whole mentality of the corporation as well.

DB - So what does Taco Bell say when you ask them?

LB - They tell the media they are not getting involved because they are not dealing directly with the relations of production in the field. So they don't involve themselves in what they call "labor disputes." But we have to remember that those were almost the exact same words used by Nike when the Nike campaign began.

Maybe Taco Bell's also worried about who works in Taco Bell franchises. They're almost all young people working for minimum wage, and there's not a union in sight. Workers in Washington, Oregon and California have filed class action suits over unpaid wages.

DB - So what is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers doing to take this message to people in the rest of the country?

LB - We just completed an 8,640-mile nationwide Taco Bell Truth Tour, that held teach-ins and demonstrations in 17 cities across the country. We held a march of over 1,500 people in Orange County, in California, which ended at the company's world headquarters. Along the way, we created coalitions with students, other unions, and the whole anti-sweatshop and anti-globalization movement.

DB - What has the Coalition been able to accomplish in terms of actually changing the conditions of Florida farmworkers?

LB - When we started, the piece rates hadn't been raised for over 20 years. Our most significant accomplishment has been helping to get an industry-wide increase from 13-25%, not just here, but all along the East Coast. We've stopped the non-payment of wages and violence against the workers, and we've freed hundreds of workers from debt bondage. And the state of Florida has budgeted over $15 million for the construction of farmworker housing. And we've done this work in solidarity with other community organizations and unions in Florida. Hopefully, that means we've contributed to creating a stronger movement for all workers in the South, not just ourselves.