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"This Agreement Has Incredible Importance for Our Movement" - Immokalee Workers Win Agreement with Subway over Tomato Prices in Florida

StoryDecember 10, 2008
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Marc Rodrigues

Co-coordinator of Student/Farmworker Alliance. That’s the national network of students in partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Gerardo Reyes

Farmworker and member of Coalition of Immokalee Workers

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers reached an agreement last week with Subway, the third largest fast-food chain in the world and the biggest fast-food buyer of Florida tomatoes. Subway now joins other fast-food giants, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King, that have all agreed to pay farm workers at least another penny per pound of tomatoes they harvest and improve working conditions. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In our final segment, we turn to an important victory for one of the most impoverished group of workers in this country, the migrant farm workers who harvest tomatoes in Florida. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers reached an agreement last week with Subway, the third largest fast-food chain in the world and the biggest fast-food buyer of Florida tomatoes. Subway now joins other fast-food giants — McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King — that have all agreed to pay farm workers at least another penny per pound of tomatoes they harvest and improve working conditions.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders hailed the agreement with Subway, describing it as "yet another blow to the scourge of slavery that continues to exist in the tomato fields of Florida."

Coalition members are in New York this week for their Northeast Fair Food tour and will be honored tonight by the Small Planet Fund on the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

We’re joined in the studio by Gerardo Reyes from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Marc Rodrigues from the Student/Farmworker Alliance, that’s in partnership with the coalition.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

MARC RODRIGUES: Thanks. Thanks for having us.


SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Gerardo, let’s begin with you. Talk about the significance of this new deal with Subway.

GERARDO REYES: Well, this agreement has an incredible importance for our movement, because it started as an idea to bring the biggest fast-food corporations to the table in order to improve the conditions that we face in the fields every day, conditions that go from stagnant wages to slavery, in the most extreme conditions. And right now, with this agreement with Subway, we could say that the most important representatives of the fast-food industry have already given their position on the situation, and they are in favor of a change. So now the question is for the supermarket industry and the providers of food to schools, like Aramark and Sodexo, that continue to benefit from the misery of communities like ours.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And you spoke about these conditions. Can you describe them a little more in more detail for our audience?

GERARDO REYES: Basically, today, a farm worker has to pick two-and-a-half tons of tomatoes in order to make only the equivalent to the minimum wage of Florida. But that’s picking by piece. The tomato bucket of thirty-two pounds gets paid from forty to forty-five cents. That’s without any type of benefits nor protections. We work from ten to fourteen hours in a normal day, seven days a week, if there’s work, without receiving overtime pay.

Workers — farm workers in most of the states of this country are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act that gives workers a right to organize. That’s why the agricultural industry have not paid attention to the demands that we had in the past. And that’s why we’re asking, like, who’s benefiting the most from our poverty? How could we change the way that the agricultural industry, the corporate agricultural industrial, exists today in the United States? And it was by focusing on the big buyers, that are the ones who get more profit than anybody else.

ANJALI KAMAT: I want to bring Marc Rodrigues into the conversation, and I want to ask you about the role of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. They seemed to be a stumbling block in this process. Can you explain who they are and what their position is on this deal that the Coalition has won with all of these fast-food chains?

MARC RODRIGUES: Yeah. Basically, the Tomato Growers Exchange is an entity that represents about 90 percent of the growers in Florida and goes to Tallahassee or D.C. to lobby on their behalf.

And what has happened ever since, more or less, we reached the agreement with McDonald’s is that the Growers Exchange has come out strongly opposing these agreements, first saying that they were un-American or saying that they’re possibly illegal, just saying that they didn’t want their members to participate in them. And so, they actually implemented a $100,000 fine against any of their own member growers who would be willing to fully participate in these agreements and allow the extra penny per pound to get through to the workers.

We know that there are growers who are willing to do that, because for a couple of years after we reached our agreement with Taco Bell in 2005, the penny per pound passed through was working completely fine. It wasn’t until the growers put up this resistance that that was halted.

Today, one of the major corporations that we have agreements with remain fully committed to carrying out those agreements. They’re still paying the extra penny per pound, but it’s going into a sort of neutral escrow account instead of getting to the workers. And we hope that the money from that account will be disbursed to the workers very soon, possibly starting with this season.

What we know is that this resistance on the part of the growers is a sign that our campaign is having an effect and that we are starting to make the change that we want to make, because, you know, just as the civil rights movement had its Bull Connors, we have the Growers Exchange. And they say that a candle burns the brightest when it’s about to go out, and it appears that that’s what’s happening now.

The important thing here is that, ironically, the resistance on the part of the growers has also attracted new allies to our cause, which might help us more in the long run. For example, we have four prominent US senators —-

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We just have ten seconds.

MARC RODRIGUES: —- who are supporting us. And so, we’re going to see if we can work out the situation soon.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, that’s all we have time for. I want to thank you very much for being with us. Marc Rodrigues is a co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance. And Gerardo Reyes is a farm worker and member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

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