Orlando-Area Immigrant Workers Fight to Hold the Pennies They Won

Sunday 13 July 2008

by: Jim Stratton, The Orlando Sentinel

The tomato pickers who keep Burger King running often labor under excruciating conditions. Now they're putting their feet down: after a slew of protests, the company has agreed to increase its workers' wages.

Immokalee - The battle between Burger King and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers wasn't a fair fight.

The King had loads of money, spin doctors and a powerful corporate brand. The coalition had little cash, high hopes and leaders making minimum wage.

The fast-food giant never stood a chance.

After balking for three years, the company agreed in May to pay workers an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes they pick - about 2.4 cents per pound or as much as $60 more a week. It was the third major chain humbled by some of Florida's poorest, least educated and most politically savvy activists.

"They respect us - even fear us," said Norberto Jimenez, a coalition member and migrant from Mexico. "They know they have to work with us."

Now the coalition is sizing up the tomato growers.

The farmers and their Maitland-based lobbying group have refused to pass on to workers the extra penny that McDonald's, Yum! Brands and Burger King are paying. So the money - now more than $110,000 - piles up in escrow.

The coalition hasn't targeted the growers yet, but it might.

"I don't know," coalition spokeswoman Julia Perkins said. "I hope we don't have to."

So should the growers.

The coalition has proved it can make businesses mighty uncomfortable. It has organized boycotts, staged marches and conducted hunger strikes to force higher wages. It has exposed slavery rings, been praised by the Justice Department and won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.

It's heady stuff for an organization with no P.R. firm, no lobbyists and a staff that spends part of the year hauling 32-pound containers from the fields to the truck.

"Everyone, except me, has worked in the fields," Perkins said. "So they all know the truth about what goes on."

Two Tons in 10 Hours

Florida produces almost half of the tomatoes consumed in the United States, a crop worth more than $500 million a year. Getting them from the fields to the table is grinding, back-breaking work.

Days start before dawn, when buses carry workers to fields in a part of Collier County called the Devil's Garden. During a 10-hour shift, a worker can lift two tons; the pay has been about 1.4 cents per pound.

Workers return to camp in the dark, their hands stained black by dirt and pesticides. They crowd eight - sometimes as many as 12 - into a battered trailer and collapse.

"It can be hard," said Jimenez, a 53-year-old former coffee farmer. "There is only one bathroom. There can be rats and cockroaches."

But it used to be worse.

When the coalition formed in 1993, crew bosses sometimes doled out punishment instead of checks. So 3,000 workers went on strike to demand better treatment. In 1997, they staged work stoppages and a month-long hunger strike by six coalition members. The actions ultimately reversed a trend that had seen wages decline to pre-1980 levels.

Since 2001, the coalition, which has 3,500 members, has focused on fast-food companies, some of the biggest buyers of Florida tomatoes. Knowing it would need allies, it reached out to student groups, faith-based organizations and sympathetic lawmakers. With their help, the group forced Yum! Brands to close more than 20 Taco Bells on campuses around the country.

The group works from a rundown storefront with a couple of ratty sofas and a refrigerator filled with Mexican soda. The walls are covered by photos of marchers, a poster of Martin Luther King Jr. and a banner - painted by a coalition member - of workers from Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Mexico. To get its message out, it operates a low-power radio station and holds weekly meetings in Immokalee.

It has a budget of about $800,000 a year - $500,000 less than the base salary of Burger King's CEO - and is funded by grants and a food co-op it runs. Coalition staffers have no titles, and all 10 earn minimum wage. Most have little formal education and learned organizing skills on the job or from community work they'd done in their homelands.

Mathieu Beaucicot, for example, worked with pickers in Haiti before fleeing after a coup. Beaucicot, now a U.S. citizen, said the coalition offers him a voice he never had.

"We need money, yes," said Beaucicot, "but we need justice [and] liberty also."

Growers Claim Extortion

What the coalition considers justice, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange calls extortion.

Exchange Vice President Reggie Brown says the coalition forces companies to pay more by threatening boycotts and bad publicity. The group has called coalition members agitators and claimed they lied about penny-per-pound deals that didn't exist.

The exchange initially threatened any grower who passed that money on to workers with a $100,000 fine, though it recently withdrew that. Still, it tells members not to participate. Brown argued that growers who "get into the middle of the stream" - by passing the additional money on to workers - could be dragged into court should someone claim wages were distributed incorrectly.

"There's no legal reason we need to do this," Brown said.

Growers also dispute the idea that migrants make poverty wages, saying payroll records show workers earn an average of $12.46 an hour - nearly double Florida's minimum wage. Brown said thousands of workers return each year, lured by the promise of "big bucks."

The idea leaves Perkins shaking her head. She said the average worker is lucky to earn half that $12.46 figure. With no reliable time clocks in the fields, she said, figures can be manipulated.

Francisca Cortes, meanwhile, just smiles. The 25-year-old Mexican said rebutting Brown's claim is easy: Just spend some time with the migrants.

"At the end, we'll always win because we have the key in our hands - which is reality," she said. "Reality can't hide anything."