Power to the Pickers

Lucas Benitez demands a harvest without shame

It seems an odd item to stash away. Stuffed in a file drawer at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), in Immokalee, Florida, is an old work shirt covered with faded brown stains that look like mud. But they're not, says coalition leader Lucas Benitez. They're blood.

Back in 1996, a tomato picker had shown up at the coalition's door; he was bleeding profusely after being beaten by his crew boss for requesting a water break. Benitez soon organized hundreds of coalition members—most of them Mexicans, Guatemalans, or Haitians working in the region's tomato fields and orange groves—to march on the crew boss' home. The following day, not a soul went to work in the fields the man oversaw. "The other crew leaders were watching," says Benitez. "Since then, there have been no reports of physical violence in Immokalee to workers in the fields."

So why keep the shirt for eight years? "It's like having an iron ball and chain from when there was chattel slavery," Benitez says. "It demonstrates the exploitation we faced, but also the anger and valor when we got united and acted like a community, not a labor reserve."

If you should find yourself out during the hours before sunrise in Immokalee—about 45 minutes inland from Naples—the words "labor reserve" might indeed come to mind. Migrant laborers filter onto the dark streets from concrete "dorms" and decrepit trailers jammed into the nine-block downtown core. They gather in the drab salmon light of the street lamps overlooking the lot of La Mexicana #5 market, where they'll board buses or climb into the cargo beds of high-sided panel trucks for the ride to the fields. The work is exhausting and pitifully paid: At the going rate of 45 cents a bucket, laborers have to fill 125 buckets—two tons of tomatoes—just to earn $56 in a day.

Though the 28-year-old Benitez and his colleagues have eked out small raises in recent years, the pickers' piece rate has remained almost stagnant since the late 1970s. But working conditions have certainly improved since Benitez first arrived in Immokalee in 1993 as an immigrant from Guerrero, Mexico. The violence has stopped, and workers now get paid once a week, as they should. Crew leaders used to "forget" a check or insist that it was not due, Benitez recalls. "So 40 or 50 of us would walk to the boss' house, knock at the door, and say, 'Here we are!' Like a magic trick, the pay would appear."

And when Benitez speaks of ending chattel slavery, he's hardly exaggerating. His group has pushed the Department of Justice to prosecute five agricultural slavery rings in the South. In one case, undocumented workers had been bought from smugglers and kept under armed watch, their wages garnisheed to pay for their housing and other "debts." For his efforts, Benitez was honored with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award in 2003.

Benitez exudes the passion of an old-time labor agitator. He stands about five and a half feet tall, but his energy and earnest manner give him an authoritative presence. In his daily stint on CIW's low-power radio station, he deepens his voice, speeds up his Spanish, and rolls his R's for dramatic flair—"R-r-r-r-adio Conciencia!" he crows, as he reminds his listeners to take CIW's phone number with them and watch out for charlatans as they head north following the harvest. For Benitez, it's clear that serious work should also be fun.

Benitez is also quick to deflect attention: The force of CIW comes not from any one person, he insists, but from the group. The coalition has 2,700 members and a staff of eight, who share the work knocking on doors around town—few laborers have telephones—to alert workers to upcoming actions. This ability to build solidarity has served Benitez well in CIW's boycott of Taco Bell and its corporate parent, Yum! Brands. They are pressuring Yum! to pay a penny per pound more for the tomatoes it buys, which could raise pickers' wages to as much as $100 a day and might add about a quarter of a cent to the price of a fast-food taco. Benitez and his colleagues have led marches, including a 200-mile trek across Florida, and a 10-day hunger strike in front of Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California. They have also sparked a nationwide "Boot the Bell" campaign on college campuses wherever Chalupas are sold.

In his early days in Immokalee, Benitez thought sometimes about finding better paying work. "But that's not the solution," he insists. Likening the harvesters' struggles to the early days of the autoworkers, he adds, "Picking is dignified, honest work that deserves to be treated as such. This community of workers is…clearing the path for those who will come behind us. It's not something that can wait for others. It has to come from us, who've worked in the fields."