In the heart of Florida's industrial-scale fruit and vegetable fields, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has achieved the most tangible gains for US farm workers since the glory days of the California-based United Farm Workers in the 1970s. CIW has methodically taken on large tomato growers and the giant corporations that buy their product, winning for themselves an extra penny for every pound of tomatoes they harvest, which amounts to a substantial raise; as well as code-of-conduct agreements between buyers and growers that set up a grievance process for alleged abuses and other protections.
But despite CIW's burgeoning power, conditions remain rough in the area's farm fields—especially on farms that haven't signed the code of conduct. The group's agreements so far only cover tomatoes; workers toiling in other crops remain underpaid and largely unprotected. And last week, the group reported Sunday, a worker from a nearby eggplant field walked into its office wearing a bloodied t-shirt. Here's what happened:
He had been working at a vegetable packing house, packing eggplants, about 10 miles from Immokalee when a supervisor approached him. According to the worker, the supervisor criticized his work, and he, thinking the criticism unjustified, answered back. A discussion ensued when, according to the worker and a witness, the supervisor hauled off and punched him in the face. Staggered, he swung back, but was knocked to the ground by the supervisor before others in the area stepped in to pull them apart. The worker was told to go home, clean up, and return the next day. Instead, he went to the CIW's office, and filed a police report. He then went to the hospital, where he learned that the supervisor's punch had broken his nose.
For CIW, the incident was a haunting reminder of how things were in tomato fields in the mid-1990s, before the penny-per-pound campaign, when another young man walked into the offices wearing a bloody shirt:
He had been picking tomatoes in a field near Immokalee when he stopped to take a drink of water. A field supervisor accosted him, shouted "Are you here to work, or to drink water?", and launched into him, leaving him badly bruised and bloodied—and determined to find justice. The young worker walked back to Immokalee, headed straight to the CIW office, and sparked a nighttime march of nearly 500 workers on the crew leader's house. The marchers brandished his shirt as a banner, declaring "If you beat one of us, you beat us all!", and helped launch a movement that changed Immokalee forever.
While I read CIW's report, I thought about another place farm workers are getting beat up: in the halls of the US Senate. Senators John Thune (R-S.D.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) have introduced what they call "common sense" legislation designed to squash new rules proposed by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis that impose new restrictions on employing children on farms. The proposed rules would prevent kids under 16 from handling pesticides, working in animal feedlots, among other things that most people wouldn't want their kids doing.