Ever since Standard Oil founder Henry Flagler arrived on its shores at the height of the Gilded Age and transformed the landscape with quasi-slave labor, the southeast Florida island of Palm Beach has been a magnet for the US ruling class, the winter playground of presidents (Kennedy, Nixon, Trump), moguls (David Koch, Estée Lauder, Ronald Perelman), and some particularly noxious financiers (Bernie Madoff, Jeffrey Epstein).
But on a hot Saturday afternoon in early April, a different kind of crowd filled the town’s sunny streets. The farm-labor advocacy group Coalition of Immokalee Workers, representing tomato pickers, had convened several hundred farmworkers and activists for a march. Holding red tomato-shaped signs that said “Respeto” and “Dignidad,” they made their way past the opulent boutiques and hulking resorts, chanting, “Get up, get down, fair food has come to town.” The pickers normally toil two hours inland from Palm Beach, in fields that produce two-thirds of the country’s winter tomatoes. On this day, they had traveled to the coast to target one of the island’s reigning masters of the universe: billionaire Nelson Peltz.
If you’ve heard of Peltz, it’s likely because he made tabloid headlines recently for the wedding of his daughter Nicola to Brooklyn Beckham, son of soccer legend David Beckham and Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham, at Peltz’s $94.9 million Palm Beach mansion.
Peltz, a Trump supporter worth $1.6 billion, has drawn the ire of the CIW because he chairs the board of Wendy’s; the hedge fund he co-founded, Trian Partners, holds an 11.5 percent stake in the square-burger giant. (Several past and current Trian execs also serve on Wendy’s 11-person board, including Peltz’s son, Matthew.)
Wendy’s is an outlier among the United States’ five biggest fast-food companies: It’s the only one that has refused to sign on to CIW’s Fair Food Program, a worker-driven initiative that ensures pickers get a bonus on top of their poverty wages and that their farm employers abide by a code of conduct. (Wendy’s said in an emailed statement that it won’t join the program because it sources its tomatoes from greenhouses and has its own code of conduct.)
The Fair Food Program, launched by the CIW in 2011, has been an essential safeguard in a state that has all but banished unions. On top of its commitment to fair wages, the program employs third-party monitoring to prevent abuses in the field, which can include sexual harassment
, stolen wages, denial of breaks, and even outright slavery. Since 2016, the CIW has urged consumers to boycott Wendy’s until it joins. While that effort has yet to bear fruit—Wendy’s officials and Peltz’s team have refused to even meet with the group—the same strategy has succeeded in pushing other big tomato buyers to commit. In 2005, Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC) became the first to sign. Since then, Subway, McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Burger King have all joined, in some cases after protracted battles, as have retailers Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Whole Foods.
Workers from other industries are taking note of the CIW’s successes. Joining the tomato pickers, college-student activists, and aging lefties at the Palm Beach protest were six employees of the meat giant Tyson. These workers made the trek from Springdale, Arkansas, as members of Venceremos, a poultry workers-rights group, to learn firsthand how their counterparts in Immokalee have organized to improve their lives. “In isolated, largely white rural communities, you feel so powerless,” says Magaly Licolli, the group’s co-founder and director. “Seeing what the coalition has accomplished gives us back a sense of hope.”
Building worker power in Florida’s tomato field required a long and ongoing struggle. Draconian “right to work” laws effectively make traditional union organizing impossible throughout the South. Back in the 1990s, after years of fruitless organizing to push the Immokalee area’s local land barons to raise wages and improve conditions for tomato workers, the CIW decided on a different tactic: It would take on the buyers, the public-facing fast-food chains that use tomatoes to garnish burgers and tacos. While working with the US Department of Justice to root out cases of outright slavery in the fields, the group formed alliances with college-student activists to launch boycotts of popular brands, cajoling them to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes, to be deposited into a fund that would ultimately be delivered to farmworkers as a bonus. By stirring up enough ruckus, they also pressured the fast-food companies to agree to only buy from growers who submit to a worker-led code of conduct mandating safe conditions and freedom from harassment.
A day before the rally Palm Beach, I stopped by the CIW’s community center in Immokalee, a hardscrabble town of 24,000 in the heart of southern Florida farm country. The coalition’s HQ is a modest baby-blue structure just across the road from where repurposed school buses pick up workers to transport them to tomato fields. The building buzzed with activity as CIW members prepared for the rally: painting signs, arranging T-shirts and other worker-justice swag, and rehearsing a planned street theater performance.
Amid the din in a shady corner of the back patio, I caught up with Venceremos’ Licolli. Before helping launch the group in 2019, she had been director of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center for several years. When she started at the center, the group was struggling to raise awareness about the problems plaguing meatpacking work; things like ever-faster-moving kill lines, which subject workers to high rates of repetitive-stress injuries; and a rising use of caustic chemicals for sterilizing chicken meat, which can lead to respiratory issues.
Encouraged by allies in the NGO world like Oxfam, NAWJC and other poultry worker centers across the country began pressuring government agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Agriculture to ramp up regulation through letter-writing campaigns and reports. In 2016, the strategy succeeded in pushing the Obama administration to scrap a long-brewing plan to let poultry companies dramatically speed up their kill lines.
But then the Trump administration quickly reversed Obama’s move. The setback revealed the workers’ complete lack of power in the political system. After the defeat, “we felt lost,” she said. “The workers didn’t trust any of the mechanisms—OSHA, the USDA, the Department of Labor—that are supposed to help them.”
Then she heard about how the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was making real progress in improving pay and conditions, even as workers in her industry seemed stuck. In 2018, she and several poultry workers traveled to Immokalee to see the Fair Food Program in action. Her group tagged along with CIW representatives who were conducting a field workshop to inform tomato pickers of their rights, and remind them to report any infractions of Fair Food Program rules by their employers. “And this one farm worker—right in front of his supervisor—started telling the Coalition people, ‘this supervisor is rude to us,'” Licolli said. “The worker felt protected enough to complain about his supervisor, right in front of him!” Licolli and her poultry-worker comrades were stunned. That sort of thing would have never happened in the poultry industry, where workers live in fear of being fired or demoted for making their complaints known to bosses, Licolli recalled thinking. “It was a powerful moment for us, like, ‘wow, these workers have the right to speak up.'”
After seeing that spectacle, and learning more about the code of conduct and the pay gains CIW had made, the Arkansas workers in attendance were like, “Magaly, why don’t we embrace this in the the poultry industry?” Licolli recounted.
In 2019, Licolli left the NAWJC (which is now defunct), and, along with several of the workers who had been on the Immokalee trip, launched Venceremos, Spanish for “We will win.” From the start, the group planned to employ CIW-like tactics, taking the fight directly to the chicken-eating public rather than limiting themselves to quiet attempts to persuade federal regulatory agencies to act.
Soon after, the pandemic turned the slaughterhouse floor, already a place where injuries are routine, into a site of deadly risk. It laid bare the ruinous conditions inside meatpacking plants and revealed the unchecked power of the industry’s executives, who successfully lobbied the Trump and Biden administrations against implementing emergency rules to protect workers from the virus. The result was a public-health catastrophe. In a 2021 report, the US House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis found at least 59,000 of the industry’s workers tested positive for the virus during the first year of the pandemic, and at least 269 died. And meatpacking-plant outbreaks emerged as prime vectors for spreading the virus into rural America. “Instead of addressing the clear indications that workers were contracting the coronavirus at alarming rates due to conditions in meatpacking facilities,” the report concluded, “meatpacking companies prioritized profits and production over worker safety, continuing to employ practices that led to crowded facilities in which the virus spread easily.”
One of the Tyson poultry workers who attended the CIW rally, who asked to be called Rosa, told me she fell sick at the height of the pandemic in 2020, with Covid-like symptoms including headaches and exhaustion. Before she could get a definitive diagnosis, her 80 year-old husband, who also worked at Tyson, fell ill and died in the hospital within three days, from impaired lung function. They both tested positive for Covid. Devastated by his death and still sick herself, Rosa remembers, “It was the worst day of my life.” Back at work at Tyson, she recently strained her back at her post ripping breasts from chicken carcasses whizzing by at the rate of 39 per minute. In response, she says, Tyson moved her to a less taxing but lower-paying position. After two decades of service in the trenches feeding America’s chicken habit, Tyson pays her an hourly wage of $15.85.
After hearing dozens of stories like Rosa’s, Licolli and Venceremos went into emergency mode, bluntly telling any journalist who would listen—including me—about the fear and stress workers felt as they continued laboring shoulder to shoulder as colleagues fell ill and died. Licolli raised hell in a way that other worker centers in the poultry space don’t: She organized protests at Arkansas plants; took to Facebook Live to stream videos of herself naming workers who had died of Covid, right outside of Tyson plant; and teamed up with the environmental group Food & Water Watch to launch a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission rebuking the company for launching ads claiming that its workers were “safer than ever,” even as the virus raged.
And Licolli observed how, in the tomato fields around Immokalee, tomato pickers weathered the pandemic with significant protections. After Covid cases spiked early in the pandemic and the state of Florida ignored pleas to send medical resources to the remote rural town, CIW mobilized the nonprofits Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health to work with local public-health institutions to set up rapid testing centers in tomato country, at hours convenient for workers. By September 2020, the group had pushed growers bound by the Fair Food Program to implement mandatory Covid protocols that include free masks, social distancing in the field and on transportation buses, quarantine housing for workers who test positive, and “provision and delivery of groceries and other necessities” to quarantined workers.
These days, the Fair Food Program covers 90 percent of tomatoes produced in the Immokalee region and around 30,000 workers, according to an assessment by the Bridgespan Group, a consultancy for mission-driven organizations. Since the outset of the program, Bridgespan found, these pickers have experienced a “50 to 70 percent increase in their take-home pay, along with substantially improved and independently monitored working conditions in the fields.”
As the worst days of the pandemic seem to be behind us, Licolli and her Venceremos peers have shifted out of emergency mode. Inspired by the CIW’s strategy, they are thinking bigger, more systematically; they want to take on the issues that made poultry workers so vulnerable to Covid’s ravages in the first place.
Bright and early the morning after our patio chat, the CIW and Venceremos crews made the trek in buses from Immokalee toward Palm Beach. They traversed rural roads dissecting sugarcane fields along the southern edge of the Lake Okeechobee—a region made famous by Edward R. Murrow’s landmark 1960 documentary exposé of dire labor conditions on US farms, Harvest of Shame.
The buses arrived at Palm Beach’s Bradley Park, which sits in the shadow of the Royal Poinciana South building, where a two-bedroom apartment rents for $14,000 per month (more than the average annual wage of an Immokalee farmworker). A band played some raucous son jaracho (traditional music from the Mexican state of Vera Cruz) to warm the crowd, as dog-walking Poinciana residents milled about at the park’s edges looking confused by the commotion.
Then CIW organizers delivered a bit of street theater on a portable stage to dramatize their complaints. Lucas Benitez, a former farmworker who co-founded the CIW in 1993 and has since emerged as a celebrated figure in worker-justice circles, narrated in Spanish with an English translator at his side. Farm workers acted out a burlesque of life in the tomato patch under two fundamentally different labor regimes: one with pickers working under the protection of the Fair Food Program, the other with them toiling under the gaze of a cruel and uninhibited boss. One treated workers like human beings, and the other treated them like property.
Gerardo Reyes, also a former farmworker and now a CIW senior staffer, donned a white wig with an alarming bald spot to portray Wendy’s Chairman Nelson Peltz in the drama. He towered over another player dressed up as a puppet version of rosy-cheeked, red-haired rag doll that serves as Wendy’s mascot. The message was clear: Peltz controls Wendy’s—and Wendy’s declines to participate in a program that protects workers from abuse and pays them an extra penny per pound for tomatoes. Wendy’s says it won’t join the program because since 2019, it has sourced all of its tomatoes from greenhouses, not from Florida’s fields. CIW counters that there are labor abuses in greenhouses, too, so the fast-food giant should join.
Afterward, the parade wound through the gilded streets of Palm Beach, at one point stopping in front of Pelz’s hedge fund Trian’s local offices while organizers delivered speeches and slogans to the cheering and chanting crowd. Across the street, amid the ruckus, patio brunchers at the Italian restaurant Trevini had no choice but to take note of the calls for justice and the denunciations of one of the island’s highest-profile denizens.
As the march rounded the corner to stop at the local headquarters of JP Morgan Chase (a major Wendy’s shareholder), I caught up briefly with Greg Asbed, a CIW co-founder, and asked whether he thought Wendy’s would ultimately sign the Fair Food Program. He said it likely would; in addition to consumer boycotts heating up on multiple college campuses that house Wendy’s locations, some shareholders (not JP Morgan Chase) were also applying pressure.
Even though Trian controls the board and has shown no interest in cooperating in the program, as the groundswell continues, Peltz and his allies will have to ask themselves, “What’s so bad about joining a successful social responsibility campaign—what’s the downside?” Asbed said. “Meanwhile, there is a downside to dealing with a campaign about not doing it right.” Given CIW’s track record of getting Burger King and Chipotle onboard—both of which resisted bitterly before signing—I believed him.
I checked in with Licolli after the march. She stressed that Venceremos remains in its infancy. Whereas the CIW has been organizing tomato workers since 1993, her group only launched in 2019. Building sufficient trust, confidence, and commitment among workers to confront the poultry industry with high-profile public campaigns will take time. The Venceremos contingent that traveled to Florida “were very energized by what they saw,” she told me. After watching tomato pickers and their allies “march in one of the richest cities in the US and demand justice, they said, ‘if they can do this, we can obviously do it, too.”