IMMOKALEE — Growers of the bulk of all U.S. winter tomatoes struck a major deal Tuesday with a Florida farmworkers group to boost their wages and working conditions, clearing the way for food giants such as McDonald's, Burger King and upscale grocer Whole Foods to pass along more money to poor field pickers for their harvests.
The landmark deal caps more than a decade of attempts by struggling field workers and their advocacy group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to reach a deal with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a lobby for an industry that oversees 90 percent of the domestic winter tomato supply.
In separate deals over the past five years, nine major national food groups have agreed to pay a penny more for every pound of tomatoes they picked. While those deals reaped national headlines, for the most part they were never implemented because the major growers group had refused to participate — until now.
Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the exchange, said the decision to come to the table was based in part on growers' desire to protect the welfare of workers and in part on survival.
"We are in tight competition with Mexican growers," Brown said.
The coalition said food suppliers have agreed to absorb the cost, and it doesn't expect consumers to see any related increase in prices.
Lucas Benitez, who co-founded the workers group in 1996, signed the agreement with Brown at a joint news conference Tuesday outside the coalition's offices in Immokalee. The two sides said the deal would begin with the winter season.
"Today hope, not shame, is on the horizon," Benitez said, predicting it could spur more food companies to join in pledges to pay the pickers more. Currently, field laborers earn roughly between 45 and 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket they fill.
Among steps, the deal calls for greater worker-to-worker education about farm laborers' rights and how to speak up about violations.