Like everyone else who cares about the plight of farmworkers, I am encouraged that Pacific Tomato Growers, one of the nation's largest producers of tomatoes, recently made peace with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
During a news conference on Oct. 13, Pacific's operating partner, Jon Esformes, pledged to upgrade the company's working conditions and pay its pickers a penny more per pound for tomatoes. One penny will do wonders for many workers, raising their yearly wages from about $10,000 to roughly $17,000. The increase took effect the next day.
Other benefits are part of the agreement: worker education and health and safety programs, a process for handling complaints and shade in the fields. The CIW had been fighting for these and other amenities for more than a decade.
Rather than speak as a wonky businessman, Esformes quoted words of atonement by philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel: "Few are guilty, but all are responsible. … The transgressions that took place are totally unacceptable today and they were totally unacceptable yesterday."
Many of today's consumers have no knowledge of yesterday and, therefore, have no historical perspective as to why our produce always has been some of the freshest and least expensive in the world.
The harsh truth is that America's bounty always has been planted, tended and harvested by abused minorities who have remained, and still remain, mostly invisible and powerless. As I watch the CIW's efforts, I recall my childhood, when I often worked alongside my father in these same Collier County fields. In those days and before, Florida farmworkers were predominantly black. Hardly any Mexican or other Hispanic workers could be found east of the Mississippi.
My father and I lived with about 80 other pickers in a camp about 6 miles south of Immokalee. Conditions in the camp, like those in others from Belle Glade to Long Island, N.Y., were filthy and violent. Our living quarters were a tin-roofed, wooden, windowless bull pen where 10 to 15 men and boys slept on pallets. Families with children and single women slept in shacks across the compound from the men.
Everyone used the same fly-infested, two-holed outhouses. Real toilet paper was scarce. Most of us used newspaper and brown grocery bags. Privacy and quiet were next to impossible. The crew leader's girlfriend prepared meals for the single men. Families with children cooked their own meals. For some men, especially the physically weak or hot-tempered, life was violent and often short. The knife was the weapon of choice. The sense of manhood, even for young boys like me, framed male relationships.
Hard work — stooping, sweating and lifting all day — was at the center of our lives. We literally were the property of the crew chief and the grower. We rode from field to field on the beds of trucks and in old school buses that regularly broke down.
My father and the other men who sent money back home complained about the low wages. Those without women back home used their wages to buy physical pleasure. Venereal disease was rampant. Alcoholism was normal. We did not have doctors on the road, so if you were injured or became ill, good luck.
Paradoxically, everyone, including children, worked hard. You could not survive as a farmworker if you did not work hard. Life was tough for us back then, and it is tough for today's workers because the genesis of injustice in the fields flows from on high, from Congress.
The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that guaranteed, among other protections, minimum wage for each hour worked, overtime and accurate record-keeping, did not apply to farmworkers, especially migrants. Working conditions, housing and the right to know about environmental hazards such pesticides did not apply to field hands, either. Agriculture, small farms in particular, is still exempt from many FLSA rules.
In light of history, Pacific Tomato Growers' pact with the CIW is a giant step toward bringing justice to the fields. The hope now is that other companies and organizations, such as Publix and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, do the right thing. Everyone benefits when farmworkers are treated fairly.