Gov. Charlie Crist once again has gone against the grain of Florida politics and gubernatorial politics in particular. On March 26, Crist sent a letter to leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers after meeting with members of the labor advocacy group in Tallahassee.
For weeks, the CIW had been asking the governor for a meeting to discuss slavery, related working conditions and unfairness in wages. During the meeting, the CIW made Crist aware of documented evidence of Florida farmworkers being enslaved. Last fall, for example, five Immokalee crew chiefs pleaded guilty to 17 counts of keeping more than a dozen men in boxes, shacks and trucks on their property. The workers were chained, beaten and forced to work on farms in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The bosses forced the field hands to pay rent of $20 a week to sleep in a locked furniture van. The men were forced to urinate and defecate in a corner of the van. To control the workers, the bosses devised food, drink and drug schemes to increase and guarantee the workers' indebtedness.
In his letter to the CIW, Crist wrote: "The information you provided greater expanded my understanding of the hardships the workers face while enduring this difficult employment. I have no tolerance for slavery in any form, and I am committed to eliminating this injustice anywhere in Florida. I unconditionally support the humane and civilized treatment of all employees, including those who work in Florida's agricultural industry. Any type of abuse in the workplace is unacceptable."
Crist's involvement in the slavery issue is a milestone. Until now, outsiders such as former President Jimmy Carter and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have been the only high-profile politicians to take up the farmworkers' cause. Other Florida governors, especially Jeb Bush, shunned these issues.
In his letter, Crist did something else no other Florida governor has done on behalf of farmworkers. He took on the powerful Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. Most farmworkers, including Florida tomato pickers, work seven days a week, between 10 to 12 hours with no overtime pay, no health insurance, no sick days, no benefits and no job security. Their wages — which have remained the same for 30 years — often are withheld at the whims of their bosses. The majority of all American farmworkers earn less than $10,000 a year.
For the last eight years, the CIW has been campaigning to persuade the fast food industry to pay another 1 cent per pound for tomatoes picked. The effort succeeded with some fast food chains. Burger King, McDonald's and Yum Brands — which includes Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, A&W and Long John Silver's — agreed to pay the 1-cent increase. Subway, with 24,000 U.S. stores, came on board and put in an additional 1.5 cents per pound to cover administrative costs and guarantee that at least a penny will be reserved for workers. Subway also insisted on a monitoring system to ensure that workers got the penny.
Unaccountably, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange opposes the penny going directly to pickers and has implemented a $100,000 fine for any member that pays workers extra. Ninety percent of the state's tomato growers belong to the exchange. Some growers backed out of the deal under pressure from the association. Instead of giving the money directly to the pickers, the exchange is holding it in escrow accounts. The CIW wants Crist to use his influence to get the money dispersed to pickers.
"I support the Coalition's Campaign for Fair Food, whereby corporate purchasers of tomatoes have agreed to contribute monies for the benefit of the tomato field workers," Crist wrote. "I commend these purchasers for their participation, and I encourage the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and its members to participate in the campaign so that these monies can reach and provide assistance to the workers."
As always, Reggie Brown, vice president of the exchange, refuses to budge. In an e-mail in response to Crist's letter, he wrote: "Clearly, the governor and the growers are on the same side of the issue in condemning slavery — its practice has no place in civilized society. We do differ in the growers' role in the CIW's campaign, however."
The CIW's campaign is simple: Give the extra penny contributed by the fast food chains to those who harvest the tomatoes.
Crist can use the bully pulpit of his office only so much in the effort to move the money out of escrow and into the workers' pockets. Because the tomato growers association will not cooperate, outside pressure must be brought to bear. That pressure must come directly from consumers who buy fresh, inexpensive tomatoes at their local supermarkets, and who buy fast food meals that use tomatoes.
Fair wages for farmworkers is a moral issue, one that all consumers should be concerned about and one they should get involved in. Gov. Crist cannot wage this important battle alone.