The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has finally gotten a major Florida tomato grower to agree to pay farm laborers a penny-per-pound premium. The landmark agreement is a testament to the perseverance of the coalition, which has spent years battling the near-solid resistance by growers to the group's reasonable demands. Now farmworkers for Pacific Tomato Growers will be paid more fairly and have a say in working conditions. The move is a courageous step by the tomato grower that should encourage other growers to follow suit.
Itinerant tomato pickers in Florida have faced a tough time getting a boost in pay. The 45 cents or so they earn for every 32-pound bucket picked is a rate that has stagnated for decades. In the face of pickers' attempts to negotiate more generous terms, big tomato producers had refused to talk or cooperate with the coalition. And until recently, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, the growers' trade group, financially threatened any grower who joined the coalition's efforts.
But that didn't stop the group, which brought its Campaign for Fair Food to fast-food chains and supermarkets — companies that buy Florida tomatoes by the ton. Knowing a good corporate citizen move when they saw it, McDonald's, Taco Bell and Whole Foods, among others, agreed to pay an additional 1 cent or more per pound and abide by a supplier code of conduct. The problem has been that the growers wouldn't help implement the agreements.
But the deal with PTG is a game-changer. The Palmetto-based tomato producer is one of the state's largest and most established. The agreement and the good feelings expressed by both parties at the announcement signal a new era of cooperation. There will be an accounting system set up and third-party auditing to ensure that workers receive the extra penny. Workers will also be involved in new health and safety programs, and a new system for grievances will be established in which a neutral third party will help resolve complaints.
In announcing the agreement, Jon Esformes, an operating partner of PTG, noted that there continue to be abuses within the industry and asked others growers to "join in the effort to bring positive change." He added that farmworkers should be given the same protections as those working in the white-collar world. That day is a little closer, thanks to Esformes and the coalition.