Immokalee workers' march through area on way to Publix headquarters

Published March 18, 2013

TAMPA — They marched 200 miles. Through heat, rain and wind, the tomato pickers kept walking. At night, they collapsed in churches hosting them on their journey and bandaged their blistered and bleeding feet. Each morning they awoke before sunrise and continued on.

Today, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will end their two-week trek at the Publix headquarters in Lakeland.

There, they will plead their case.

The coalition is asking Publix to join 11 other partners in the Fair Food Program, an initiative based on two pillars: wage increases supported by a price premium paid by corporate purchasers, and a code of conduct grounded in civil rights.

The 11 partners stem from the food service industry and fast food restaurants, such as Whole Foods Market, McDonald's, Burger King and Trader Joe's. The coalition hopes that if it can get Publix, a Florida-based company, on board, then other grocers such as Walmart will follow.

"I make this journey with much pride," tomato picker Ubaldo Ruiz, 66, said through a translator, when the group stopped for lunch Wednesday in Ybor City.

Ruiz and others are giving up two weeks of work and pay to join the march.

"I'm losing more by staying there working but not doing anything about the situation than coming here and having blisters on my feet and bleeding between my toes," he said. "This is my sacrifice."

But Publix is not interested in getting involved.

"Since first approached by the CIW three years ago, we have consistently viewed this issue as a labor dispute," spokeswoman Shannon Patten said in an e-mail. "Simply stated, Publix is more than willing to pay a penny more per pound or whatever the market price for tomatoes will be in order to provide the goods to our customers. However, we will not pay employees of other companies directly for their labor!"

But former Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, director of the Fair Foods Standards Council, an independent organization dedicated to monitoring and enforcing the Fair Food Program, said this is anything but a labor dispute.

"There's no strikes. There's no work stoppage. There's no adversarial relationship here," said Safer Espinoza, a former New York Supreme Court justice. "It's a collaboration and a partnership, and it's very forward thinking. I believe this will be the growing trend in the 21st century."

But Patten said in a phone interview that because the concerns circulate around wages and terms and conditions of employment, it's not something the company can get involved in.

As for Publix's concerns about not wanting to pay employees directly, Safer Espinoza said that's never the case in the Fair Food Program. The money moves through the supply chain, down to the growers who then distribute it to the workers. The premium appears as a separate line item on the worker's paycheck, paid by the growers.

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"Publix says, 'Put it in the price,' " Safer Espinoza said. "That's exactly how it works. The suppliers of Florida tomatoes put the fair food premium in the price and it appears as a line of surcharge on the invoice."

Again, Publix balks at this statement. Patten did not directly dispute that this is how the payment method works, but instead said the company prefers other tomatoes provided by other growers that Publix has long-standing relationships with.

Those growers are part of the 10 percent of all Florida tomato growers who do not participate in the Fair Food Program.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has fought for 19 years to protect civil rights, outlaw slavery and ensure humane working conditions for those in the tomato industry.

Thanks to the Fair Food Program, participating buyers have paid more than $8 million from January 2011 through the summer of 2012 in the "penny per pound" price premium, which has then been transferred on to the workers, Safer Espinoza said.

Life was different two years ago, Ruiz said. Working conditions most take for granted — a machine to track hours worked, shade stations, toilets, a code of conduct outlawing bondage, drinking water — weren't part of the workers' daily lives.

But because of the partnership between workers, growers and corporate buyers, the workers have seen changes.

Silvia Perez, 39, works in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers office now, but from 1993 through 2008, she picked tomatoes in the fields.

In 2008, Perez remembers being harassed by supervisors who wanted her to dress differently and show off her body.

"They insisted that I wear sexy clothing," she said through a translator. "If I wore baggy clothing, they'd say 'Why are you wearing that? That doesn't fit you.' They'd compare my body to other women's bodies. But I wasn't there to look beautiful, I was there to pick tomatoes."

Perez said she was humiliated by the requests of those above her, many who were older and married. She had no outlet available to voice her concerns. Back then, it was something female workers simply had to put up with or risk losing their jobs.

"But now, because of the coalition with these companies, we can speak out," she said.

Workers can file confidential complaints through a 24-hour, toll-free hotline provided by the Fair Food Standards Council.

But because not every buyer has agreed to the Fair Food Program, some farms are not part of the collaboration and aren't held to the same standards as overseen by the council.

"It seems to me, Publix doesn't care about women who are abused or harassed or not treated fairly," Perez said.

Patten points to the company's history of charitable actions within communities, donating to schools, food banks and day cares.

"This campaign doesn't resonate with our customers," Patten said. "What they do recognize are the important contributions Publix makes every day. They understand how much we do in our community, not only for the farm workers but for many individuals and nonprofits."

But Perez said the workers aren't looking for acts of charity. Instead, they want just pay and humane working conditions.

"Publix is clearly not supporting its families when workers have to march 200 miles to their headquarters to get notice," she said. "That's not right. These farm workers are leaving their work and wages behind for two weeks because they are committed to creating a change in Immokalee and beyond."