Editorial: For tomato pickers, better conditions and pay

Published Jan. 21, 2014

For years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has battled to get better pay and working conditions for tomato pickers. The coalition's persistence brought gradual success, as fast food chains and finally Florida growers signed on to the agreement to pay laborers a penny-per-pound premium. Last week, the coalition won its biggest victory: Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, joined the effort. It is a credit to the coalition's perseverance and the retailer's vision, and it could one day benefit workers in the fields in other states and those picking other crops.

Under the coalition's Fair Food Program, tomato growers in Florida agree to pass on to their customers a pay increase for farmworkers of a penny per pound of tomatoes picked. The growers also agree to have no tolerance for sexual assault or forced labor, create a system for resolving labor disputes with workers, and establish health and safety committees at each farm. The coalition kept up the pressure on food chains when the growers refused to bend, resulting in a nationwide boycott of Taco Bell that persuaded that chain to sign on in 2005. Five years later, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange agreed to the conditions in the Fair Food Program, and now 90 percent of the state's growers are taking part.

The coalition says the penny-per-pound initiative has increased workers' wages by $11 million since January 2011 and significantly improved working conditions in Florida's tomato fields. Among the participants in the program: the nation's four largest food service providers and the four largest fast food companies (McDonald's, Burger King, Subway and Yum Brands — whose chains include Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut). Most of Wal-Mart's suppliers already participate in the program, but the retailer's agreement to join the effort should produce more benefits.

The remaining suppliers of Wal-Mart's tomatoes will have to agree to the program's terms or lose the business. The pressure to do the right thing should increase on other holdouts such as Publix super markets, which was not swayed by the coalition's two-week march last year to the company's headquarters in Lakeland. And Wal-Mart could use its clout to one day extend the Fair Food Program to tomato growers in other states and to other crops.

With Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Wal-Mart now participating in the program, there is no reason Publix should not join its grocery competitors in helping to raise pay and improve working conditions in Florida's tomato fields. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has demonstrated that determination, organization and public outreach can make a real difference in improving the lives of workers who are performing backbreaking work to feed America. Adding Wal-Mart to the effort will pay huge dividends, but there is more work to do.