RecensionsBook Reviews

I Am Not a Tractor: How Florida Farmworkers Took on the Fast Food Giants and Won, By Susan L. Marquis (2017) Ithaca and London: ILR Press/Cornell University Press, 279 pages. ISBN: 978-1-50171-431-3[Record]

  • Braham Dabscheck

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  • Braham Dabscheck
    Senior Fellow, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, Australia

The last three or four decades have not been kind to trade unions. Aggressive anti- union campaigns by employers aided and abetted by technological change, especially computers, government legislative changes and decisions by courts have been associated with a rapid decline in unions across the globe. Success stories concerning unionism are far and few between. Susan Marquis’ I Am Not a Tractor: How Florida Farmworkers Took on the Fast Food Giants and Won provides an account of a union success story by Florida tomato farmworkers. The majority of the workforce were migrant workers from Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, who spoke a variety of languages and dialects. Together with activist leaders they developed innovative strategies to improve their income and employment conditions, more generally their human rights. Historically, farmworkers in America, not just Florida tomato workers, have been subject to appalling employment conditions. Working long hours from sunup to sunset, seven days a week during harvest season, they have been denied shade, water and toilet breaks. They have been subject to underpayment for hours worked and wage theft, and in addition, forced to pay high prices for food and other necessities at farm owned shops. Farmworkers have also been provided with poor and substandard housing/accommodation. They have been subjected to violence, beatings and murder, with females particularly experiencing sexual harassment extending to rape, and being held as slaves. Out of the public eye farm owners were able to maintain such practices following the end of the Civil War well into the latter part of the Twentieth Century. An organization called the Florida Rural Legal Service was founded in 1966 to mount legal challenges to examples of farm owner abuses against individual farmworkers, such as wage theft. Such cases were not resolved quickly and did nothing to challenge the systemic nature of abuses. In the early 1990s, a small coterie of activists decided to move from this top down legal approach to a grass roots organizing model and formed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Through a slow and gradual process, these activists interacted with the workforce and developed a collective approach on how to redress employment problems and abuses. What is distinctive about the CIW is how innovative it was in developing an increasing multifaceted approach to improving the human rights of tomato farmworkers. Marquis not only provides a clear account of the various dimensions of the evolution of the CIW’s evolutionary approach but also suggests that it is an approach that could be implemented by other agricultural or ‘similar’ workers. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the CIW pursued strike action to protect and/or improve wages/income and mounted a campaign against a grower who had bashed a sixteen-year-old worker who wanted to drink water during the heat of the day. More significantly, it exposed examples of slavery and ‘educated’ public authorities to such practices, which resulted in successful prosecutions and broader publicity concerning the plight of tomato farmworkers. However, the CIW worked out that it needed to do more than pursue actions from growers if it wanted to be successful in the pursuit of its objectives. It looked at the tomato supply chain and believed that they would need to persuade fast food outlets, later supermarket chains, the most important being Walmart, to pay higher prices for tomatoes, an extra penny a pound, to enable growers to finance higher incomes for farmworkers and improvements to their working conditions. Marquis provides details of how the CIW with the aid of community groups—that is religious organizations, students, trade unions, non-government organizations, and celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen ...