Corps de l’article

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 and former President Jimmy Carter—successfully entered into partnerships with an increasing number of fast food and supermarket chains to agree to such payments and establish Fair Food Programs to enhance the human rights of farmworkers. The essential idea of such programs was that if growers did not adopt or abide by such an approach that the chains would suspend their purchases of tomatoes (and as the programs spread with the passage of time to other agricultural products) until the issue(s) were rectified.

The most interesting part of I Am Not a Tractor is Marquis’ account of the development and operation of the Fair Food Program. Key features of the scheme are a Code of Conduct, a Guideline Manual running to 43 pages, continuing and extensive education of farmworkers to their rights, continual auditing with an inspectorate with power to investigate and make recommendations for rectification, including, if necessary, an ability to suspend a grower from the Fair Food Program. The Fair Food Program is self-regulating and does not rely on state/governmental regulation. CIW spent some time in the pilot stages of this scheme using leading consultants to operate the Fair Food Program. It quickly learnt that their off-the-shelf schemes, which employed staff with no knowledge of tomato and agricultural production, and who, moreover, were not prepared to work the same hours, as tomato workers were unable to operate such a program. It decided to mount the Fair Food Program itself, train persons from its own ranks who understood the demands of tomato picking and the needs of both farmers and workers. One of the dominant themes that Marquis emphasizes is that CIW and Fair Food Program operatives are looking for solutions to improve the efficiency of tomato production, while one and the same time, enhancing the income and human rights of workers.

I Am Not a Tractor: How Florida Farmworkers Took on Fast Food Giants and Won provides an interesting and clearly written account of how a group of migrant tomato workers developed an innovative and unique approach, focusing on the supply chain of tomato production which has delivered benefits to workers, growers, fast food and supermarket chains and consumers. It documents a new model—that contradicts the normal doom and gloom associated with unions—, which potentially could be replicated elsewhere.