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Food Movements Unite: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers

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The following excerpts are from Chapter Nine of the new book: Food Movements Unite! Strategies to Transform Our Food System, edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of Food First.  The chapter from which these sections were taken is the result of an in-depth interview with Lucas Benítez from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  The entire book examines the power of people to transform our food systems.  It argues that the global food movement is as creative and powerful as it is diverse and widespread.  Twenty-one authors from across the globe come together in this book to examine strategies for uniting efforts to create a powerful “movement of movements.”  The goal of their work is to bring healthy, affordable food to the world’s population that neither harms people nor planet. The authors address the corporatization of our food regime and offer practical and political approaches to change that are committed to democracy, justice, sustainability and food sovereignty. In short, this book is a roadmap to a brighter food future drawn by some of the most visionary activists on the planet.




A Conversation with Lucas Benítez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

I THINK THAT WE NEED to create alliances between all the food movements. We all want a healthy food supply and everyone in the chain to be treated with dignity—from the production worker to the consumer. But we are facing a monster: the corporate world. They are only interested in money and profits. We have to be clear, relentless, and determined to do what it takes in our communities to create change where we want it. Eventually these corporations, if we hit them where it hurts—if we go for their profits—will be forced to change the way they do business. Maybe we can’t make Walmart disappear, but we can change the way they do business. The power is in our hands. The first thing we must to do is develop consciousness and commitment to create change.

We founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in 1993 because of the situation that workers in Immokalee were living in, and still live in. In 1995, we went on our first strike. We focused on our bosses, on the contractor, and on our direct superiors because at the time, we felt that they were the problem.

After a closer analysis, we realized that the rancher and the contractor are only a small branch of a much larger tree. We have always said that you can always prune the branches, but the tree will grow back. The coalition continued having marches and strikes, but we saw that we were not going to change things that way. If we don’t pull up the tree’s roots or water it with different water, we won’t get change. The tree cannot drink polluted water; it needs fresh water if it’s going to grow back with good branches and good fruit. We have slowly been creating change. We have switched the water to better water so that it bears better fruit. It’s still contaminated, but it is getting better and getting cleaner. For example, there are no more cases of physical abuse; we have reduced the instances of wage theft; and we saw a small increase in salaries. We haven’t gotten 100% of what we wanted, but a small change is still a change. We realized that to change the agricultural tree, we had to target the big corporations that have a strong influence in the agricultural industry in this country.

The first year we were able to get over $100,000 back in withheld wages for our coworkers. This reduced the back wages down to less than 20% each year. It’s still a problem, but on a smaller scale. Physical abuse was a frequent problem in the fields and this has decreased. In those days, we had three or four cases of abuse per harvest season. So we marched to our boss’s house and picketed in front, like a boycott against him, although at that time we did not see it as a boycott. We just said, “We will no longer work with this contractor because he hit a worker and we will not accept that.” Everyone stopped working for him and the rest of the contractors took notice. We have not had any physical abuse reports since 1996.  These are big changes, but at same time, these abuses are still happening in other areas. Still, we have set an important precedent.

We have to start from the roots, with the community, so that the community knows what we are talking about. We understand our world, but if we don’t work from the ground up we won’t advance. It’s like talking about a penny raise only amongst the Coalition. We understand, but if we don’t get the community involved, they won’t understand. They are the ones that will get the penny raise and they will see that as a gain. If it is later taken away, they will feel as though that benefit was taken back. They are not aware. The same goes for the government; they give you something for a while then they take it. And people say, “We ate well for a while and then it was over.” If we educate our communities, then things will be different. Our mathematic equation is C + C = C. That means: Consciousness (awareness) plus Commitment equals Change. That is what we do. If we don’t have those variables, we can’t create change.

We have worked very closely with other workers in the fast-food industry, supermarkets, meat processing, and with other workers in similar situations. We shared experiences with the leaders of the Smithfield campaign. Many of the Immokalee workers work in those packing plants. Contractors come here and take workers to work in the chicken industry in Iowa and other places. Many times, our members working in other places call us and ask us how to act when they have a problem. We instruct them to do the same thing we do here: they have to form a committee and speak with the supervisor to try and change the situation on the inside. Some of our members have participated in starting unions or in the collection of signatures to form unions in the packing companies.

We were able to establish a zero-tolerance policy for slavery, and we gained a penny in pay for the workers’ wages; not only that, but workers are guaranteed to play an integral part in the monitoring and design of the conduct code. These are big changes, but at the same time, they are small because it is only true for the Immokalee community. We have not yet played a significant role in the food sovereignty movement, but I don’t see any obstacles. We can be part of the movement if each sector is respected and self-coordinated. People played an important role in the civil rights movement—blacks, whites, Latinos, everybody. People like writers and industry experts that fight for fairness in the agricultural industry can help the cause tremendously by helping our voices, the voices that represent food sovereignty and fair food, be heard in the higher-up places. United, with each different experience, we are stronger.

To read the entire chapter and other strategies for uniting the food movements internationally, you can buy Food Movements Unite!  For more information about Food First, visit their website.

 LucasLucas Benitez is a farmworker and co-director of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. He is originally from Guerrero, Mexico, and he came to the U.S. when he was 16 to help support his five brothers and sisters. By organizing fellow migrant farmworkers, Lucas helped secure the first wage increase for tomato pickers in 20 years. He also exposed and stopped two slavery rings, and launched a Labor Action Rights program that collected nearly $100,000 in back wages. 

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