UUs Support CIW for Justice in the Tomato Fields

by Rev. Allison Farnum of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ft. Myers, FL

Unitarian Universalist congregations all along in Florida have been picketing with the CIW at Publix Supermarkets, delivering letters to the Publix managers that ask for Publix to come to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ table to talk about the tomatoes they buy. Documented cases of slavery have occurred in the fields of two large Florida tomato growers, 6Ls and Pacific. Publix continues to buy from both growers. Publix cites a policy that states they do not get involved in labor issues between those from whom they purchase and their employees. Since when is slavery a labor dispute?

Folks in our southwest Florida cluster congregations share that, when speaking with Publix employees, the managers themselves are disappointed that the corporate level will not cooperate. Even Publix employees on the front lines expect better of this corporation (the 4th largest privately-owned company in the United States, recently reported in Forbes Magazine) that claims it cares about its local community. As far as I can tell, Publix officials turning their backs on slavery in Florida tomato fields is far from caring.

Money talks. As Publix buys from growers that condone slavery in their fields, this giant supermarket chain is participating in a harvest of shame. This Sunday people of faith from Florida, Unitarian Universalists and all kinds, will gather in Lakeland, FL, home of the corporate headquarters, to send prayers of courage and caring to Publix. We will make our presence known as allies and supporters of the tomato pickers and stand on the side of love.

Interfaith Action on Worker Justice

If you read our blog on December 2nd, then you already know that Subway recently agreed to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in making sure that the tomato pickers of Immokalee, Florida, are paid fair wages.

But I learned something new about the agreement a few days later, when I met up with some members of the CIW as they passed through DC on a tour to promote their campaign for fair food. They told me that a Unitarian Universalist minister had been present at the Subway-CIW agreement! Take a look at the photo below:

The woman in the blue flower print dress on the left is UU minister Rev. Lucy Hitchcock Seck, Board Member of Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community as well as South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice.

Rev. Hitchcock Seck became involved with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers through her work with South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, and also through the CIW’s outreach to faith groups.

The CIW relies on the support of faith groups not just in Florida, but across the country, who care about workers rights and ethical eating. Visit the CIW’s website or email info [at] interfaithact.org for information about how your congregation can get involved. Participate in their postcard campaign as they urge Chipotle to follow Subway’s lead.

“The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is to be commended for its persistent and inspired work to improve the labor rights, restore the dignity and livelihood of the farm workers who pick our crops, and eliminate farm slavery. The delegation pictured, which included workers, CIW organizers, clergy and laity from South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice and other supporters, is representative of the many who helped to convince the corporate executives of Subway to be part of this growing fast-food industry support of justice for those who supply their tomatoes. Please join our coalition of supporters of fair food! This is a deeply religious issue of compassion and justice. “

–Rev. Lucy Hitchcock Seck

Rev. Hitchcock Seck is also on the taskforce for one of the UUA’s current Congregational Study Action Issues, Ethical Eating. For more information, see the UUA’s page on Ethical Eating.

Breaking News: Subway agrees to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Just this morning, Subway agreed to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to provide fair wages for the tomato pickers of Immokalee, Florida! Check out the CIW website to see a photo of Subway and CIW delegations reaching an agreement.

Subway, the biggest fast-food buyer of Florida tomatoes, was the target of a successful postcard campaign coordinated by the CIW to urge them to pay just wages. But the postcard campaign’s second target, Chipotle, is still holding out. Take a look at our November post for instructions on how to participate in the postcard campaign to urge Chipotle to join with Burger King, Yum! Brands, McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and now Subway in supporting tomato pickers.

Congratulations, CIW!

Photo credit to Kevin Saff, Creative Commons.

Send a postcard to Subway and Chipotle on behalf of Florida farmworkers

Send an email to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at workers [at] ciw-online [dot] org to request postcards to mail to the CEOs of Subway and Chipotle!

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has been fighting for justice for the tomato pickers of Florida since 1993. They have achieved enormous victories in forging partnerships with Taco Bell and Burger King, which have agreed to pay tomato pickers a penny more per pound of tomatoes.

A penny more per pound isn’t much for a giant fast food corporation, but to a Florida tomato picker, it can make the difference between exploitation and dignity.

Unfortunately, both Subway and Chipotle have so far refused to cooperate with the CIW. If you would like to add your voice to the call for these companies to pay a just wage, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will send you postcards free of charge to mail to the company CEOs.

We requested a dozen postcards for the UUA Washington Office, and they arrived just a few days later. Alex, Grace, Kat, Adam and I have added our signatures, addresses, and personal messages, and are planning to drop them in the mail this afternoon.

Below is an excerpt from the printed message on the postcard to Mr. Fred Deluca, CEO of Subway:

Tomato pickers are among this country’s most exploited workers: they earn sub-poverty wages, have no right to form unions or to benefits of any kind, and have not received a significant raise in 30 years. At the current rate, tomato pickers must harvest over TWO AND A HALF TONS of tomatoes just to earn the equivalent of minimum wage for a 10-hour workday. In the most extreme cases, workers are held in modern-day slavery and forced to work against their will.

. . . After eight years of the CIW’s campaign–and the very public commitment of four leading food retailers to the principles of Fair Food–Subway can no longer claim ignorance of these problems, nor say that their solution is not possible.

To request your own postcards to send, send an email to workers [at] ciw-online [dot] org. Remember to include your address and how many copies of each postcard (Subway and/or Chipotle) you would like to receive.

(If you email photos of your postcards to la_racialjustice [at] uua [dot] org, we’ll post them! Be sure to cover up your home address if you send us photos).

Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Whole Foods announce agreement

A week ago, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and Whole Foods reached an agreement to work together to provide fair wages for the tomato pickers of Immokalee, Florida.

The agreement was announced on September 9th, but I was en route to Columbus for the Midwest Interfaith Immigration Summit that day. So we are a week late with this bit of news, but it is truly a cause for celebrating!

Because of this agreement, workers in the fields of Immokalee will receive a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked. A penny more per pound doesn’t only mark the difference between a low wage and a living wage–it marks the difference between taking advantage of workers and honoring their dignity.

According to the press release, Karen Christensen, Global Produce Coordinator for Whole Foods Market, said, “After carefully evaluating the situation in Florida, we felt that an agreement of this nature was in line with our core values and was in the best interest of the workers.”

Congratulations, Immokalee workers and allies! Hopefully, holdouts Chipotle and Subway will get on board with the CIW soon.

For more information . . . .

Read the press release and related articles

Check out CIW’s homepage

Words from MLK Jr. on Boycotting

You know that something serious is going on when I turn down Subway. Or when my co-worker Alex forgoes his weekly Chipotle burrito. Or when, as happened last night, my housemate laments finishing the last of her favorite sweet chili sauce from Whole Foods, because she knows that she might not buy another jar for quite a while–not until Whole Foods agrees to pay fair wages to the tomato pickers of Immokalee, Florida.

In the wake of Burger King’s agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) two weeks ago to pay fair prices to tomato pickers, other restaurants and food companies, including Whole Foods, Chipotle, Subway, and Wal-Mart, are experiencing an increased pressure to step up. The CIW has not yet announced official boycotts. But in the meantime, several of my friends and co-workers and I have been abstaining from shopping at the afore-mentioned stores.

Last night, after my housemate finished the last of her sauce, I opened up The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today for a bit of evening reading. The book’s author, Charles Marsh, traces Martin Luther King, Jr.’s development as a Christian leader for social justice during the year long boycott of the Montgomery bus system. When, in the book, the boycott finally achieves success in integrating city buses, Marsh lifts up some beautiful words that King spoke to the Christian community of Montgomery to celebrate their victory. In his address, King talks about the tactic of boycotting in the context of our spiritual kinship with one another:

“Freedom and Justice through Love.” Not through violence; not through hate; no, not even through boycotts; but through love. It is true that as we struggle for freedom in America we will have to boycott at times. But we must remember as we boycott that a boycott is not an end within itself; it is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority. But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

In the struggle for justice, it can be easy to get caught up in tactics, forgetting the larger goal of right relationship. For me, King’s words were a lovely expression of the spiritual grounding of boycotts, and I thought that it would be nice to share them with you.

For more information about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their campaign for justice in Florida’s fields, take a look at their website. To request postcards for yourself, your organization & your friends to send to Chipotle or Subway urging them to work with the CIW, send an email to workers [at] ciw-online.org, letting them know how many of each you would like to receive.


  • For Alex’s reflections on holding stock in Whole Foods in light of their resistance to working with the CIW, check out his post from last week on Shareholder Advocacy.

Shareholder Advocacy

When I was in high school, I was active with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) campaign against Taco Bell. I organized the boycott on Taco Bell among my friends. And I attended a few protests at the world headquarters in Irvine.

Around that same time, I started investing in Whole Foods. As a person interested in food ethics, I found their vendor policies refreshing. Their focus on locally grown, independently owned, and environmentally sustainable foods was really appealing to me. I have been a proud stock owner of Whole Foods Market ever since. Over the years, I have seen the stocks rise and fall, voted my proxies and stayed true-blue to the company I had partial ownership in.

Imagine my surprise when yesterday I read Lisa’s post on the Coalition’s most recent successes with Burger King.

But by the beginning of 2008, other fast food companies, including Burger King, Subway, and Whole Foods (yes, really–Whole Foods), still hadn’t budged towards the side of just compensation.

My Whole Foods Company had not yet signed with the CIW. I felt a complex series of emotions including heartache and betrayal. This company, whom I have stuck with through embarrassing staff mishaps and poor stock performance after a messy court case, has now refused to work with the CIW.

As someone who considers himself a socially responsible investor, I immediately wrote a letter to the Whole Foods Investor Relations Office to inform them of my disappointment. How could a company that promotes itself as a responsible and progressive company refuse to talk with the CIW? How could such a company fall behind the practices of such companies as McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King?

This is one stockholder who will not let up this issue. Back in high school, when I had little to no power, I helped the CIW accomplish their goals. Now that I have shareholder power, I will continue to write my letters until the CIW gets their way.

If you hold stocks in or shop at Whole Foods, Chipotle, Subway, or Wal-Mart, you may want to write letters asking them to work with the CIW to receive a fair wage.

For more information on socially responsible investing please visit the UUA’s SRI site. And to learn how to better support the Coalition’s fight for fair wages, please visit http://www.ciw-online.org/index.html

Burger King Signs Agreement With CIW

“El arco del universo moral es largo, pero se inclina hacia la justicia.”

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

–Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted by Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at Friday’s press conference

On Friday morning last week, workers, activists, politicians, and business people gathered in the United States Capitol building to witness Burger King sign an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to improve farm wages and working conditions in Immokalee, Florida.

The agreement with Burger King was a victory achieved by many years of hard work on the part of the tomato pickers of Immokalee and their allies. In their eight-year fight to end unjust working conditions and poverty wages, CIW forged agreements with Yum! Brands and McDonalds in 2005 and 2007, respectively, in which the fast food companies agreed to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes. This small increase in price represented an enormous increase in wages for the tomato pickers. But by the beginning of 2008, other fast food companies, including Burger King, Subway, and Whole Foods (yes, really–Whole Foods), still hadn’t budged towards the side of just compensation.

This spring, CIW intensified their campaign to urge Burger King to pay workers a just wage–just a penny more per pound. In March, I attended an inspiring rally at Capitol Hill Park, where Senators Sanders & Durbin and Representatives Kucinich & Conyers signed CIW’s National Petition to End Sweatshops and Slavery in America’s Fields. As the petition gathered signatures, the pressure on Burger King built, and in April, the Senate held a hearing on farmworker exploitation in Florida tomato fields. And this Friday, May 23rd, Burger King signed an agreement to not only pay an additional penny per pound, but to also reimburse the tomato growers for incremental payroll taxes and administrative costs incurred by the tomato pickers’ farmworkers’ increased wages–a total of 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes.

Now Burger King is joining the CIW and other fast-food industry leaders in calling for an industry-wide net penny per pound surcharge to increase wages for Florida tomato harvesters. But the struggle is far from over.

Lucas Benitez, a member of the CIW, spoke through an interpreter at Friday’s press conference about the challenges ahead, saying, “Dr. Martin Luther King said it best when he said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Social responsibility in this country’s food industry is inevitable, and though the exploitation of Florida’s farmworkers remains unconscionable today, company by company we are building a path toward justice. The next steps are up to those companies that stand before us in the road ahead.”

Specifically, Benitez cited Chipotle, Whole Foods, Subway, and WalMart as companies that must step up and commit to paying a just wage for Florida’s tomato pickers. “To all of you,” Benitez said, “who have marched with us, organized petition drives with us, prayed with us, and struggled with us, today is a day to celebrate this hard-fought victory. Tomorrow, with renewed energy and purpose, we begin our work again to make respect for fundamental human rights in Florida’s tomato fields truly universal.”

For more information about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and to find out how you can support their campaign for justice, check out their website at http://www.ciw-online.org/.

CIW workers, activists, faith advocates, politicians, and Burger King representative

Coalition of Immokalee Workers Launches Petition to End Sweatshops & Slavery

“Juntos, somos más fuertes que Burger King.”
Together, we are stronger than Burger King.
–Lucas Benitez, farmworker and co-founder of CIW

This morning I was present at Capitol Hill Park for The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’s signing of the National Petition to End Sweatshops and Slavery in America’s Fields. So were Senators Sanders (VT) and Durbin (IL), Representatives Kucinich (OH) and Conyers (MI), Students United Against Sweatshops, the director of The Robert F. Kennedy Center, and many others.

It was a truly inspiring morning. Speakers recounted the coming together of tomato pickers in Immokalee (rhymes with “broccoli”), Florida in 1993 to protest unjust working conditions and wages. When the growers who employed the workers wouldn’t listen, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (or CIW) took their cause to the world’s largest fast-food corporation, Yum! Brands, which owns Long John Silver’s, A&W, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. In 2005, after an intense four-year boycott of Taco Bell, Yum! agreed to work with the CIW to improve pay and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers.

As part of the 2005 agreement, Yum! resolved to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes. According to CIW’s website, “Given that workers today receive roughly 1.3 cents per pound,” or about fifty dollars a day; $7,500 per year, “the raise amounts to an increase of roughly 75% for workers.” In April of 2007, CIW won a similar victory with McDonald’s.

But not every fast food corporation is taking responsibility. Burger King has not only refused to pay workers a penny more per pound of tomatoes, but is actively working to undermine the CIW’s achievements.

At the Petition signing kick-off this morning, Rep. Conyers said that he had just placed a phone call to Burger King’s CEO, John Chidsey, and left a message about Burger King’s refusal to pay Immokalee workers fairly. “John, wherever you are,” Conyers said to the press cameras, “return my call. I’m in the phone book.”

Senator Durbin declared, “The tomato on my hamburger is not worth the indignity that the workers of Immokalee must face every day.” And Rep. Kucinich stated, “The Civil Rights Movement is not over; it begins again today, and we need the help of American consumers.” Finally, Lucas Benitez, a farmworker and co-founder of CIW, spoke about the strength of consumers, workers, politicians, and companies standing in solidarity. “Juntos,” said Benitez, “somos más fuertes que Burger King.” Together, we are stronger than Burger King.

As the ceremonies wound down, I spotted a woman wearing a clerical collar in the crowd and went up to introduce myself. The woman turned out to be Reverend Noelle Damico, who has led the Presbyterian Church USA’s Fair Food campaign. The Presbyterians have done some amazing work around this issue, and their website features a great Burger King Campaign FAQ.

I left the petition signing inspired and disturbed–and if you’ve read this far, I hope that you’re feeling the same way. I am disturbed that Burger King, Wal-Mart, Subway, and Costco are contributing to the oppression of workers in the United States. But I am inspired that so many people are mobilizing around this issue. I hope that many Unitarian Universalists will support the CIW’s fight for justice.

In conclusion, here’s what you can do:

And finally, tell your friends! Heck, tell your acquaintances, and strangers, too. The farmworkers of Immokalee are counting on us. Now is the time to stand with CIW–and to prove that, together, we are stronger than Burger King.