Coalition of Immokalee Workers

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a worker-based human rights organization addressing social responsibility, human trafficking, and gender-based violence at work. It is built on a foundation of farmworker community organizing and the creation of a national consumer network.

In the Florida town of Immokalee, migrant and refugee farmworkers from the Caribbean, Central and South America picked tomatoes under abysmal, exploitative conditions for wages that barely permitted them to live beyond a hand-to-mouth existence. Many had fled from conflicts and disaster, and many were political and economic refugees. They came to Immokalee with knowledge and traditions of political and community organizing and creating narratives for justice.

This is where the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) was founded in 1993, as a grassroots movement of tomato pickers determined to earn a living wage and to end the exploitation of workers in the fields.

CC image courtesy of Coalition for Immokalee Workers

To address their particular challenge, the CIW’s founding strategy was to go directly to big corporate purchasers of tomatoes, to demand that they acknowledge their reliance on farm workers, and do two things: help eradicate abuse in the tomato fields; and pay an additional one penny per pound of tomatoes. The extra penny would double the tomato pickers’ wages.

Attempts to pressure growers into improving conditions and paying a living wage met with little success in the 1990s and early 2000s. So the workers decided to switch tactics. They launched a boycott of Taco Bell, which was a huge purchaser of tomatoes, reaching out to churches and student groups in order to build their campaign. They launched the Fair Food Program, a worker-driven approach to corporate accountability. The idea was to offer end consumers produce that workers certified had been picked under fair conditions. The campaign against Taco Bell was successful. The growers agreed to pay the pickers an additional penny per pound of tomatoes, and to sign a human rights conduct document. The CIW moved on to campaign against McDonald’s and other big purchasers, creating a homegrown and well-tested workers’ movement.

Over the ensuing decade, the CIW targeted one corporate tomato purchaser after another, transforming the industry in Florida. They used a variety of campaign and organizing strategies, including hunger strikes. They paid high personal prices. But they persevered. And so they began to see changes both in the quality of their work lives — with reductions in violence against women and increased wages and back pay — but also among themselves as more awake and in control of their rights.  “CIW members didn’t stop until they had their rights,” says Greg Absed, one of the co-founders of the CIW and one of its communications strategists. “What members did was to turn the system on its head. Workers had paid the consequences out of their wages, and health. As workers, CIW jumped to the top of the supply chain.”

Their work was not without internal challenges. The community comprised many different cultures and languages, and the CIW had to find ways to bring people across these lines to work together. They used a popular education strategy, including drawing and theater pieces, to help analyze their own experiences and identify common solutions. The second challenge was that most of the workers are migrants, and so the Coalition and the workers start from zero every season. They found they needed to redo their process of leadership every season.

CC image courtesy of Coalition for Immokalee Workers

The organization communicates their strategic impact model as layered: first community organizing, next leveraging their market power to force corporations to the negotiating table, then worker-driven social responsibility (WSR). This last strategy is a signature of the CIW, one in which is embedded the value that the one whose rights are in question are driving the process. “The hand on the rudder needs to be community.” WSR uses two forms of leverage: economic power of the retail purchases at the top, and demanding human rights standards through purchasing power for workers at the bottom of the supply chain. This creates a measurable model, and one that relies on consolidated power. “Market mechanisms work both way. You just have to find the lever,” says Absed, who notes the emergence of this model was organic. “We protested for almost a decade, but then looked past the farm gates.“ They incorporated analysis and pivoting directly into their model. “Human rights is the end you want to achieve. You need to understand why things are the way they are. And how to change the conditions, and how to get the power to fix it.”

For CIW’s work, Asbed has accepted on behalf of the Coalition the 2013 Roosevelt Freedom From Want Medal, the 2014 Clinton Global Citizen Award, and the 2015 President Medal for Extraordinary Efforts in Combatting Human Trafficking. But he continues to pick watermelons, alongside all the other coalition members, even as he manages the CIW’s communications strategy. He defines leadership as participatory and collective. Workers in Immokalee say “we are all the same. We are all workers, we are all leaders. There is no one leader. And it’s our lives. We have to persevere. Being worker-led, we don’t stop until we have our rights.”

Moving Forward

Building on its own impact model, CIW has expanded to six other states in the U.S., and to other crops. To foster solidarity around the world among exploited workers in other industries, CIW is building alliances with organizations and worker collectives such as dairy farmers in Vermont and garment workers in Bangladesh, and is translating their strategies to support other workers’ rights efforts around the world.

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