It may not be what you think.
He wasn’t exactly hoeing, but it was a very tough row. One day in 1993, not long after he migrated from southern Mexico to southwestern Florida to work in tomato fields, a seventeen-year-old Mexican kid named Lucas Benitez stood up for a breather. He was outside the town of Immokalee on a crew that was jamming wood stakes into rows of soil to hold up tomato plants. He finished his row ahead of the others, and stopped to wait for them before launching into another set of rows. A field boss drove over in his pickup truck and ordered the teenager to resume staking.
“I always learned from my parents that one has to be respected for his work, and no matter if it’s the most humble work that exists, you shouldn’t let yourself be humiliated,” Benitez says in Spanish. So he told the boss that he was merely resting for a minute while the others caught up. The boss got off the pickup truck and took a swing at him. Benitez dodged the blow, then squared off, clutching a tomato stake, prepared to fight. “I weighed 120 pounds and the boss weighed a little over 200,” Benitez notes. The boss backed off. But when Benitez arrived the next morning to take the bus to the fields, the boss told him he had no job.
“This happened to various workers,” Benitez says. “But many didn’t report it, many didn’t say anything. They just kept quiet, tolerating it.”
That seventeen-year-old couldn’t have known that more than a decade later his instincts for justice would land him at a table with executives from fast food empires. But the kid knew something was wrong, and found other farmworkers who were equally ready to rumble. They formed the Southwest Florida Farmworker Project. Soon they joined forces with Greg Asbed, a gringo from Florida Rural Legal Services, and changed their name to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
An actual beating in 1996 became the tipping point. A Guatemalan worker named Edgar arrived at the coalition’s office, his shirt bloodstained and his nose “entirely deformed,” Benitez recalls. “Edgar’s only mistake was to want to drink some water.” The coalition helped him file a complaint with the police, as other abused workers had previously done. But this time, coalition members decided to take some new steps. One night about 500 workers chanting “No more abuses!” marched to the residence of the contractor whose field bosses had assaulted Edgar.
The demonstration was only the first surprise for the contractor. Another awaited him the next morning at the vast parking lot where workers board buses bound for the fields. “When the boss came to this parking lot, nobody got in his bus,” Benitez remembers. “When he started to say, ‘Here, I have work,’ the workers said, ‘No, because people get hit there. So we’re not going with you.’ His whole work season was ruined.”
Other contractors took heed and reined in the thuggery. “The bosses saw that the community was changing,” Benitez says.
Those who didn’t see it would eventually feel the coalition’s sting, particularly the ones running a slave labor operation in Lake Placid, an isolated citrus grove region about sixty miles north of Immokalee. Members had heard rumors of the racket in 2000 and decided to send Romeo Ramirez, a coalition co-founder, to take an orange-picking job there. Three fellow harvesters promptly corroborated the rumors. The trio had arrived from Mexico via a human smuggling outfit and fell immediately into debt because the contractors had covered the transportation bill. The contractors—two gun-toting brothers named Juan and Ramiro Ramos—barred the new migrants from quitting until they cleared their debt. That was virtually impossible because the workers earned little more than subsistence wages. And they were in the middle of rural Florida.
Coalition members managed to plan a rescue mission with the three trapped workers over the phone. On an April evening in 2001, Benitez parked a car on the highway near an apartment building that served as a workers’ dormitory. He then raised the hood, the sign that it was their rescue vehicle. A fourth worker had decided to join the three enslaved Mexicans, and they all ran to the car, leaving all their belongings behind. Benitez sped off with them.
Two years later, a judge sentenced the Ramoses to twelve years in prison, and a cousin of theirs to ten, for conspiracy, extortion, and illegal firearms possession. Coalition members have helped federal agencies prosecute a number of other slavery operations that have led to similarly long prison terms. In the latest case, five men pleaded guilty in September to running an enslavement scheme that included beating farmworkers and locking them in trucks. The defendants face sentences of ten to thirty-five years.
Ramirez, who won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2003, along with Benitez and coalition member Julia Gabriel, is reticent about his personal role, preferring to give credit to the coalition as a whole.
Brutality notwithstanding, the bulk of the coalition’s work has focused on simply winning decent pay for Florida’s farmworkers. At first, it took the traditional approach, staging marches, holding strikes, and launching hunger strikes, trying to shame growers into paying more than the thirty-five cents per thirty-two-pound plastic bucket that tomato pickers were receiving in the late 1990s. At that rate, after working furiously for eight hours and picking literally a ton of tomatoes, one might take home a mere $20. Federal minimum wage and overtime pay laws don’t apply to farmworkers, and the National Labor Relations Act exempts employers from having to negotiate with them. So in Florida, which lacks protections farmworkers enjoy in California and other states, tomato pickers are at the mercy of farm owners.
Coalition members believe their protests in the late 1990s helped spur incremental pay increases, but they concluded that strikes were an unrealistic tactic for the Immokalee farmworker community.
“People can stop working a week, maybe,” Benitez says. “But after a week it’s very difficult to do it, because we don’t have any kind of strike support like some unions have.” Tomato farm owners could easily weather short strikes and ignore marches. The workers needed another form of leverage to extract a living wage.
The idea to boycott fast food corporations arose in 2001 at one of the coalition’s regular Wednesday night community meetings. Virgilio, an Oaxacan in his twenties, came up with it. “He said, ‘You know what? We’ve done so many actions here against the farmers. We know that the buyers have a lot of power. Why don’t we do something that’s called a boycott, so that people stop buying?’ ” Benitez recalls. “We said, ‘That’s a good idea. Why don’t we do it?’ ”
They chose Taco Bell for their first target and, since there were no Taco Bell restaurants in Immokalee, they drove to one on Highway 41 in Fort Myers. Total number of protesters: about fifteen. “Looking back on it now, it was something crazy. Such a small group of workers determined to confront such a big corporation like Taco Bell,” Benitez says. “It was commitment more than anything. We have a mathematical equation, which is ‘C plus C equals C.’ Consciousness plus Commitment equals Change.”
They also sent a letter to Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California, describing their working conditions and asking the company to help improve them. But a year passed without a reply. They sent another letter. A second year passed. Meanwhile, the boycott was gaining momentum, as a growing alliance of student and church groups across the United States joined the cause.
In March 2005, after four years of protests and spates of media reports on the appalling conditions in which the tomatoes in your burritos are produced, Taco Bell executives relented. They signed an agreement with the coalition under which Taco Bell pays 1.5 cents more per pound of Florida tomatoes. One cent goes to farmworkers, the other half-cent to tomato farmers to administer the new regimen. The additional cent means that a harvester who fills 100 thirty-two-pound buckets can now earn about $75 per day. But many growers still pay only half that much.
After two more years of grassroots organizing, boycott threats, and the intervention of Jimmy Carter, McDonald’s executives signed a similar agreement with the coalition in 2007. In a remarkable turnaround, Burger King’s chiefs capitulated only this past May, calling on tomato growers to be more socially responsible, but not before admitting that the Miami-based chain had hired a firm to spy on coalition members and student activists.
These historic agreements also commit the signatories to codes of conduct aimed at providing farmworkers the freedom from abuse that other American workers enjoy. An incident last fall at a farm that supplies tomatoes to Yum Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company, provided the last big test. Tomato harvesters take their filled buckets to a truck and hand them to a supervisor called a dumpeador—a dumper—who deposits them into the back of a truck. In exchange, the worker receives a ticket to cash in at the end of the day. First, the dumpeador didn’t want to give a harvester his ticket. The next time around, the dumpeador threw the empty bucket into the worker’s face.
“It hit the worker in the nose,” Benitez says. “The worker came to us. We communicated with Yum. Yum communicated with the grower’s human resources office. The next day, the dumper who had done that had been fired from the company.”
Since the Burger King accord, the coalition has aimed its Fair Food Campaign at tomato-consuming companies that are presumably more progressive. Whole Foods Market signed in September, saying the agreement was in line with the company’s “core values.”
But Chipotle, whose slogan is “Food with Integrity,” has resisted. The Denver-based company’s initial response was to eschew Florida tomatoes rather than pay an extra penny per pound. But, accusing the company of “Chipocrisy,” the coalition wants Chipotle to join the fight.
Benitez doesn’t understand why the company wouldn’t bestow as much respect on tomato pickers as it does on free-range cattle. “They obligate ranchers to ensure the cows roam free, eating grass,” Benitez observes. “The way that they demand that ranchers do that kind of thing, they can do the same with tomato producers.”
Kirk Nielsen is a journalist and writer based in Miami Beach.