My husband took an interesting class, last semester, called Jesus Was a Carpenter. I always edit his papers, and I learned a lot and was very impressed with his final paper for that class. Enough so, that I asked him if I could post it on my blog. It is a long paper, so I will post it in parts. Without further ado...
There was a story of Claiborne and his group involved in a protest in Florida that got my attention. “We’ve worn out some shoes together marching hundreds of miles in protest. One summer a few years back, the workers told us they were organizing a walk from their fields in Florida to the growers association in Orlando” (Claiborne 298). However, this was not just any protest. It was a group of mostly immigrant workers, many undocumented, who faced the fear of being deported because of this protest. “On the back of a truck, a fourteen-foot Statue of Liberty led the way, only instead of a tablet, she held a bucket, and in place of the torch, she lifted up a tomato” (Claiborne 298). What truly grabbed my heart, and my interest in this labor movement, was the passion behind the workers. “As we neared Orlando, public attention had reached a pinnacle, and the police told the workers they could no longer have the statue on the back of the truck” (Claiborne 298). This did not slow them down at all. “‘They said we cannot have the statue on the truck, so we will carry her.’ So each of us grabbed a corner, hoisted her up on our shoulders, and we began walking, taking turns” (Claiborne 299). Claiborne continues, “One of the mighty women who helped carry the statue whispered, “‘If Jesus can carry the cross, we can carry this statue.’ And we did. Dripping with sweat, singing, and chanting, we carried her to the front doors of the growers association” (Claiborne 299). This was the beginning stages of the labor campaign of the Immokalee workers against Taco Bell and their Goliath-type parent, the world’s largest fast food corporation, YUM!
The injustice in the tomato fields of Immokalee, FL had been around for decades. There were two major issues that the workers were facing: horrible working conditions and sub-poverty wages with no benefits. According to Lucas Benitez, a worker in Immokalee that helped to found and organize the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the working conditions were horrendous. “We lived in a climate of fear. The bosses felt like kings, like they were gods over all the workers. And there were cases of physical violence while you were working, it was very normal” (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”). Not only was physical violence normal, but there was little to no offered relief from the Florida heat. “A lot of times when you wanted water, you weren’t allowed to have any. The bosses would say, ‘You came here to work. You didn’t come here to drink water’” (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”). In December of 1996, one of the bosses brutally beat a seventeen year old because he stopped to get a drink of water. The reaction from the workers was quick. That night, five hundred workers organized and marched to the house of the contractor, with the boys bloody shirt in hand (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”). The workers did not show up to work that particulars contractor’s fields the next day, or for several weeks (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”). The workers had made their statement. They were not going to tolerate the physical violence any more. It was the intimidation of the contractors and bosses, and more specifically this specific act of violence, that would spark the beginning of the CIW and the Taco Bell boycott.
Unfortunately, the brutal working conditions of Immokalee workers was not what brought the labor campaign into the national spotlight. The working conditions were merely the roots of the injustice. What brought this struggle for justice above ground into the national spotlight was the sub-poverty wages they were being paid. According to the statistics provided by the Department of Labor in a report to Congress in 2001, and posted on the CIW website, the workers of Immokalee were making 40¢ a bucket in 1997 (USDOL, “Facts and Figures”). The problem was that it was exactly what they were making before 1980 as well. They had not had a raise in roughly thirty years (Murthy, “The Battle Fields”). By 2003 the rates per bucket had risen to around 45¢, but still left the tomato workers below poverty level (CNN.com - “Farmworkers Plan Strike”).
The impact behind this stagnant wage was immense. It reveals a level of injustice to these workers that many have overlooked, including myself. Even though these workers have been paid the same for thirty years, it means that they are actually being paid less now than ever before. It also means that they will have to work much harder to achieve the same wage results from the previous years. For example, in 1980, when they were being paid 40¢ a bucket, they were having to pick 7.75 buckets an hour to earn the standard minimum wage of $3.10 and hour. (USDOL, “Facts and Figures”). However, because of inflation, the workers in 1997, with their wage still holding at 40¢, would have to actually have to pick 12.875 buckets to reach the minimum wage of $5.l5 an hour (USDOL, “Facts and Figures”). “As a result of stagnant piece rates, the amount of work necessary to earn the minimum wage had nearly doubled during the past twenty years” (USDOL, “Facts and Figures”). “Stagnant rates have caused farm workers’ wages to lose nearly half of their real value, or purchasing power, over the last two decades. It would be necessary to raise the piece rate to 73.5¢ today in order to restore it to its real value at 40¢ in 1980" (USDOL, “Facts and Figures”). Without that raise, “At 40¢ per 32-lb. bucket, you have to pick and haul 2 tons of tomatoes to make $50 a day” (“How Tomatoes Make Their Way”).