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Tomato grower, harvesters strike historic accord

Company, workers end a long standoff

Oct. 13, 2010
TomatoWorkers Agreement
TomatoWorkers Agreement: One of the nations biggest tomato growers, Pacific Tomato Growers, signed an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Pacific is the first grower to sign with the CIW, (Video: Marc Beaudin/
Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, left, and Jon Esformes, operating partner for Pacific Tomato Growers, shake hands after announcing an agreement to improve conditions for farmworkers. / Andrew West/


There are at least 30,000 migrant farmworkers in Florida’s $400 million tomato industry, from which 95 percent of the nation’s tomatoes come between October and June.

Farmworkers helped develop the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food agreement, which requires a strict code of conduct for growers and a penny-per-pound raise.

Under the agreement, harvesters will earn 82 cents for each 32-pound bucket they pick, up from 50 cents per bucket.

The raise means their annual earnings could rise from about $10,000 to between $16,000 and $17,000.

Nine multinational corporations have signed the Fair Food agreement, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods, Aramark and Sodexo.


1:10 P.M. — After years of impasse, one of the nation's largest tomato growers has made peace with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

In an emotional Immokalee farm field news conference Wednesday, Pacific Tomato Growers pledged to improve its working conditions and pay harvesters a penny more per pound, which could raise annual wages from about $10,000 to as much as $17,000.

The agreement, in effect today, is the first forged directly between the 4,000-member grass-roots group and a grower.

With about 2,500 workers at peak season and more than 14,000 acres in the U.S. and Mexico, Pacific is one of the top five growers in the nation.

Some of improvements are simple: shade in the fields, for example. Others include health and safety programs, worker-to-worker education and a way to resolve complaints.

The accord ends a standoff begun in the 1990s when growers refused to negotiate with hunger-striking workers. After that failure, the coalition changed tactics: If growers wouldn't come to the table, they'd go directly to the growers' customers. One by one, the coalition forged agreements with all the world's major fast-food companies, institutional food services and others, including McDonald's, Burger King, Whole Foods and Sodexo.

Meanwhile the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, the state's major industry group, decried their efforts. In 2008, spokesman Reggie Brown called the coalition's Fair Food campaign "un-American" - a possibly illegal scheme that would set a dangerous precedent by allowing outsiders to be involved in growers' business, he argued.

Pacific's history with the group had been troubled as well: In 2008, members of Immokalee's Navarrete family went to federal prison for enslaving 12 workers, whom they brought to work in Pacific's fields, as well as Six L's.

For Jon Esformes, operating partner of Pacific, the announcement was a chance to acknowledge the industry's sins and promise to help transform the future. Quoting the late philosopher and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Esformes said, "Few are guilty, but all are responsible. ... The transgressions that took place are totally unacceptable today and they were totally unacceptable yesterday."

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Farmworkers deserve the same respect as white-collar workers, Esformes said. He encouraged other growers to follow Pacific's lead.

For coalition member Silva Perez, the morning was moving.

"I've worked here - picked and planted here," she said. "So to be here for this event today is beautiful."

The deal is just a first step but one that can lead "a model for generations of farmworkers and farmers to come," said the coalition's Lucas Benitez.

Author and coalition ally Eric Schlosser, who's testified at Senate hearings on the tomato industry, agreed. Not only should the agreement be replicated throughout Florida, it should be a model for grower/worker partnerships in the 21st century.

Industry reaction wasn't known. Calls to other Florida growers, including Six L's and West Coast Tomatoes as well as Publix weren't returned.

For his part, FTGE spokesman Brown wouldn't speculate about growers' reaction or whether the agreement would be precedent-setting, saying only companies can make their own decisions.

FGCU instructor Tim Durham, who grew up on a New York vegetable farm and lectures on agriculture, believes the announcement heralds a coming industrywide shift.

"This is definitely going to reverberate," Durham said. "They've set the bar and now their competitors will have to follow suit or they'll have a scarlet letter."

The agreement drew praise from former President Jimmy Carter, who tried to help workers during the 1998 hunger strike. "(It) clearly demonstrates that significant improvements can be made that benefit all parties if there is open discussion between employers and workers," he said in a statement.

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