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Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, left, and Jon Esformes of Pacific Tomato Growers reached a historic agreement.
Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, left, and Jon Esformes of Pacific Tomato Growers reached a historic agreement. / Andrew West/news-press.com

11:05 A.M. — With tomato fields stretching to the horizon, the men gripped each other in a long, strong hug.

One was born a peasant, the other privileged. Lucas Benitez and Jon Esformes were together that November morning to announce Esformes' company, Pacific Tomato Growers, would be doing things differently from now on.

Pacific's field workers will have shade, water and time to eat lunch. What's more, the company will pass them a penny more for every pound of tomatoes they pick.

"It is not acceptable," Esformes said, "that agricultural workers have any less rights than folks working in white-collar jobs."

Those were nothing less than revolutionary words from a fourth-generation member of an industry dogged for decades by abysmal wages and labor abuses, including high-profile slavery cases.

No grower had ever before joined forces with a group of Florida farmworkers, historically excluded from many workplace protections others take for granted.

Yet farmworkers themselves - the Coalition of Immokalee Workers - brokered the deal. Simple as it sounds, its guarantees stand to transform Florida's $619 million tomato industry.

For its years of groundbreaking advocacy, The News-Press has named the Coalition of Immokalee Workers its 2010 People of the Year.

"The News-Press has a long history of recognizing influential forces who have helped shape our community," said Mei-Mei Chan, president of The News-Press Media Group. "We are honored to name the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as the 2010 winners for their landmark efforts, which have far-ranging implications beyond Southwest Florida."

'Remarkable victory'

Made up of about 4,000 mostly Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants, the group works from a repurposed Haitian church all but invisible to those who flock to the casino just blocks away. The mango-colored, concrete block community center includes meeting rooms, office space, a low-power radio station, a cooperative store, a library with public computers and a garden.

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The grass-roots nonprofit, which came together in the spare room of an Immokalee church, started asking tomato bosses for a raise and better conditions in 1993.

For years, the state's powerful industry cartel, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, rebuffed them. In 2007, it threatened $100,000 fines to any member who passed on the extra penny. In 2008, vice-president Reggie Brown called the coalition's Fair Food campaign "un-American" - a possibly illegal scheme that would, he said, set a dangerous precedent by letting outsiders into growers' business.

But in November, Pacific - an industry leader and longtime member of Brown's group - broke ranks to forge its own unprecedented accord with the coalition. Within days, Six L's, Florida's largest grower, followed Pacific's lead and signed on, too. A month later, Brown himself was in Immokalee making peace, shaking hands and announcing his group would also join the coalition.

Author of the best-selling "Fast Food Nation" and longtime coalition supporter Eric Schlosser, who testified at Senate hearings on Florida's tomato industry in 2008, has likened the group's accomplishments to those of Cesar Chavez, who died the year the coalition formed. A farmworker-turned-activist, Chavez became the public face of farmworker rights in the late 20th century by using non-violent protests to bring the plight of farmworkers - most famously grape pickers - to the American public.

Not only did the coalition’s deal with the growers’ group make The News-Press headlines, it was hailed in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, which called it “a remarkable victory.”

Wide support

It was a head-spinning end to a whirlwind year that began with a visit in January by the BBC, which broadcast the radio show “World Have Your Say” from the coalition’s headquarters to some 170 million listeners worldwide.

The show focused on another aspect of the coalition’s work: fighting modern-day slavery.

The group has become an internationally recognized leader in that battle. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement relied on its expertise to create a slavery investigation curriculum; FBI director Robert Mueller has lauded the coalition, and it has earned praise from human rights groups such as Amnesty International.

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In February, the coalition rolled out its Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum, which began touring the country. A 24- by 8-foot produce truck, it replicates one Immokalee’s Navarrete family used to keep 12 slaves they forced to pick tomatoes on some of Florida’s biggest farms.

After promising the Mexican and Guatemalan men work, Navarrete family members confiscated their IDs, tied, chained and beat them if they tried to leave: Slavery “plain and simple,” said Doug Molloy, then the chief assistant U.S. attorney. When the slaves escaped, they took refuge with the coalition. The group also played a key role in the government’s prosecution — the seventh such case the coalition has helped with. Family members went to prison in 2008.

In the months that followed, the coalition signed two food service giants to their campaign: $12 billion Philadelphia-based Aramark and $7.7 billion multinational Sodexo. It also met with Gov. Charlie Crist, held a 1,000-plus person march on Publix’s Lakeland headquarters and hosted a visit by U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

Then in May, one of the coalition’s founders, Laura Germino, traveled to Washington to receive the Anti-Trafficking Hero award from the U.S. State Department. She was the first U.S. recipient of the recognition.

In the coming year, the coalition’s plate is heaped full, as it works to carry out the agreement with Florida growers and convince other tomato buyers such as Publix and Wal-Mart to join the Campaign for Fair Food — with the goal of improving human rights in the food industry.

As they do, Fort Myers snowbirds Tom and Edy O’Brien will be cheering them on — and pitching in when they can.

Like many supporters, the New Hampshire couple became aware of the coalition’s work at their church, St. Columbkille Catholic Church, several years ago.

“It’s very satisfying to see what they’ve been able to accomplish,” said Tom O’Brien, a retired electronics draftsman. “So often, these societal problems seem gigantic and impossible to overcome, but in this case, all the effort is really paying off.”

That effort earned the Coalition of Immokalee Workers this award, Chan said.

“There are so many people committed to this community, working every day to elevate our quality of life. The News-Press editorial board had a tough job and robust discussions in order to narrow our final choices for 2009—and for 2010,” Chan said. “As always, we view our role as a catalyst to spark thoughtful conversations and inspire positive change, whether looking back or looking forward.”

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