by Christine Gary
Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” But in the Florida Tomato Fields, Farmworkers endure long hours of backbreaking labor and overcrowded housing. Wage theft on meager earnings is commonplace. Resistance is met with chained confinement, beatings, and pistol-whippings. In the sunny state’s agricultural industry, fundamental human rights are lost in shadow.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a worker-led farmworker organization that has been both national and internationally recognized for its efforts to end the abuses endemic in agriculture. Among their allies is the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA), with which Meghan Cohorst works closely. She says, “thanks to the unprecedented success of CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food, a new, more-just Florida agricultural industry is on the horizon.” Food Industry Giants recently agreed to raise worker wages by paying a penny more per pound of tomato purchased. They also signed a “Fair Food Code of Conduct that protects workers.” “But in order for this change to become complete, all major buyers of Florida tomatoes must commit.” And international food retailer, Ahold, has steadfastly refused to join. To get a hold on Ahold, CIW’s Romeo Ramirez teamed up with Meghan to organize “CIW’s largest and most important action ever in the Northeast.” This Sunday, persuasion efforts come to our own Boston backyard in the “March to Stop Sweatshops.”
Participants will gather in Copley Square at 1 pm where they’ll be met with live music and speeches by CIW members/allies. Then NYC’s very own Rude Mechanical Orchestra will escort an expected 500 marchers on a two mile walk to the Brigham Circle Stop & Shop, of which Ahold is the parent company. The event will culminate in a peaceful, family-friendly demonstration asking for the end of farmworker abuse and exploitation.
The rally forms a natural partnership with the NE Food and Justice Summit being held that same weekend at Northeastern (http://realfoodchallenge.org/nefoodjustice2011). Meghan expects “a good number of Summit participants to attend the march. CIW will be speaking at the Summit’s opening ceremony on Friday, 02/25, and also presenting a workshop on Saturday, 02/26.”
Beyond attending the march, supporters may find manager letters to mail or bring to local Shop & Stops on the CIW website (http://www.ciw-online.org). After the rally, SFA will announce future Spring events for those looking to stay involved. This is a watershed moment to unite and hold our industry socially accountable to progressive standards, “including a zero-tolerance policy for modern-day slavery.” The times are ripe for change. See you Sunday!
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW QUESTIONS WITH MEGHAN COHORST
What can rally attenders expect?
The March to Stop Sweatshops will be the CIW’s largest and most important action ever in the Northeast. We’ll gather before the march for a spirited rally with speakers and music ranging from traditional Mexican son jarocho to hip hop, then march approximately two miles from Copley Square to the Brigham Circle Stop & Shop for a peaceful demonstration. New York City’s Rude Mechanical Orchestra will join us and be playing throughout the march.
What’s the expected attendance?
A charter bus of workers will be joining us, as well as Fair Food supporters from across the region, including New York City, Washington, D.C., Providence, Maine, across Massachusetts and of course Boston. We’re expecting approximately 500 participants.
Will the rally be linked up with the NE Food Summit?
Yes! The Student/Farmworker Alliance and the Real Food Challenge have worked in close partnership for several years now, and we will be both participating in the Summit and expect a good number of Summit participants to attend the march. CIW will be speaking at the opening ceremony on Friday, 02/25, and also presenting a workshop on Saturday, 02/26. It’s a natural partnership because Real Food is defined, in part, by fair treatment and wages for the workers who harvest that food.
Can you describe the constituency with which you’re working?
We have been collaborating with a broad range of allies here in Boston, including students and faculty, Boston’s faith community, organized labor, and worker centers and organizations among others. The beauty of the CIW’s struggle is that is resonates with everyone — all of us eat and benefit from the oftentimes backbreaking and underpaid work done by farmworkers.
Why are we protesting?
For over a year the CIW and its allies have been calling on Ahold USA (parent company of Stop & Shop) to join with nine other food industry leaders in working with the CIW to improve wages and working conditions in the fields. The company has steadfastly refused, instead hiding behind a number of thinly-veiled excuses.
Thanks to the unprecedented success of the Campaign for Fair Food, a new, more-just Florida agricultural industry is on the horizon. But in order for this change to become complete, all major buyers of Florida tomatoes — including Ahold USA — must commit to paying the penny per pound and supporting the Fair Food of Conduct.
What do we hope to achieve?
Ahold USA must follow in the footsteps of nine other food industry leaders and sign an agreement with the CIW in which it commits to paying one more penny per pound for its tomatoes directly to the workers who harvested them, and to support an industry-wide Fair Food Code of Conduct that protects workers’ basic human rights, including a zero-tolerance policy for modern-day slavery.
How can people stay involved after the march?
There are many ways that people can stay involved. On the CIW website (http://www.ciw-online.org) supporters can find manager letters and postcards that can be brought to Stop & Shop stores or mailed in to the company’s corporate headquarters in Quincy. SFA also has two upcoming actions planned for later in the Spring that will be announced after the march. There are always ways to be involved!
Christine Gary is completing a Masters Degree in Nutrition Communication at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition. She’s an international marathon runner devoted to raising funds for charity: http://www.christinegary.com