Marching for One More Penny: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers Pickets Publix Supermarkets in Tampa Bay
University of South Florida
Not My Usual Walk to the Grocery Store
It’s 11:00am on Saturday and I walk out of my second floor apartment after finishing my coffee. In the distance I hear car horns honking, cheers, and an indiscernible chant. I immediately recognize the energized din as part of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) second day of protesting, four blocks away at my neighborhood grocery store, Publix. The CIW is a community-based activist organization that started in Immokalee, Florida, one of the state’s key agricultural towns. Founded in 1993, the CIW advocates for the rights of agricultural workers across the country. Through its successful Fair Food Campaign, the CIW has negotiated with retailers like Whole Foods and fast food chains such as Subway, Burger King, and Taco Bell to pay growers one penny more for produce, allowing growers to increase compensation for farmworkers.
As I walk towards my neighborhood Publix I begin to identify words in the chant, having heard them from the protests that started the day before:
“Up, up with the fair food nation! Down, down with the exploitation!”
I arrive at the Publix I frequent two to three times a week and am stunned by how unfamiliar it looks; the ordinarily desolate sidewalk surrounding the store teems with protestors wearing bright green shirts, carrying signs with slogans about farmworker hardship or calling for corporate responsibility. “Publix profits from Poverty,” reads one sign; “Consumers Crave a Living Wage,” reads another.
There are far more protestors at this Publix than the one I had visited the day before, and I join the protest line as one of the organizers yells a new chant for us to follow:
“No more slaves! Pay a living wage!”
Standing near the protest line with camera, pen, and notepad in hand, CIW activists ask me questions intermittently between note taking and picture snapping.
“Are you with the press?”
“Who do you write for?”
“Will this be on the news?”
With each question I explain that I am a doctoral student in applied anthropology at the University of South Florida interested in migrant health, and that I write for the blog AccessDenied. I further explain my ideas about poverty being a hindrance to healthcare since low wages constrain access to health care in market-based medical systems. During interviews conducted through my own research with farmworkers in the Tampa Bay area, many reported cost as the biggest constraint to accessing health care and dental care. The CIW protests were therefore of particular interest to me since they are rallying for better wages, which could potentially impact the accessibility of care for migrant laborers.
“Aqui Estamos! No Regresamos! (Here we are! We won’t go back!)
Saturday, March 5, 2011, marked the second consecutive day of CIW’s protests at Publix supermarkets across Tampa Bay. The weekend-long protest of Florida’s supermarket monolith began Friday, when protestors from across the state and across the U.S. – from places as far away as Kansas, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Washington – assembled in front of several locations from 10am-6pm in an effort to pressure the supermarket chain to pay one penny more per pound for tomatoes. The events on Saturday involved both pickets at individual stores, like the one I attended on Friday, and store-to-store marches. Originating from different Publix stores in Tampa, the marches all culminated in large rally outside of an extremely popular Publix located off of one of Tampa’s busiest roads. The CIW estimates nearly 1,500 people attended the rally, where activists protested and later gathered around a stage where a band played music with social justice-themed lyrics.
The CIW spent two years formally organizing the protests in an effort to engage the food retailer in a conversation about wages. “How long do we have to protest until [Publix] comes to the table?” one CIW staff member said to me. CIW protestors saw the Friday and Saturday protests as a direct effort to improve conditions for agricultural laborers, whose average annual salaries of no more than $7,000 place them in a position of abject poverty, limiting what they can spend on food and other necessities, including health services. In the words of one volunteer, “We’re asking for a penny more per pound so farmworkers can have a living wage.”
At each picket, security seemed to be a concern for Publix. During the Saturday rally well-dressed men in sunglasses kept protestors from sitting on curbs that outlined the property and from walking through the grocery store’s parking lot. At the Friday protest I attended, security personnel wearing reflective sunglasses and button-down shirts surveilled protestors circling the narrow sidewalk adjacent to a busy suburban highway. When I asked the men if they worked for Publix they handed me a card and directed me to speak to the company spokesperson. When I returned to the picket line to talk to more protestors, one protestor noted a sense of insult upon seeing the security personnel, saying to me:
“We’re asking for one penny a pound, and they’re spending how many pennies on those guys standing and watching us?”
Motivations to Act
Motivations to act on behalf of farmworkers are inseparable from varying conceptualizations of “justice,” stemming from ideas regarding fair labor practices, corporate responsibility, and faith-based senses of morality.
Narratives of social justice are a foundational element in the CIW’s rhetoric, as reflected by chants for groups of protestors to recite:
“J, U-S; J-U-S-T-I-C-E: It’s what, we want, Justice in Immokalee!”
Comparing farmworker labor conditions to modern day slavery, CIW activists express a need to defend farmworkers’ rights and fight for the first pay increase for workers in approximately thirty years.
“Slavery has no market price,” as one protestor told me. Many protestors connect with the CIW’s sense of social justice and human rights. One protestor carried a cardboard sign with a handwritten message reading: “Mis hermanos y hermanas necesitan justicia [my brothers and sisters need justice].” Other activists explained their involvement with CIW began as part of a larger interest in food justice or empathy for farmworkers after hearing emotionally compelling stories. Some expressed feelings of solidarity because of the corporations the CIW targets:
“It’s about solidarity—anyone can go to a Taco Bell and think of how bad the workers are treated to get Taco Bell tomatoes. And it’s about resisting something bad, which is easy to organize around.”
Among the many activists present were clergy and members of congregations, motivated to protest out of faith-based senses of morality. At the Saturday rally, one of many churches sent a representative to address the crowd from the bandstand. He stated, “Some people may ask us ‘what does a church have to do with farmworkers?’ and our answer is ‘open up your Bibles!’” The speaker waited for the boisterous applause and cheer to diminish, and continued, “open up [the Book of] Micah. What does the Lord require you to do? Live with a sense of justice and loving kindness.”
More than Just a Wage
Despite the CIW’s efforts to engage them in dialogue about farmworker compensation, Publix is not yet willing to consider how its business practices harm agricultural laborers. In a recent St. Pete Times article, Publix spokesperson Shannon Patten commented that the corporation has no intention of paying more for tomatoes, asserting that it is the responsibility of tomato growers to increase wages, not Publix. The article further noted that Publix was “unmoved” by the weekend’s events.
Being “unmoved” by the protests further implicates corporations such as Publix in the poor health of agricultural laborers. The agricultural industry is able to keep prices low for produce because of the systematic exploitation of agricultural workers, many of them undocumented, who are paid low wages without the benefits that workers in other industries want and/or receive and/or can bargain for collectively. Low wages directly inhibit farmworkers from being able to access health services in our market-based medical systems. In the U.S., regular health care is only accessible through health insurance or paying by a fee-for-service basis. Unlike other labor sectors, farmwork does not provide health benefits for workers, and many migrant laborers are excluded from private health insurance because of high costs. When future health legislation goes into effect, many migrants may be excluded from purchasing health insurance solely because of their immigration status. While emergency care is arguably available, migrants may avoid seeking emergency treatment from hospitals due to fears of deportation.
Through the CIW, agricultural laborers are able to voice their concerns about low wages that constrain access to basic needs like health care. In this respect, CIW serves as a form of collective bargaining for disenfranchised farmworkers. Collective bargaining has been under political assault recently as legislators attempt to reduce the rights of organized employees in places such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida, but collective bargaining groups play a key role in raising awareness about labor related inequity. In the case of agricultural workers, the CIW as a collective bargaining organization can draw public attention to farmworkers’ meager wages. There is truth to protestors’ chants imploring Publix to pay “a living wage”; at an average of $7,000 a year migrant laborers must often sacrifice personal health and wellbeing in order to maintain housing and afford at least one meal a day. During my interviews with migrant laborers in Tampa, I found high rates of food insecurity in addition to narratives about being unable to access certain types of health care.
Agricultural laborers are barely surviving; they cannot afford the tomatoes they package for retailers like Publix, who pressure growers to maintain low costs, and they cannot afford health care to treat the myriad health conditions associated with one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. Considering the occupational health hazards, low wages, and inability to access health care, one penny more per pound to improve the lives of the workers picking the produce sold to consumers is not an unreasonable request. Moreover, consumers I informally spoke to about the issue were unanimously willing to accept the cost. As one frequent Publix shopper said, “Tomatoes are already so expensive, what’s one more cent?”
For Publix, however, paying one more penny for produce does not make sense since the corporation does not see itself as an important factor in the overall chain of exploitation among agricultural workers.
Nolan Kline, MA is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida and a founding member of the AccessDenied blog team.