The Fruits of Our Labor: Achieving the Impossible

Originally posted on Kindle Project and the Pursue blog.

Those of us involved in social change efforts may be all too familiar with the refrain, “the impossible will take a little while.” We’re encouraged to have patience and we’re expected to brace ourselves for the reality that we may not be around to see the fruits of our activist labor. We plug along regardless because we’re assured that our righteous efforts against seemingly insurmountable odds will one day tip the balance in favor of the good and the just.

And yet, every once in a very long while, we are privileged to actually witness the balance shifting.

For the last four years, I have had the great honor and good fortune of working alongside the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in their Campaign for Fair Food. The CIW is a membership-based community organization of low-wage agricultural workers based in Immokalee, Florida that has been struggling for close to twenty years to improve working and living conditions at the bottom of corporate supply chains. Like their domestic worker counterparts, farmworkers in the US are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and are therefore denied all of the basic protections that most workers in this country take for granted. The CIW has successfully employed creative tactics to get around this obstacle, most notably by targeting the corporations that purchase from the industrial growers who hire them.

When I first learned about their efforts in 2006, they were actively targeting the McDonald’s corporation to demand a penny more per pound of tomatoes that they harvest as well as an industry-wide third party mechanism for monitoring conditions and investigating abuses. Eager to join the campaign as an ally, I helped establish a local solidarity network called Fair Food NYC. We handed out flyers to McDonald’s customers, facilitated popular education workshops for students and community groups, and ultimately mobilized two busloads of supporters to join a caravan of allies from across the country for a major action at the McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago. When I got a text message two days before we were scheduled to depart saying that McDonald’s had agreed to all the CIW’s demands, I felt for the first time in my life the real impact of being part of a strategic organizing effort and the great satisfaction of feeling the balance of power begin to shift before my very eyes.

Fast forward to two weeks ago…

On October 13th, the CIW announced that they signed a fair food agreement with Pacific Tomato Growers. If you’d been following the CIW for as long as I had, it might have been possible to clump news of this agreement with the many other CIW headlines over the last few years. Since the McDonald’s victory, I’d watched them tip the balance of power over and over again as they wrestled fair food agreements from the remaining giants in the fast food industry as well as the entire on-campus food service industry.

What they had yet to do, however, was compel the growers themselves – ie, their actual bosses and the companies more directly responsible for the conditions that they experience daily – to sit down with them and hear them out. They had their supply chain strategy down to a science and were masters at getting the most powerful corporate buyers at the top of the chain to bypass the middlemen (growers) and agree to the farmworkers’ demands. Their attempts at bringing the growers on board, however, had proven futile, until…

This article says it all. Put simply, the CIW made history earlier this month and the agreement with Pacific Growers was quite literally a game changer. Indeed, several days later it was followed by yet another agreement, this time with the largest tomato grower in Florida. In securing partnerships with the growers themselves, the CIW is now poised to literally transform the entire industry. They’ve proven that while the impossible might take a little while, committed and strategic organizing truly can bring about meaningful change.

I couldn’t help but notice that in explaining the reasoning behind what appears like a one-eighty in the company’s determination to address sub-poverty wages and inhumane working conditions, Jon Esformes of Pacific Growers invoked Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous directive that “few are guilty but all are responsible.” Working in the Jewish social justice community, I’d heard the phrase cited in countless theoretical discussions. It never held as much weight, however, as it did when I saw it paired with an industry giant’s genuine commitment to doing his part in advancing workers’ rights and improving peoples’ lives. Perhaps the impossible takes time, commitment, strategic organizing, and a little nudge from Heschel.

The struggle is far from over – but the CIW is one giant step closer to securing basic human rights for some of the most exploited workers in the US economy. To learn more and get involved, visit the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Student/Farmworker Alliance, and the Community/Farmworker Alliance (formerly Fair Food NYC).