Advocacy & Activism, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Labor

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Immokalee, Fla.

From Bittman.Blogs.NYTimes.com, Jennifer Mascia, 15 Jun 2011.

Dead and dying vines, ripening tomatoes; these will get ploughed under. Mark Bittman

Dead and dying vines, ripening tomatoes; these will get ploughed under. Mark Bittman

Fifty years after Edward R. Murrow concluded his tenure at CBS with “Harvest of Shame,” an arresting expose of migrant field workers in rural Florida, CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts returned to Florida’s tomato, bean and sugarcane fields for an update. In Harvest of Shame: 50 Years Later, Mr. Pitts found that, while wages have improved, the work — when it could be found — is just as backbreaking as it was in 1960. Juan Lopez, a 62-year-old tomato picker in Immokalee, said he gets up before dawn hoping to find work; in 2009 he said he earned “$7,800 for a full year of work.”

The original 1960 documentary, an installment of CBS Reports, aired the day after Thanksgiving that year. David Lowe, one of the producers, explained to Time Magazine, “We felt that by scheduling the program the day after Thanksgiving, we could stress the fact that much of the food cooked for Thanksgiving throughout the country was picked by migratory workers. We hoped that the pictures of how these people live and work would shock the consciousness of the nation.”

In addition to images of black fieldworkers being herded into the back of flatbed trucks like cattle, the program was so arresting in part because of the smoking anchorman’s searing introduction –

This scene is not taking place in the Congo. It has nothing to do with Johannesburg or Cape Town. It is not Nyasaland or Nigeria. This is Florida. These are citizens of the United States, 1960. This is a shape-up for migrant workers. The hawkers are chanting the going piece rate at the various fields. This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”

– and closing:

The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do.”

Immokalee was originally occupied by the Calusa Indians, and centuries later, by the Seminole, who set up temporary camps on the high prairie land during their seasonal hunting trips. The Seminoles depended on the alligators in the swamps of Immokalee — which means “My Home” in the Seminole language — and when the swamps were drained, a new era of agriculture was born of necessity. A mix of hunters, trappers, cowmen, missionaries and Indian traders established the first permanent settlement by 1872.

In 1921, the Atlantic Coast Line Railway extended its service south and opened a direct overland route to the town for both trade and communication, and Hispanics and Europeans traveled to Immokalee to work on the growing farms. Over the next twenty years, Immokalee’s ranching and farming industries boomed. But the soil is white sand, contains little in the way of nutrients and won’t hold any water. Because of this, the land is bombarded with fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides.

Today, Immokalee is comprised primarily of Hispanics and Latinos, who make up 73 percent of the population; “some other race” is 41.3 percent; whites are 34.4 percent; and blacks are 22.1 percent. Only a third of Immokalee’s residents is a high school graduate or higher, compared with a national average of 85 percent. A third of families are also below the poverty level; nationally that figure is 10 percent.

Co-founded by Brown University alumni Greg Asbed and his wife Laura Germino in 1993, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers emerged following a series of general strikes during which low-wage workers demanded fair wages and a voice in the workplace. A 2001 boycott of Taco Bell on behalf of the farm workers who supply the company’s tomatoes put the organization on the map. During the campaign, called “Boot the Bell,” the CIW worked closely with religious and community groups to pressure Taco Bell from different social angles. It took four years, but in 2005, Yum Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company, agreed to all of the organization’s demands, including the CIW’s requests that the company pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes to increase workers’ wages. For the last two decades, Germino and her co-workers have uncovered numerous multi-state slavery operations in the agricultural industry.

When Mark visited Immokalee last month, he photographed the fields and the field workers’ dwellings in the 88-degree heat. (Humidity, in case you were wondering, was at a stifling 84 percent.)

Immokalee is home to WCIW-LP Radio Conciencia, a low power community radio station owned and operated by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and affiliated with the Pacifica Network.

WCIW broadcasts music, news, and public affairs to listeners in Spanish, Haitian Creole and other indigenous languages.

The dispensary at CIW headquarters was set up largely to give workers an alternative to buying staples at other stores, where prices were extraordinarily high.

Once it was established, prices elsewhere fell into line, so the workers now have more options.

Source and additional photos: Bittman.Blogs.NYTimes.com, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Immokalee, Fla.” by Jennifer Mascia, 15 Jun 2011.

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