Advocacy & Activism, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Opinion/Editorial/Commentary, Wages

Opinion: Pondering Publix and Pennies per Pound

From NaplesNews.com,’Let Me Get This Straight’ by Barry Knister, 26 Sept 2011.

Jeff Lytle’s August 28 editorial “Immokalee coalition should target education, not Publix” has generated lots of comment on the issue he takes up: is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers missing the point when its members demonstrate at Publix supermarkets to pressure the retailer into paying a penny more per pound for tomatoes?

As his title indicates, Lytle thinks they are. “Actually,” he tells us, “the story is that the coalition is continuing to bug one of Florida’s most distinguished corporate citizens and good neighbors by foolishly demonstrating in front of stores on private property, to turn one of America’s fundamental economic principles upside down.”

The fundamental principle is that Publix is a retailer, not a wholesaler. This means “the pickers work for someone else.” But Lytle’s main concern is not with economic principles. Mostly, his editorial argues that education, specifically English language education is the key to the workers’ future, not a penny more per pound. Because the coalition is neglecting to emphasize English education, its members are failing in their efforts to better workers’ lives.

Fair and even-handed as he invariably is in controversial matters, Lytle had informed the Coalition of his intention to editorialize on their campaign. He invited them to reply, and arranged for their response to appear in the same edition of the paper.

The Coalition spokesperson’s guest editorial is titled “Coalition’s efforts go beyond better pay for farmworkers.” Along with naming programs that provide cheap food and supplies for workers, the writer speaks of a local radio service that keeps Immokalee’s population informed, of programs to promote English education for women, and others aimed at ending sexual harassment in the fields.

Most important, the commentator says, are the Coalition’s efforts to “eliminate modern-day slavery from today’s agricultural industry.” Anyone who reads the Daily News will know what the writer means: actual slavery along with latter-day versions of indentured servitude have occurred in the recent past, and may still exist where they can be concealed.

Two days later, readers responded. A letter titled “Write on” sides with Lytle. “I couldn’t agree with him more,” the writer tells us. “Publix is not the problem. If there is a problem it is with the growers and contractors who provide the labor to the growers.”

Assuming this is true—and I think it is–the question to ask is the one Lytle raises: why has the Coalition targeted the retailer, Publix, and not the growers and contractors? Anyone familiar with the issue knows the answer: the growers hold all the cards. How can field workers, unprotected in any way, seek for, let alone gain fairness from owners who have made it clear they will never yield on any point, so long as they have the power to keep things as they are?

Knowing this, the workers either give up, or apply pressure wherever it may do some good. Where would that be? At “one of Florida’s most distinguished corporate citizens and good neighbors.”

It makes no sense to take on owners who can hire and fire at will. Not if you can make your case in front of a respected business, a corporate good neighbor. You do so exactly because Publix management has an ethical core, which makes it capable of being shamed or embarrassed when confronted by evidence of injustice.

Is this fair to Publix? Is it appropriate behavior to use towards a distinguished corporate citizen and good neighbor? Only if you are effectively denied any other way of trying to improve your lot.

The letter writer goes on to say that many field workers “are here illegally and cost us in social services way beyond that penny per pound.” He adds that among these workers, those who “do learn a little English…use false identification to move on to other occupations and are willing to work for less than those who are legal.”

Again, assuming what the writer says is true, another question needs asking: Aside from being Latin American and not European, in what way are these workers different from the non-English speaking foreigners who worked for peanuts in New York garment-district sweatshops, circa 1900?

The likely answer is, “They’re here illegally.” Some are, undeniably. But without agreeing that this is an acceptable arrangement, here’s another question: do you truly believe that anything besides the Atlantic Ocean explains why millions of immigrants over a hundred years ago didn’t stream into North America illegally? If your answer is yes, you must also believe a boundary-observing gene exists in Europeans, but not in Hispanics.

The writers of “Why so negative?” don’t agree with Lytle. They believe the “CIW’s amazing maturation brings credit to us all.” They support the organization because it has remained true to its work– “raising salaries, improving conditions—while building grass-roots community organization, participation, pride, responsibility and respect.”

Note: the writers reveal an element of white-collar naivety in referring to “salaries.” Immokalee’s farm workers are paid wages based on the number of buckets they pick and carry to the truck. That’s it and that’s all. None of them will ever receive a fixed weekly, monthly, or annual income—a salary. Nor, under existing conditions, will any of them ever be granted a raise, health benefits, retirement-401/k program, profit-sharing, bonus, Social Security or Medicare. They will be paid the same scale at the age of forty, fifty or sixty that they were paid at twenty.

The writers conclude by addressing Lytle’s principal objection: the Coalition is neglecting the issue of education. “Education takes many exciting forms,” they remind us. “Public actions do not just happen. They are imagined, researched, analyzed, planned, trained, carried out and followed up. Literacy isn’t just handed down. It grows up and out of a context. People begin to name their own realities.”

I understand this to mean the writers think Lytle’s idea of education is too narrowly focused on one thing, learning English. The word must be applied in many ways, some of which include people beginning “to name their own realities.”

Before offering my own take, I want to express admiration for Publix. I spend much of the year in a state without Publix markets, and life is diminished because of it. I have no less admiration for the tireless, public-spirited op/ed editor of the Daily News.

I take my cue from the idea expressed above, that literacy “grows up and out of a context.” Nearing the end of his reply to Lytle, the Coalition representative tells how his organization has fought to make it possible for workers to “report for work when work actually begins,” rather than being required to show up before dawn. The effect of this small change is reflected in one worker. For the first time in his life, he is now “able to eat breakfast and walk with his 10-year-old son to school in the morning.”

Does this father with a ten-year-old son know English? Probably not. Is it reasonable to think that, after a day spent picking tomatoes under the Florida sun, he has anything left for foreign-language studies? I certainly wouldn’t.

But whether or not he speaks any English, or ever will, there is no way to measure the impact on the “context” of education that results when a father, walking a child to school, lends his parental authority, seriousness of purpose and physical presence to the very idea of learning. All we know is that parents who care do just this, every time they drive a child to school, attend parent-teacher conferences, or walk with their children as the Immokalee father is now able to do.

I end on a personal note. Ten years ago when my Naples villa was under construction, I bought it sight unseen. Then as now I was living in Michigan, and some months later flew down to see how things were going. I watched under what was now hot April sun as the all-Hispanic crew worked to lay beautiful ceramic tile, install our small pool, and pour the deck.

None of the workers spoke English. As we smiled and signaled with hand gestures, I wondered how anyone doing such jobs all day would ever find the time and energy to learn English. I assumed that, like the parents of countless other immigrants, they probably would not, but that their children would.

Like me as I write this, I am sure hard-working Jeff Lytle is doing his job in an air-conditioned office or a TV studio. I am also sure Publix’s CEO is working under similar conditions. I submit that the only way to grasp what motivates stoop laborers to go after an extra penny at Publix would be for people like me, Lytle and Ed Crenshaw to put on dungarees, show up at dawn, get in the crew bus or truck, and head out to spend the next ten or twelve hours picking tomatoes.

But even then, it wouldn’t really be valid. We’re all three of us white. And when the long day ended, free of any fear of reprisal we would go home to something very different from the rest of the crew.

Assuming, of course, that after such a day we weren’t all three lying side by side on a slab, being prepped for the viewing room, or cremation.

Source: NaplesNews.com, “Pondering Publix and pennies per pound” ‘Let Me Get This Straight’ by Barry Knister, 26 Sept 2011.

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