On March 8, 2005, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Immokalee, Florida won a significant victory. In a precedent-setting move, fast-food giant Yum! Brands Inc., the world’s largest restaurant corporation, agreed to all the farm workers’ demands (and more!) if the CIW would end the four-year-old boycott of its subsidiary Taco Bell. (Yum!, a spin off from Pepsi, includes Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, A&W, Long John Silver’s, and Pizza Hut franchises.) As United Farm Workers (UFW) president Arturo Rodriguez commented at the victory celebration, “It is the most significant victory since the successful grape boycott led by the UFW in the 1960s in the fields of California.”
El Acuerdo/The Agreement
To end the boycott of Taco Bell, Yum! Brands signed these first-time-ever agreements:
- Taco Bell will deal only with Immokalee tomato suppliers who agree to pay workers an additional penny per pound. This small amount raises wages 75 percent. For the first time in history these wage increases are coming from the fast-food industry directly! Taco Bell will provide the CIW, on a monthly basis, complete records of their purchases of Florida tomatoes and growers’ wage receipts. Growers who do not pass this wage increase on to workers will be cut from Taco Bell’s list of vendors.
- Taco Bell agreed to work jointly with the CIW to set up a process to ensure that the wage increase goes directly to pickers. The CIW is the investigative and monitoring body.
- Taco Bell will add language to its Supplier Code of Conduct to ensure that indentured servitude is strictly forbidden and there will be strict compliance with all existing laws.
- Taco Bell will aid in efforts at the state level to seek new laws that better protect all Florida tomato farm workers. It will give market incentives for agricultural suppliers willing to respect their workers’ rights, even when those rights are not guaranteed by law.
In an era where workers are losing more than winning, where unionization rates and company-paid benefits like health insurance and pensions are dropping, and poverty is rising, how did a relatively small group of overwhelmingly immigrant farm workers (roughly 2,500 of whom 50 percent are Mexican, 30 percent Guatemalan, 10 percent Haitian, and the rest mostly African-American) take down a company larger than McDonald’s?
The boycott came after nearly eight years of organizing in the community. In that time the CIW held community meetings of pickers; did constant on-the-job organizing; sponsored local activities like fiestas; opened a food co-op; mounted a thirty-day hunger strike in 1998; walked 250 miles to Florida’s capital from Immokalee in 2000; and exposed human trafficking and slavery in the fields that led to several high-profile convictions. These significant efforts succeeded in raising wages to pre-1980 levels. But further and faster progress was needed because farm workers still made only about $7,500 a year (according to the U.S. Department of Labor) and had no health insurance, vacation, sick days, pensions, overtime pay, or labor law protection.
The CIW Base
I would say that the coalition has a consistent core of roughly 80–100 workers at any one time. Generally meetings have excellent attendance, especially before the frequent activities. CIW-sponsored tours always attract 60–75 workers. Likewise, the CIW makes a huge effort to have as many workers as possible attend conferences like the Southern Human Rights Organizers Network Conference. Wives and children usually come too.
It is perfectly appropriate to say that 80–100 active members out of 2,500 isn’t great, but it is a typical level of activity—perhaps better than many—of most unions in this country. (The town has several thousand more workers who do not participate in the coalition directly, although it seems clear that the coalition-run radio station is a very big game in town.) Putting it in perspective, their core seems to be larger than that of many workers’ centers around the country.
The CIW’s base is over 90 percent male and young, corresponding to the demographics of the people who come each season to work in the fields. Young men have been sent by their families to el Norte to help subsidize their peasant families back home who have been priced out of agriculture by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other IMF/World Bank neoliberal programs and agreements. The few women who come forward are welcomed. The office, however, does have a sizable number of women—young Anglo, college-educated women who are part of the Student-Farmworker Alliance, a sister organization which shares office space. All these women (and men) speak Spanish. Relations between these women and the CIW base seem friendly but formal.
The CIW charges dues—but they are low (roughly two dollars a year), and membership cards purposefully look like driver’s licenses. These cards allow members to shop at the CIW’s food co-op. No doubt they are used as ID cards in Immokalee and elsewhere. Nonetheless, like just about every workers’ center, the CIW could not exist without grants to run its large (by workers’ center standards) operation. No matter what time of day, at the center there are always workers sitting around, buying stuff, chatting with the staff, using the Internet, just hanging out, or helping with organizational tasks—making packets and counting money from the co-op store.
The CIW Program
The heart of the CIW program is the slogan “consciousness+commitment=change.” Weekly meetings are devoted to hearing what is going on in the fields and community, collectively figuring out how to handle problems that arise, and most importantly, good old-fashioned political education. The foundation of that political education is popular education of the most sophisticated sort. It is no mean feat to get workers to share their insights and analyze their situation, create space for them to develop tactics and strategies, and build a community identity when they speak multiple indigenous languages and have little formal schooling. Consequently, trainings employ a lot of playacting, drawings, and videos to develop the consciousness and commitment necessary for change.
It seems that only a small number are capable even of taking minutes at meetings or writing on flip charts. These individuals tend to rise rapidly and usually get elected to the staff. X was barely literate when I first started going to Immokalee, but he has learned to read and I see him reading books about globalization in Spanish every now and again. The radio station adds another layer to their consciousness building and organizing strategy.
A major piece of the workers’ program over the years has been the hunger strike. Hunger strikers are carefully selected—so that even when 60 or more go on a tour only 10–25 people are healthy enough to fast. The others are sent out into the community to do talks, keep activity buzzing around the encampment, prepare and serve meals, and so forth. Hunger strikers are not permitted to do any of that. The health of a couple of individuals has been compromised by the hunger strike. This is not surprising given their histories of poor health care as peasants in Mexico and, of course, no health care in the United States.
Over the last two years a small number of the core have chosen not to leave Immokalee—maybe 10–25—because the coalition has provided them with some stability and a sense of family. We can only guess whether el acuerdo will make others want to stick around, even though the CIW admits openly that the number of Florida farm workers covered by this agreement is small. Staying around might hold more promise than the ugly conditions and absence of organization further up the line. People might stay in Immokalee’s fields until they can transition into landscaping and construction.
The CIW’s Boomerang Strategy
After much discussion at the weekly open meetings of farm workers and some serious investigation, the group decided to launch the boycott of Taco Bell. Even though Taco Bell seemed like a long shot, it provided multiple angles from which to attack. The strategic aim was to create what Lucas Benitez of the CIW has called a “boomerang effect”—using what Taco Bell considers its strengths and assets as weapons against them. This approach allowed the CIW to spin the campaign alternately as a struggle for labor and workers’ rights, human rights, or fair food, as well as one against corporate power. The goal was, as Lucas said, to “get the maximum numbers of allies from as many different sectors as possible.” These allies—from labor, students, faith-based groups, and, to a lesser extent, immigrant-rights-based organizations—were the multiple prongs of this strategy. Most of the immigrant-rights-based organizations were advocacy groups who did not interact with workers on a daily basis. The CIW chose to give priority to working with those allies who, like the CIW, were involved in organizing workers directly. All of the groups are linked together by an aggressive Web-based media campaign—utilizing printed material, Web sites, and a listserv. The influence of Zapatismo is unmistakable.
A central principle of the boomerang strategy was that allies are autonomous (the CIW’s word, reflecting their Zapatista heritage) in their actions, but committed to following the lead of the workers from Immokalee. Although the coalition provided basic information and things like flyers, postcards, stickers, sample letters, and resolutions, each group in the alliance was expected to run its own campaign—developing its own strategy and tactics. They were not expected to get permission from the CIW for their actions.
That said, it is also true that allies were in constant contact with CIW leaders (and members too, for that matter), through tours, conferences, exchange visits, and, of course, the Web site and listserv. The CIW’s Web site, for example, averaged half a million hits a month, surging to nearly that number per week during their frequent national actions. This highly coordinated but decentralized strategy created a powerful combination of local and national actions that brought unprecedented pressure on Taco Bell to seek a resolution.
Periodic “sum ups,” where allies and the CIW share their experiences and evaluate their work—like the conference held in Louisville—are part of the culture.
Here are some of the particulars of the campaign’s strategy:
Pick a clear target: Florida’s agricultural sector is a web of small and large privately held and corporate-owned ranches and farms, which in turn rely on a complex chain of contractors, subcontractors, and field bosses, which are then linked to another chain stretching from packinghouses to the market. Although Taco Bell buys only 1 percent of Florida’s tomato production, this still amounted to 10 million pounds in 2004. While the players in the supply chain may not have name recognition, Taco Bell sure does with more than 35 million consumers each week in more than 6,500 restaurants in the United States. According to the company’s Web site, “147 million people see a Taco Bell commercial once a week—more than half of the U.S. population.”
The CIW staff with help from its allies, including church officials, students, and during the last year some help from the Food and Allied Services Trades Division (FAST) of the AFL-CIO, amassed a major league amount of research. The CIW knew the fast-food industry and Taco Bell intimately.
Workers’ rights: The slogan, “end sweatshops in the fields,” expressed the central focus of the campaign, which was, of course, the workers themselves and their issues as workers. Although the CIW is not a union, in large part because neither the state of Florida nor the federal government protect the right of farm workers to organize, it did collect thousands of cards early on authorizing the CIW as the workers’ representative.
From its inception the boycott won endorsement and assistance from the UFW. Other major organizations followed—principally the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the American Postal Workers Union. In 2004, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney gave his endorsement. Jobs with Justice (JwJ) chapters around the country played a vital role in connecting CIW tours with local labor and community groups and helping to build rallies and pickets. The boycott strengthened a loose network of nonunion worker-centered organizations—the Miami Workers Center, the Mississippi Workers Center, Make the Road by Walking (New York), the Korean Immigrant Workers Association (Los Angeles), and other immigrant farm workers’ organizations from Washington to Minnesota to New York.
It has taken a while for the CIW to develop ties with the union movement. Its principle relationship was through the UFW. Early on, the UFW wanted the CIW to merge with it but the CIW refused. The UFW structure would not allow the CIW any independence, not even permitting the CIW to become a local. Additionally, the UFW and CIW have differences over immigration reform. While the UFW is squarely behind the AgJOBS bill, the CIW has decided—following serious consideration of AgJOBS and its potential consequences—to take no public position on the bill.* These differences have not hampered their work as allies on the boycott. Farm Worker Ministries (independent of but taking leadership from the UFW) has devoted many resources throughout.
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) is another story. The FLOC hopes to expand beyond its base in North Carolina. In many ways FLOC sees the CIW as a direct competitor for the base they are trying to build in the southeastern part of the Sunbelt. But more importantly, the two groups differ in their principles of organizing. The FLOC like the UFW was built around the charisma and aura of their principal leaders—Baldemar Velasquez and the late Cesar Chavez. Generally, in FLOC and the UFW, strategy and tactics flow from top to bottom, even as rank and filers are promoted. The CIW, in contrast, can be described as an organization with group-centered leaders where strategies are fully developed at the base. The shortcomings of the FLOC and the UFW have a familiar ring—a number of labor activists have identified them as endemic to the trade union movement.
Until just recently most of the CIW’s closest labor allies were anarchist/syndicalist-influenced organizations like the United Workers Association, which organizes day laborers in Baltimore, and the Worker Solidarity Alliance in New York. These alliances seemed to be based upon a combination of several factors: (1) the anarchist organizations are small, easy to reach, and eager to build alliances; (2) CIW staff have little direct experience with U.S. trade unions; and, (3) the CIW’s ideological roots are in Zapatismo (many CIW workers come from southern Mexico).
However, the recent victory, as well as several years of working with JwJ chapters along the tour routes, have produced discussions about tighter coordination with national JwJ regarding the next phase of the campaign—bringing the Taco Bell agreement to field workers in the rest of the fast-food nation.
Latino workers and the boycott: It is my belief that in California a sizable layer of Latino people—especially those in the union movement, oddly enough—responded to the boycott. Workers, generally not UFW folks since they have little actual base in Los Angeles or other urban areas, but those connected to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and to a lesser extent the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE)—janitors especially and several of their giant locals—were very enthusiastic about the boycott. The two marches in California had over 5,000 people, a great majority of whom were Mexicanos. However, it seems to be that aside from marching several times a year, these workers are not engaged directly with the campaign.
The student base: Taco Bell made no secret that its customer base is 18–24-year-olds, something the company cynically labeled “the New Hedonism Generation.” The CIW knew this was off the mark. Students around the country had won major campaigns on their campuses against the sweatshop production of logo wear and had supported campus workers’ unionization through direct action. Building on the base of students who had shown interest prior to the boycott, the Student-Farmworker Alliance (SFA) was born. Independent of, but taking its lead from the farm workers, SFA began a “Boot the Bell” campaign that in less than two years successfully booted Taco Bell from twenty-two high-school and college campuses.
Many of the students attracted to SFA come from United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and related organizations such as the Student–Labor Action Protest (SLAP), Student–Labor Action Coalition (SLAC), and Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM). These students are mostly Anglos. The Boot the Bell campaign was especially meaningful to Chicano/Mexicano students. Taco Bell’s commercialization and exploitation of Mexicano culture was linked to worker exploitation in a powerful way. As University of Texas student Denise Rodriguez put it, “As a daughter of a migrant worker, the thought of tolerating the presence of an institution similar to the one that oppressed my mother and kept her from continuing her education appalled me.” But Mexicana/Chicana support wasn’t limited to children of farm workers. Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MeCha) chapters were extremely active in the campaign. Current Mexicana/Chicano culture was part of every CIW event involving young folks—Slowrider (a Los Angeles hip-hop group) and Son del Centro (a newer addition to tour stops who play an upbeat, foot stomping version of the traditional son jarocho music of Veracruz with jaranas, those mini eight-string guitars). These events make an unmistakable statement. Overall, I would say that the politics of the Mechistas range from chingado (Mexicans are always getting screwed by the white man) to cultural nationalism to Zapatismo with its focus on globalization issues.
Global justice: The boycott provided a great opening for farm workers to talk about why Mexicans and other immigrants had come to the fields of Immokalee, and this strengthened their ties to the global justice and fair trade movements. Over the last several years, farm workers have developed into effective speakers about the cycle of dislocation in which globalization and treaties like NAFTA have savaged the peasants and small farmers.
The cycle, as detailed by CIW members, began with displacement from the countryside when corn imported from the United States completely undercut corn produced in Mexico. Young family members were first sent to the maquilas to work. Once this proved inadequate to support families, folks continued to move northward. For many, the only jobs were in the fields. Workers link their personal stories to macroeconomic events like NAFTA and globalization. The increased sophistication and subtlety of the presentations reminds me of the locked-out Staley workers and their struggle in the early 1990s. Over the course of several years as they toured the country to defend their union you could see how they developed an entirely different worldview. Most “road warriors” were able unapologetically to tell people at gatherings, “We moved from Republicans to anticorporate activists” trashing the Democrats. Some even mentioned the s word—socialism.
It should be noted that the global justice links are mainly with extremely sophisticated left anarchists, those greatly influenced by Zapatismo.
Fair food: Straddling the global justice and human rights perspectives is what the CIW called “fair food.” It is a clever sound bite to raise awareness around how food is grown and how it works its way up the chain from farm to table, including some discussion about the equally appalling conditions of fast-food workers. This allowed the CIW to make links with organic farmers, fair trade groups, coffee growers, environmentalists, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). It’s a notion that appealed to Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, an early and ardent Taco Bell boycott supporter.
The human rights perspective: The faith-based community played a major role in winning the boycott. The deeply spiritual nature of the farm workers themselves, and the CIW’s role in aggressively exposing the deplorable conditions of the work and home life of tomato pickers, made faith-based groups a powerful ally. Like the other elements of the campaign, it too was multi-layered. Four years of cross-country tours would not have been possible without the logistical support of the churches that fed and housed workers and their allies in every city.
Churches led the charge at stockholder meetings. In 2004, they got an astonishing 36 percent vote on their shareholder resolution for the cause of human rights in the fields. This is a major achievement for folks with very few shares. It was reported that Yum! Brands CEO Jonathan Blum, a deeply religious fundamentalist, was spooked by the stockholders’ showing and, especially in the last two to three weeks of the campaign, by all the local church activity in the Louisville area, home of Yum! Although the students’ activity shines to the outside world, in this particular case I think it was the church that was the secret weapon.
The human rights framework enabled them to draw connections and make close links with a longtime South Florida ally, the Miami Workers Center and their project, Low Income Families Fighting Together (LIFFT), the Mississippi Workers Center, and the Southern Human Rights Organizing Committee, as well as other poverty-based organizations centered around human rights issues—notably the powerful Kensington Welfare Rights Union and lesser known anti-poverty organizations in Maine (the Portland Organization to Win Economic Rights) and Washington D.C. (Friends and Residents). The CIW is also developing ties to the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil (marked by an exchange of flags at the victory party).
But the CIW and its allies are not resting for long. The day-long conference of farm workers and allies on the eve of the victory celebration, entitled, “Our World, Our Rights: Conference on Global Justice” devoted much of its time to summarizing their experiences and choosing their next steps. All agreed, this is the starting line and the fast-food industry is hereby on notice. Specifically, the CIW membership has voted to spread the agreement with Taco Bell laterally to growers whose tomatoes eventually end up at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway. Initial steps are already underway.
Lessons from the CIW Experience
1. What Does the CIW Model mean for the trade union movement?
The secondary boycott: The CIW ran a secondary boycott against Taco Bell (secondary boycott means withholding business, or striking, against someone who is not your direct employer). Secondary boycotts historically have been the most successful tool ever used by the labor movement. This, and not the strike, was the principle weapon of the Knights of Labor. Thus, as soon as employers had the power, they outlawed the secondary boycott in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and confirmed it in Landrum-Griffin in 1959. As we know, Taft-Hartley, and the Wagner Act of 1935 which it amended, apply only to labor unions. The CIW is not a labor union. Had the CIW merged with the UFW or FLOC, the boycott would have been illegal.
I would argue that not being a union was critically important in winning broad support for this boycott. The CIW could successful cast itself as made up of poor, immigrant workers struggling for a just future, without the complicating issues of being associated with “special interests” or “big labor.”
I do not think that the deep and broad support among faith-based organizations would have developed if CIW had been a union. This is fairly significant since I have identified the faith-based organizations as the secret weapon in winning the boycott. The SEIU’s Justice for Janitors (JfJ) never drew quite the depth of support from faith-based organizations as did the CIW, although both had the same base populations. But then again that could be because the SEIU does not participate in united front activities allowing much autonomy for its allies. Also, I think the CIW’s boomerang strategy had a much broader perspective than did the JfJ. The CIW did not impose the same limits as JfJ did on what their allies could do.
Furthermore, I am convinced that even if the same forces had been allied with the CIW in the boycott, Yum! Brands would never have made this, or any deal, with a union. Put another way, only a worker center could have pulled off this boycott and created space for organizing inside a major piece of the new capitalist economy. It is absolutely clear that Yum! thinks that this agreement covering a small group of farm workers in Immokalee has contained the call for workers’ rights and worker organizing in the fast-food nation. The clear challenge is to prove them wrong. Like Wal-Mart, Yum! seems to believe that any crack on the union front is too big to allow. Wal-Mart has proved it would rather shut down a profitable operation than negotiate. And so has the predecessor of Yum! We found this out in the early 1970s in Boston when we formed an independent restaurant workers’ union (after being rejected by HERE) at one restaurant of a KFC subsidiary, Pewter Pot. After winning the NLRB election, KFC was forced to meet with the Independent Restaurant Workers Union. Louisville lawyers from KFC met just six or seven times before choosing to shut down all Pewter Pots in New England rather than bargain.
Niche economics and the union hiring hall: Although anti-imperialist and anticapitalist, the CIW’s alternative economic order, at least as the CIW currently practices it, is an example of “niche economics.” The CIW links staff pay to field wages and requires that all elected staff spend some time working in the fields. To accomplish this the CIW staff have created a co-op. Each year from May to early September they become a crew that hires itself out to various subcontractors and farmers for the watermelon season, moving from Florida all the way to Ohio. The crew is an internal model of equity and cooperation. One CIW staffer, a first generation Immokalee resident, took this experience with him to the carpenters’ union. His goal was to create a similar system of crews that would bid out to contractors for work. The carpenter representative, a woman whom he liked, was not receptive, telling this man that her strategy was to get workers to join the union and come to the hiring hall—that being the formation to negotiate with contractors and thereby institute some standards (and if done right, fairness of sharing the work).
One possible outcome of the monitoring system of the agreement with Yum! Brands could be that the CIW might organize its own crews—if current subcontractors don’t or won’t meet negotiated guidelines. Is it splitting hairs then to amplify the differences with the hiring hall model? Was my friend being dogmatic with his small crew approach which would minimize the greater collectivity of the union process?
Autonomous united fronts and Jobs with Justice: The union movement has a much-deserved reputation for building coalitions and united fronts in which they are the leaders and controllers. That was one of the many reasons for the creation, and subsequent take-off of JwJ. Like JwJ, the CIW approach to coalition building is much more a two-way street with power sharing. Not only do both recognize their allies’ autonomy, but each tries to unite the most forces possible around a particular problem or campaign. I would give the media edge to CIW. JwJ runs multiple united fronts and multiple campaigns simultaneously, which may account for the fact that their media strategy is less developed than CIW, which is fairly single-minded. Also, the CIW controls its own media and leads its allies in that regard. In contrast, JwJ is a united front that must consult with its member groups before doing any media of its own.
Another lesson we can take from both organizations is the importance of reviewing and evaluating their experiences together with their allies. This should be as important a part of every campaign as program creation and leadership development.
Conclusion: Non-union working-class organizations dealing with worker issues have a central place in the labor movement. Generally smaller in size than many union locals, workers’ centers have the flexibility to experiment with different methods of engaging workers and training leaders. Furthermore, given the right’s success in creating an anti-union climate (by popularizing the view that unions are obsolete), centers can appeal to broad sections of the working class that unions may have a difficult time reaching. Anti-union laws and recent decisions by courts and the National Labor Relations Board have narrowed how unions can fight and what they can win. If we add to this the frustrating discussion currently going on in the trade union movement about its future, workers’ centers seem to hold great promise. But we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. If our movement were to rely exclusively on workers’ centers to organize the working class for fundamental social change, we would find that there aren’t enough centuries to build at this pace. Nonetheless, workers’ centers are an essential basis for struggle.
2. The Workers’ Center Model
Although the fact that the CIW was not a union or part of a union allowed the CIW to make significant gains, the workers’ center model has some clear downsides.
The funding quicksand: Two issues have emerged as problematic for many workers’ centers: staff substituting themselves for the base and reliance on funders who may be liberal but not anticapitalist. Although it is easy to view the CIW staff as a small group of white, educated, leftist/middle-class intelligentsia who really call the shots, from my experience that is not the principal aspect of what is going on.
But, like virtually all workers’ centers, the CIW is not self-financed. The one exception is the Black Workers for Justice, which is having its own ups and downs. How much the self-financing plays into this needs to be examined. The CIW and all workers’ centers should be concerned that their funding stream is at the mercy of funders who are not likely to support campaigns with revolutionary potential. Ironically, funding questions could loom large since the victory. Even though the CIW knows this victory is just a gnat on an elephant, fickle funders may indeed say, “You’ve won, you’re on your own.”
If this proves to be the case, how will the CIW respond? Unions, unlike workers’ centers, are self-financing. Some sort of formal relationship with a union, probably the UFW, might provide resources while preserving the CIW’s independence and the goodwill that the CIW’s nonunion approach has created in an anti-union world. Given the lack of a social-justice/class-struggle vision coming from the major forces inside the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win challengers, or a coherent left alternative, forces like the CIW can play an important role in pushing unions toward the left, and that could mean a world of hurt for capitalism.
Leadership development: As Bill Fletcher has so aptly put it, most unions give out information to members; they do not engage in member education. To repeat, the CIW is absolutely masterful at leadership development, creatively using popular education. Their bench is respectably deep. These workers have a sense of identity as workers, understand the structure and nature of the fast-food industry and their place in it, and understand and can articulate a world view. That worldview is shaped by Zapatismo, rather than socialism. At the Fayetteville antiwar rally, G (not the usual first-string speaker) was able to connect the dots between immigration, war, and globalization. The formula, consciousness+commitment=change, is fabulous—simple, direct, true.
Balancing Service and Organizing: I think the CIW has figured out how to balance service and organizing. Like the Korean Immigrant Workers Association (KIWA), it puts a premium on solving issues that have implications broader than a single person, even though it does help individuals with arrests, unpaid wages, immigration issues, and the like. All these actions have the potential to involve others. The famous slavery cases that the CIW helped get the feds involved in started with individuals who called the CIW. The co-op store brings people into the CIW, and some stick around. That is the way that women and children interact with the CIW. This gives me hope that some women-space activity could work.
The next hurdle, obviously, is how the CIW will internally deal with el acuerdo. What structures will they set up to monitor and check the penny pass-through? I don’t think anyone, myself included, believes it is enough just to accept the payroll statements from the suppliers. Something like a steward system in the fields will be a must. And for any such stewards, opportunities for organizing should get a high priority.
3. Patriarchy and Local Power
Patriarchy is the new frontier that the CIW must integrate into its analysis and program: The CIW is an indigenous young men’s organization—making cohesion easier with shared cultures, worldviews, and life experience. The downside is clearly that it’s a young men’s organization. How issues of gender impact issues of race and class in the day-to-day lives of workers is not a central theme in the CIW’s work, nor is patriarchy particularly embedded into the analysis of the CIW. That is not to say that nothing is being done. On the most recent tour a worker was sent home for inappropriate behavior. There have been educational programs but as far as I can see significant progress on dealing with machismo and the intersecting oppressions of race, class, and gender cannot be made until there is a group of indigenous women inside the CIW willing to take this on.
By working together with Root Cause, the grassroots people of color organization to fight the Free Trade Area of the Americas meetings in Miami in 2004, the CIW has drawn close to two other Miami grassroots organizations, the Miami Workers Center and Power U. Both of these organizations have black women in leadership. But to build relationships with a workers’ center in which Latina women are in leadership could be very powerful, especially for the few Latina women around the CIW. Adding this dimension to the organization (or any other organization for that matter!) will add to the CIW.
Moving laterally and vertically up the fast-food chain: How will this be done? A clue came from an incident three years ago. At that time a group of ten women from a packinghouse in the next town came to the CIW office. They had just walked off the job and were seeking help in negotiating with their boss. While the CIW staff was gracious and welcoming there was no follow-up at that time.
What stands out in this story is that the next level up the chain from farm to table is the packinghouse. The packinghouse workers, compared to those in the fields, are generally longer-term immigrants and most of them are women. Over the years, the CIW has made some attempts to organize these workers. They worked with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) at passing out cards. Not surprisingly, nothing developed. For a host of reasons, organizing this level will take the same type of commitment (with at least a five-year timeline) and strategy that was needed in the fields. This is true of most private employment workplaces in the United States, no matter the service or product. The CIW has already committed to moving laterally to bring other fast-food giants into el acuerdo. By moving vertically, starting with packinghouses in the Taco Bell chain, CIW can accomplish a number of things all at once—bringing women workers into the organization, building a base among longer-term immigrants, and continuing to squeeze Taco Bell.
Building local power and self-determination: There is no doubt that the CIW has created a unique space for workers to take on capitalism. I believe it is well-positioned to consolidate those gains in the town of Immokalee and potentially many of the area’s farm towns, all filled with immigrant workers. When the CIW started organizing nearly a decade ago all their work was concentrated at the local level. Although they won some significant gains—wage increases to bring piece rates back up to 1970s levels and better housing for workers just to name two—they were unable to move beyond this. Hence the decision to take the fight to the national arena with the boycott. With the national victory under their belt, there is reason to believe local efforts will pay off this time. They are, in fact, putting the pieces in place to do this, with the year-old low-power radio station and a soon to be opened community center. Consolidating power at the local level would have broad implications on a number of levels, not the least of which is a vastly improved life for farm workers and their families in Immokalee. Building a living example of what an anticapitalist society could look like, with people-run institutions and co-operatives of all kinds, especially in the bowels of the plantation culture South, would be a beacon for all of us. But as my friends at CIW have reminded me, it is not an either/or thing, it is figuring out the balance between national and local efforts.
You can learn more about the CIW and their current campaigns at www.ciw-online.org.