Eleanor J. Bader: Tell me a little about yourself. Have you always been a farm worker?
Lupe Gonzalo: I came to the U.S. from Guatemala 17 years ago, when I was 20. I began working in the fields as a little girl, picking coffee, but coffee is very different from tomatoes. Still, many of us who’ve ended up in Immokalee, Florida, connect to farm work because it reminds us of where we come from. It feels familiar to us to put seeds in the ground, plant, and harvest foods.
I worked in Immokalee’s tomato fields for 12 years before joining the staff of the CIW.
EJB: Is the work in Florida’s tomato fields seasonal, or year-round?
LG: Picking tomatoes is seasonal and goes from Fall to Spring. The work starts up in October when we prepare the ground; the harvesting typically begins in November and ends in May. We then spend the month of June cleaning up the fields. During July, August, and September many farmworkers travel to Georgia, New Jersey, New York, Ohio or South Carolina to pick apples, blueberries, sweet potatoes, or tobacco.
EJB: Do both men and women do this work?
LG: Yes, but the farmworkers are approximately 80 percent male and 20 percent female.
EJB: Are sexual harassment and sexual assault problems in the fields?
LG: When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers began to organize in the early 1990s, there was a lot of violence in the fields. Sexual assault was frequent, but most of the women didn’t feel like they could report abuse from crew leaders, supervisors or co-workers. They were afraid of losing their jobs, and there was no official avenue to report their mistreatment. The workers also worried that they wouldn’t be able to find other jobs, so despite the abuse and the low wages, they did not do anything about what they were experiencing. But it was terrible. The women were constantly told that they were stupid, that they should go home and make tortillas and do traditional women’s work rather than farm labor. The crew leaders would often throw our buckets back at us, sometimes hitting us in the head or shoulder. We’d get bruised but still had to keep working.
Finally, in the early 1990s, farmworkers had had enough and began to organize.
It’s important to stress that we still get paid by the piece; our salaries are determined by the number of buckets we fill. Each bucket weighs 32 pounds and in order to make the minimum wage we need to pick more than 150 buckets a day; this work is done in the hot sun, no matter the weather. And it was not just the physical heaviness of the buckets. Until we won some basic protections, workers also faced the heaviness of being verbally harangued all day, every day. That’s why we formed the CIW.
EJB: Over the past 25 years, the CIW has won some important protections for farmworkers. Can you describe these protections and explain how these victories were won?
LG: When CIW first formed, the workers tried to get a dialogue going with the farm owners. The workers initially thought that if they could just sit down and talk about the mistreatment, the conditions would change. There was so little contact between the growers and the workers that the workers imagined that the owners simply did not know about the abuse and would fix things once they were informed.
While the workers were pushing for dialogue, the media started to pay attention to the issues that the farmworkers were raising. One reporter, writing for a local Florida publication, contacted a grower who had refused to meet with his workers. The grower told this journalist something that stunned us: ”A tractor does not tell a farmer how to run his farm.” This statement showed us that he did not care about his workers; to him, we were just machines. He did not see us as human beings with a right to fair treatment, respect, and dignity.
This realization provoked a change in strategy and the CIW started to think about who holds power in the fields. Members determined that the large corporate firms that purchase huge quantities of tomatoes shape the industry and they decided to pressure these entities. The first target was Taco Bell. This was in 2001.
EJB: What did the CIW demand?
LG: The CIW wanted to be paid an additional penny a pound for picking tomatoes and we wanted clean drinking water in the fields. We also demanded zero tolerance for sexual harassment, forced labor, and sexual assault. It was incredible for us, as farmworkers, to take matters into our own hands and demand our human rights.
We did two things at once: Even though we focused on Taco Bell, we knew that we had to educate consumers about the realities we faced in the fields. Most people go into a supermarket and buy whatever they see on the shelf, or go into a restaurant and place an order; they don’t think about where the food actually comes from. We spoke to everyone we could, including lots of high school and college students, about what our lives were like. Thousands of consumers mobilized and pressured Taco Bell.
Finally, in 2005, after four years, the fast food giant agreed to our demands. We were, of course, pleased, but we knew it was not enough to have one company on board so we started to pressure other fast food businesses. As of today, 14 companies—in addition to 90 percent of Florida’s tomato growers—have entered into CIW’s Fair Food Program, including Aramark, Burger King, McDonald’s, Stop & Shop, Subway, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Whole Foods. These are legally binding partnerships that do not expire with changes in political leadership. More importantly, compliance is monitored by an independent entity.
EJB: How does it work if, for example, a woman is being sexually harassed by a crew leader?
LG: If a woman is being harassed, hears a vulgar comment, or is touched inappropriately, we’ve created a series of mechanisms so, first, the problem can be reported. There are consequences for the offender. Depending on what happened, the penalties can range from a temporary suspension to immediate dismissal from the job. We’ve also created something called the Fair Food Standards Council that investigates all complaints. If someone is found to have committed an infraction, the Council will require him to attend a training in which sexual misconduct is explained. He is told that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and physical contact, even less. An offender has three chances, but after three offenses, he is dismissed from the job.
This has happened many times. Women now have power. After years of power imbalances between women and men, there’s been a shift. Women can now speak up and report abuse without fear of reprisals. We’ve also shown that we’re unafraid to go the authorities in cases of sexual assault; we take advantage of the legal recourse that exists.
EJB: Who is on the Fair Food Standards Council, and how does it work?
LG: The Council monitors the farms to make sure that the Fair Food Program Code of Conduct is adhered to. Council staff train the dumpers, the people who dump the tomatoes into trucks, the supervisors, and the crew leaders. The Council also monitors the penny per pound bonus to ensure that the workers are getting this fee added to their paychecks.
The Council is headed by a former New York state Supreme Court Judge named Laura Safer Espinoza. She employs a team of human rights investigators who do audits, investigate complaints, and ensure compliance with all agreements.
The Council has educated 52,0000 agricultural workers in six states about the Code of Conduct. They use a curriculum CIW created with a group called Future Without Violence that draws a connection between what happens in the workplace and what happens at home. We want to eliminate violence at the root and explicitly connect all forms of gender-based violence.
EJB: The upcoming hunger strike targets Wendy’s, the only major fast food chain that has refused to adopt the Fair Food Program Code of Conduct. What led to the decision to come to New York to pressure Nelson Peltz, Wendy’s board chair?
LG: Wendy’s says that it has created its own code of conduct to protect workers, but the code has no enforcement mechanism and does not respect human rights. But that’s not the only thing that Wendy’s has done to hurt U.S. farmworkers. When we first started our campaign, Wendy’s was buying tomatoes from Florida growers. When we began pressuring them to join the Fair Food Program, they stopped purchasing from Florida and now buy tomatoes from growers in Mexico. Mexican farmworkers have few protections. Violence against women is nearly constant and child and forced labor are common. People who complain about working conditions have literally disappeared and have never been seen or heard from again. This is what Wendy’s is supporting.
The company can do the right thing and participate in the Fair Food Program and protect the rights of U.S. farmworkers, but so far, the company has refused to do this. We’ve tried everything. We’ve held protests in front of Wendy’s all over the country. We’ve gone to shareholders’ meetings and demanded to speak to company executives. We’ve launched a consumer boycott, but Wendy’s has ignored our demands. Peltz has refused to meet with us, so we decided to begin a five-day “Freedom Fast” outside his Manhattan office.
Over the past few months we’ve heard a lot about sexual harassment in Hollywood and in other industries. We’re now turning the spotlight on female farm laborers. Thousands of women are impacted by Peltz and we want to break the silence about abuse in the fields. We are speaking for women in Mexico who can’t speak out and laying the groundwork for our daughters so that they can work in the fields and be respected. We are creating a culture of prevention where women are not victims any longer, and where sexual assault and harassment are not tolerated in any workplace or community.
This is a difficult time. It’s a challenging moment, but we believe in the Fair Food Program and its potential. Already our example has inspired dairy workers in Vermont to establish a Milk with Dignity program. We believe that the Fair Food model can help people in every industry be agents of change and promote human rights, no matter where they came from originally and no matter their race or gender. At the end of the day, it’s about promoting justice.
This interview is Part I in a two-part series profiling women participating in the “Freedom Fast.” Part II features a “tomato rabbi.”
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.