"Si, se puede."
Yes, it is possible. These words were made famous by the farmworker
movement of the 1960's and 70's. Today is the birthday of the man who
helped lead that movement to victory-CÃ¯Â¿Â½sar Chavez. Born in 1927, Chavez
grew up witnessing injustices that many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans
face on a daily basis. After returning from a two-year tour with the
Navy at age 19, he realized that the racism he faced as a child
permeated all sectors of American society, and he began to study the
struggles of Gandhi and St. Francis.
1962, Chavez and Dolores Huerta formed the National Farm Workers
Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). Over the
next thirty years, UFW used nonviolent tactics-from consumer boycotts
to 300+ mile marches-to galvanize a historic movement for farmworker
justice, winning basic organizing rights and better wages. One of its
most significant gains was the termination of the Bracero program in
1964. Similar to Bush's current proposal for immigration "reform," the
World War II-era program allowed Mexican immigrants to work in the U.S.
for menial pay without the possibility of permanent residence or
many gains farm workers struggled for have been weakened or rolled back
entirely. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average farm
worker currently earns under $7500 per year. These miserable wages have
stagnated for decades, lagging sharply behind rising costs of living.
International trade agreements such as NAFTA and the WTO place
increasing pressure on growers to keep overhead costs low; paying farm
workers sub-poverty wages is one way to accomplish this.
Immokalee, Florida, the situation is dire. South Florida is the
nation's leading producer of fresh tomatoes. Pickers there earn 40-50
cents for every 32-pound bucket they fill. At this rate, a farm worker
must pick and haul nearly 2 tons of tomatoes to earn $50 in a day. Put
another way, farm workers must pick 320-pounds per hour to simply earn
federal minimum wage. Florida pickers have received the same piece rate
since 1978, although it's worth 65% less today. Predictably, they do
not receive overtime pay or benefits such as healthcare.
it gets worse. Eric Schlosser, best-selling author of Fast Food Nation,
recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "In the fields near
ImmokaleeÃ¯Â¿Â½a new form of indentured servitude flourishes. Illegal
immigrants have been forced to work for below minimum wage to pay off
their debts to people-smugglers and labor contractors. Since the
mid-1990s the Justice Department has successfully prosecuted five cases
of slavery in the region." In fact, an anonymous Justice Department
official called south Florida "ground zero" for modern-day American
prosecutions would not have been possible without the Coalition of
Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farm worker organization of mostly Mexican,
Guatemalan and Haitian immigrants. The CIW formed in 1995 by organizing
a general strike to defeat proposed wage cuts. Since its initial
success, the CIW has garnered a broad range of support and the 2003 RFK
Human Rights Award. Their work has been featured in major publications
from The New Yorker to a 2003 cover story in National Geographic on
21st century slavery. In their ongoing fight for dignity and living
wages, CIW is now targeting Taco Bell.
Bell is a major purchaser of Florida tomatoes. Their enormous
purchasing power gives them a unique opportunity to intervene on behalf
of farm workers who subsidize corporate profits with sweatshop
tomatoes. CIW is asking the fast-food giant to pay one more penny per
pound for its tomatoes. This meager increase would nearly double farm
workers' wages while costing consumers only a fraction of a penny. For
three years, Taco Bell has refused to budge, myopically insisting that
slavery and abuse is not their problem. Taco Bell refuses to negotiate
with CIW and cannot guarantee that it does not use forced labor in its
tomato supply chain. That's why, in the spirit of Chavez, CIW is
spearheading a national boycott against Taco Bell.
let us commemorate the life and struggles of Cesar Chavez and many
others who have tirelessly fought against this inhumane institution.
Just as consumers refused to purchase grapes twenty-five years ago in
support of striking farmworkers, we must bring accountability to Taco
Bell. Corporations such as Taco Bell must recognize the vital role they
play in bringing justice to the fields of America. For more information
about the Taco Bell boycott and to send an e-mail expressing your
dismay for the abhorrent working conditions in Florida, visit www.ciw-online.org.
Cunningham received a B.A. in Latin American Studies at UT-Austin; Mr.
Sellers will receive a B.S. in Communication Studies. They are members
of the Austin Solidarity Project, a community organization dedicated to
supporting the Taco Bell boycott. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 184 Labor