Thirty-year-old Romeo Ramirez has worked on Florida farms for his "whole life," he says. And despite the conditions he's seen -- stagnant wages, no benefits, and even migrant farm workers forced to work against their will -- he still seems to see the state he lives in as a vast community, where neighbors should be pitching in to help neighbors.
Ramirez is a staff member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, founded in 1993 to organize on behalf of low-wage workers of mostly Latino, Indian, and Haitian descent. The coalition has spent much of the past decade successfully persuading major produce purchasers like Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, and Whole Foods to pay an extra penny a pound for the millions of tomatoes they buy -- a tiny price hike that can make huge differences to the wages of farm workers.
But Lakeland-based Publix, the coalition says, has been a stubborn holdout, refusing to communicate on any level with CIW.
This weekend, CIW will begin its first major demonstration against the Florida grocery chain.
Ramirez doesn't speak English, but the Juice spoke to him by phone yesterday with the help of a translator. Beginning tomorrow, Ramirez says, hundreds of Florida farm workers and their supporters will begin a 15-mile march from Tampa to Plant City, and from there, the next day, on to Publix's headquarters in Lakeland. On Saturday, with local religious groups, CIW will hold a candlelight vigil, hoping to persuade Publix to come to the negotiating table.
"Conditions in the fields have been the same for years," Ramirez says. Tomato pickers earn 45 cents for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. He's worked for many companies in Florida over the years, including Six L's, a large tomato producer that has been under CIW's microscope for inhumane treatment of workers, including slavery.
Publix announced this month that it has finally severed its contracts with Six L's and Pacific Tomato Growers, both of which have been associated with hiring enslaved workers through subcontractors. Statements released by Publix indicate that the corporation believes it has done enough. But CIW will continue to push the chain to pay more for its tomatoes and to work with CIW on a code of conduct for suppliers that would protect farm workers from abuse.
CIW staffer Julia Perkins told the Juice that the extra penny could either be absorbed by the company or passed on to consumers, whom she believes would be willing to pay a penny more to help ensure a living wage for tomato pickers. She notes that winter freezes increased tomato prices this season by up to 50 cents a pound and that shoppers didn't stop buying them. A one-penny hike, she says, would cost Publix less than they pay for a single ad campaign.
As for this weekend's march: "One of the things we expect to accomplish," Ramirez says, "is to let consumers know that they have a neighbor here in the state which has decided not to help improve conditions for their neighbors."
In other words, we're all in this together.