AMERICAN FARM WORKERS TO LAUNCH – ‘March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food’

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AMERICAN farmworkers are to launch a two-week, 200-mile ‘March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food’ calling on Publix supermarket to accept historic human rights advances in Florida tomato fields.

The march is to highlight farm labour reforms under way thanks to the Fair Food Programme, and Publix’s unconscionable decision to turn its back on social responsibility

On Sunday, March 3rd, hundreds of farmworkers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their consumer allies from across the state and country will gather at Jesus Obrero Catholic Church in Ft. Myers, Florida, to begin a two-week, 200-mile march to Publix corporate headquarters in Lakeland, Florida.

Marchers will be calling on the Florida-based grocery giant to honour the breakthrough social responsibility partnership for farm labour reform known as the Fair Food Programme (FFP).

The FFP brings together farmworkers, growers, consumers, and eleven multi-billion dollar retail food leaders (including Publix competitors Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) in support of fair wages and humane labour standards for tomato harvesters.

Despite the FFP’s unprecedented success in bringing about long-overdue labour reforms in Florida’s $500-million tomato industry, Publix, one of the largest purchasers of Florida tomatoes, refuses to support the programme and continues to buy tomatoes from the handful of Florida growers where workers are denied access to the FFP’s higher standards, complaint mechanism, and ‘penny-per-pound’ bonus.

‘After decades of what Edward R. Murrow called the “Harvest of Shame”, the Fair Food Programme is something all of us in the Florida tomato industry can all be proud of – labour rights advances that are setting the bar for social responsibility in the US produce industry today,’ said Gerardo Reyes of the CIW.

‘But while the changes we are seeing in farmworkers’ lives today are indeed unprecedented, there is still much to be done.

‘With each new corporation that joins, the wage increases and labour reforms grow and deepen, which is why Publix’s decision to turn its back on the FFP is so unconscionable.

‘Its support, which would cost Publix little or nothing, could significantly change the lives of some of the state’s hardest workers, yet the $28 billion company won’t even show farmworkers the respect of granting us a meeting to discuss the Fair Food Programme face-to-face.’

Marchers will begin in Ft. Myers and head north up the west coast of Florida along Highway 41, one of the state’s busiest commercial corridors, to Tampa, where they will then turn inland to complete the two-week, 200-mile trek to Publix’s corporate headquarters in Lakeland.

Along the way, they will talk with tens of thousands of consumers about the Fair Food Programme and Publix’s failure to meet the programme’s social responsibility standards.

‘We are going to take our case directly to the consumers through our presence in the streets, through nightly meetings with supporters in churches, schools, and community halls along the way, and through our voices in the media,’ added the CIW’s Oscar Otzoy.

‘We will not rest until Publix realises that the 21st century supermarket cannot afford to turn its back on human rights.’

March for Rights highlights:-

March 9, 7.00pm (Sarasota): In the evening, the Sarasota community and New College students will gather to greet marchers, highlighted by a popular education theatre piece.

March 17, 4.00pm (Lakeland): Joined by hundreds more allies from across the country and Florida, the culmination of the march will be at the Publix Headquarters, with a celebration of the 200-mile journey.

l The Fair Food movement began in February of 2000, when farmworkers from Immokalee – who until then had been largely locked in anonymous battle with Florida tomato growers within the boundaries of Immokalee – joined forces with students, people of faith, and everyday consumers to take their call for ‘Dignity, Dialogue, and a Fair Wage’ on the road.

With little more than a map to guide them, a field truck to carry their supplies, and a 12-ft tall replica of the Statue of Liberty made of fabric, plaster and duct tape to lead the way, they took off on a two-week long trek from Ft. Myers to the offices of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association in Orlando.

Among the marchers’ number were several workers whose testimony led to convictions in two seminal slavery prosecutions (US vs. Flores, US vs. Cuello); an 18-yr old Romeo Ramirez, 23-yr old Lucas Benitez, and 22-yr old Julia Gabriel who three years later would receive the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their leadership in the struggle for farmworker rights; and the core of young student activists who came together in the wake of those two unforgettable weeks to form the Student/Farmworker Alliance, now a key ally in the Fair Food movement.

The March for Dignity, Dialogue and a Fair Wage marked the first major excursion of Immokalee farmworkers outside the confines of southwest Florida and onto the cognitive map of the nation as a creative and courageous new force for social change.

And in the time since, the spark that began on that first march nearly thirteen years ago has ignited an entire movement.

The Campaign for Fair Food has resulted in eleven agreements with major food retailers.

The organisers say that Florida tomato growers have entered into an historic partnership with farmworkers – a far cry from their unwavering resistance of years past.

And the ongoing implementation of the Fair Food Programme has created a literal ‘New Day’ in Florida agriculture.

The CIW States: ‘We will march to celebrate the changes underway today in Florida’s tomato industry.

‘We will march so that Publix does, finally, support the Fair Food Programme.

‘We will march so that those growers who refuse to meet the new standards no longer get solace, and sales, from retailers like Publix who remain willing to purchase tomatoes produced the old way, “no questions asked”.

‘And we will march so that, one day, farmworkers across this country might enjoy the unprecedented new rights and working relationships being born today in the fields of Florida.

‘Join us, and help us win the participation of Florida’s wealthiest corporation in a programme that is changing the lives of Florida’s poorest workers, workers who harvest the food for Publix’s shelves and still bear unimaginable poverty for its profit.

‘It is time for Publix to “do the right thing”. Until they do, it is time for us, all of us, to march.

‘The march will have two goals. First, we will march to mark the progress we have made since the turn of the new millennium, progress culminating in the historic changes underway today thanks to the Fair Food Programme.

‘And second, we will march to underscore the hard work that remains to be done as supermarket industry leaders – chief among them Publix – continue to undermine that progress and deny their responsibility to do their part to end decades of farmworker poverty and degradation.

‘Thirteen years is a long time in the life of a movement, and as we prepare in the coming months for two weeks on the road, we begin by taking a quick look back at what has transpired in this remarkable period.

‘The spark that ignited SFA was the 230-mile March for Dignity, Dialogue and a Fair Wage from Ft. Myers to Orlando, Florida, led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in February 2000.

‘This march provided the opportunity for students from several Florida colleges to learn about and directly participate in the movement to end “sweatshops in the fields”.

‘But it was the March for Farmworker Justice from Quincy, Florida to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee in January 2001 that truly consolidated SFA into an organised network.

‘The march was sponsored by five Florida farmworker organisations with the goal of getting Governor Bush more directly involved in farmworker issues.

‘Over 30 students from across the state participated in the march, gathering over 1,500 signatures on a petition to deliver to the governor.

‘Since then, SFA has been at the forefront of a resurgent farmworker solidarity movement, organising around the CIW’s Taco Bell boycott extensively for four years beginning with a month of protests in February 2001.

‘During this month, members of the CIW and SFA went to five major Florida universities in five consecutive weekends to raise awareness about the relationship between fast-food giant Taco Bell and the brutal poverty faced by farmworkers, highlighting the role students can play in this struggle.

‘At each university, workers and students led well-received workshops followed by a protest at a nearby Taco Bell.’