Apartheid in America

inside an Immokalee house
JJ Tiziou Photography – please donate!

I’m back from a trip to visit the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, as part of a delegation of food justice activists. For a full report, do read the thoughts of the excellent Tom Philpott. To supplement his report, though, I thought I’d jot down a couple of impressions.

Although I’d never been there before, our guided tour around the town of Immokalee felt familiar. Immokalee means ‘my home’ in Seminole. And it was peoples’ homes that I’d seen before, in another country. The trailers where tomato-pickers sleep reminded me of South African townships, filled with densely packed low-income houses, built by the government to keep the supply of black labour close, but not too close, to the cities where their work was required.

Except that the conditions in Apartheid era township houses were better than in Immokalee.

In Immokalee, the housing stock is largely owned by one family, the Blockers, who rule over an archipelago of run down and unsanitary houses. The picture shows a house in which eight people sleep, each queuing up to use the bathroom every morning, and stove-top every night, in wretched poverty. For this, they pay around $40 a week. If they want an air conditioner, they pay $20 a week more. In one case, if they wanted a shower to wash a day’s worth of pesticides off, workers were charged $5 to hose down outside. Some workers find it cheaper and more effective to wash their hands in bleach.

It’s not only in the inhumane living conditions that similarities to Apartheid are to be found. Immokalee is in Collier County, in which the largest city is Naples. It’s a (second- or third-) home to Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Donald Trump, among others. Among those for whom it’s a primary home, average family income is over $100,000. The walls are high, the golf courses lush and well patrolled, the police assiduous in escorting the indigent out of sight. And on the other side of the county, is the source of some the largest profits in the state.

Florida produces 90% of the US winter tomato supply. Judging from the cars that the crew contractors drive and the houses they live in, it’s a lucrative business. It’s certain that their bosses in companies like Pacific Tomato, Six Ls, and Di Mare earn considerably more; it’s hard to tell quite how much more because the tomato corporations aren’t publicly listed. (This is why the CIW has targeted not the Florida growers, but companies like McDonald’s and Taco Bell which buy the tomatoes from the growers, and which are more concerned with their reputation.)

What we do know is that the work for the tomato pickers is irregular, dependent on the weather, and merciless. A talented picker, one fortunate enough to be in a field that hasn’t yet been picked (they’re picked up to four times, and on the fourth sweep, there’s pitifully little left on the vine) can fill 150 buckets a day. They have to lift 2.4 tons of tomatoes, sold in the stores for about $5000. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a wage of $60 for 12 hours’ work. That’s at a rate of 40 cents per 32lb bucket of green tomatoes. It’s a rate that hasn’t changed since 1978. Back then, you’d need to pick 8 buckets of tomatoes to get the minimum wage. Now you’d need to pick 17 buckets.

Workers have a tough time of it beyond the living conditions and abysmal wages. A few, too many, are modern-day slaves. Over 1000 people have been freed from slavery by Florida law enforcement officers since 1997, and prosecuted under the same laws that were written in the wake of Abolition. In the most recent case, twelve slaves escaped from the back of a lock-up truck where they’d been held captive. The Governor’s press officer said “”Of course, I say any instance is too many, and any legitimate grower certainly does not engage in that activity (slavery), but you’re talking about maybe a case a year.” More on the legitimate growers in a moment.

But to return to the Apartheid connection for a moment, there’s yet another similarity. Whites living under Apartheid practiced a special sort of self-deception, a belief that there were two worlds, separated for the benefit of all, hermetically sealed from one another. To this end, the high walls served a psychological purpose no less than layers of deniability and ignorance fostered by remove. Yet, when it suited those in power, the two worlds could be conjoined, parasitically. In South Africa, that bridge was the use of black labour to generate wealth, providing industrial, agricultural and domestic labour. A similar story might be told in Florida.

Most of the time, not a thought is paid by the tomato growers to the treatment of their workers, kept hidden from sight and mind, the step-children in the basement. But, from time to time, we all live together in one big sharing happy family. Over Christmas, while Congress was in recess, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, comprised of companies that have routinely bought produce from slave labour (one writer suggests that it’s a certainty that any given US winter tomato is produced with slave labour), approached the government for a $100 million bailout. This, apparently, was in the public interest.

It’s only through the actions of Senator Bernie Sanders thatthe bailout was blocked because, as Katrina vanden Heuvel reports Sanders’ press secretary saying, “the Senator had a problem with a government bailout for folks who wink at slavery and can’t figure out a way to let other people pay their pickers a penny a pound more for their back-breaking labor.”

So how did Sanders come to take such an aggressive position? It’s because the CIW campaigned hard in order to get their plight noticed. From its inception in 1993, the Coalition has grown into a powerful voice for workers, with major victories including a deal with Taco Bell and McDonald’s. In 2003, they won the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights award. Since I’ve recently been involved in work on human rights and have my reservations about them as a vehicle for social change, I asked Lucas Benitez, one of the members of the Coalition, why the CIW used the idea of rights, especially when the idea of rights in the US is limited to claims about civil rights, like the right to free speech.

“Rights are not new to us. We didn’t get off the boat and find ourselves in the land of rights. We come from countries like Mexico, Haiti and Guatemala, where we have been using this language of rights many years in our own struggles. And here in America, we are not asking for anything that isn’t already a right. When there are cases of modern-day slavery here, the people who are rounded up aren’t just those without papers. A 2001 slavery case, for instance, involved African Americans who had been recruited from homeless shelters and rehab centers to work in the tomato fields, but then been sold cocaine and crack from a ‘company store’ that kept them always in debt. They were US citizens.

“What we’re asking for is the right to a fair wage, for just pay for work done, for the right not to be robbed, for the right to organise, which has always been denied to farmworkers. Aren’t these civil rights? Sadly, the US public thinks rights are respected here, which is why they don’t know how to ask for them.”

It’s all well and good to demand rights, I said, but how did they expect to get them when the government was so tilted against them? Straight away, Lucas shot back with a quotation from abolitionist and once-slave Frederick Douglass: “’Power concedes nothing without demand’. We have been excluded from organising, but these are our rights, so we have to fight. We’re not asking for a CEO’s pay – we’re just asking for our dignity.”

Then I asked about conflict, and whether this was the best way to get something done – surely rights are a cooperative approach to fixing a problem, and since the CIW is a non-violent organisation, conflict isn’t appropriate.

“Conflict is everywhere. In a marriage, there’s always conflict. Conflict isn’t bad – it’s natural. We’re taking on those people with power. But you’ve got to look for routes to the rights you want. That’s what we’re doing today. We use direct action, dialogue and imagination in our conflict with corporations, to get our rights.”

They don’t use violence, not. Just conflict.Give an example, I asked, of a tactic you’re finding successful. Lucas thought about it for a moment, and said
“we’re working on codes of conduct for the food industry. What we did was take a bunch of different codes, and adapted them to Immokalee. We discussed the codes, talked about monitoring agencies and standards. From documents that had nothing to do with Immokalee, we made our own. And that’s important. We’re not children, we are people, we are workers. We know how to think, and how to see about our own development. We don’t need some professor to do it for us.”

“We started off with someone raising their hand in a meeting saying ‘why don’t we do a boycott?’ So we discussed who to boycott, and someone else said because no-one knew who Pacific or Six Els were, we should take on Taco Bell. So for four years, we campaigned around that. It was a bit crazy for 10 people to take on such a big campaign. I remember I was at a Labor Notes meeting talking about the boycott, and a Teamster came up to me and told me ‘you’re nuts’. And we got our first agreement, with Taco Bell, we felt like the first man on the moon. We didn’t think it would have been possible just four years before. And for us, it was one small step for a man, but one giant leap for mankind. We opened the door so that others could follow.”

The tomato industry has its own voluntary code – S.A.F.E – Socially Responsible Farm Employers. Many of the firms that bought their tomatoes from slave-labour gangs were, and continue to be, certified as SAFE. The code urges compliance with all existing laws. Among those laws are ones that deny farm workers the right to organize, and the right to overtime pay. According to Benitez, the SAFE code was written far from the eyes of farmworkers, “by people who never worked in a field, by coyotes in suits. We’re clear that for a code to be legitimate, we have to participate in it.”

The tomato growers in Immokalee know the tradition they’re in. “I once heard a grower say that it began with African slaves, then they were free but were turned into sharecroppers, and now we’ve got Mexicans”. We’re just as disposable as slaves in the past. But that’s why one of our slogans is this: “Yo No Soy Tractor”. I’m not a tractor. And in the struggle against these companies, our biggest weapon was our reality.”

They’ve got their eyes on the bigger picture too. “If we had the resources, we wouldn’t fight only about tomatoes. But it’s the largest crop here, and we’re stretched thin, so that’s what we focus on. We’re creating a precedent, but we hope that workers in other industries can benefit – Smithfield [meatpacking] workers for instance, or people who pick lettuce.”

It was an inspirational time, and it is clearly in everyone’s interest that the kind of apartheid that characterises American agriculture (more than other industries) come to an end. The tides of history turned against Apartheid. They will turn against the injustice in the fields. The question isn’t whether it will happen. It’s ‘what comes next?’ In South Africa, the post-Apartheid government has presided over a decline in welfare, an increase in crime and violence against women, and a resurgence of xenophobic politics. The CIW is offering a very different avenue out of the politics of the plantation. It’s something we can all learn from.