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Peons v fast food… peons win round one!

27 August 2007

With all due respect to Lucas Benítez, the most amazing — and troubling — part of this story is that peonage is still fairly common in the U.S., and taken as a given. 

Arturo Cano, the U.S. reporter for Jornada, interviewd Benitez in last Friday’s Jornada

Two days after graduating from Junior High School, Lucas Benitez left his homehown and headed for the Rio Bravo.  He knew no one.  Fourteen years later, he directs an organization of tomato pickers which has won victories over the giants of fast food, like Taco Bell and McDonalds.

“We’ve set a precedent:  never before has a large corporation given money directly to the to the workers at the bottom.  Now, we’re going for Burger King,” says the Coalition of Immokalee Workers director. 

When he arrived in Immokalee, in the heart of south Florida’s agricultural zone, Lucas was floored: “It was a city without law.  The bosses carried pistols in their belts, would make like they were shooting you with their fingers and lie on their mother’s grave.  The people took the low salaries and mistreatment as normal. 

Well, I’d come to this country for a better life, and ran into this… I know, I know.  Why wasn’t there a strike?”

 A first meeting, at a local parish house in 1993 only attracting four workers.  The organization faced a problem.  Most of the Immokalee workers were temporary.  They picked tomatos in Florida before moving on to tobacco in North Carolina and apples in New York. 

For the first two years, the coalition was off the radar.  But in 1994, one of the larger compaines decided to reduce salaries below the minimum wage, from 4.25 dollars per hour to 3.85, arguing that farm workers would equal or surpass the minimum based on the amount of tomatos they picked. 

“We could eat crow and keep working, or go out,” Lucas recalled.  “We walked out.”It was the coalition’s first strike. 

Three thousand workers walked off the harvest.  The company recalculated the wage structure, to proved between 4.50 and 4.75 an hour.  In the coalition’s offices today, there is a relic of what happened next:  a bloody shirt.  A Guatemalan laborer had asked permission to get a drink of water, and the boss said no.  When he disobeyed the boss, he was hit in the face.One hundred seventy workers surrounded the boss’ house, shouting “Hit one, and you hit all.” 

“That was the start of our first boycott, in 1996.  The next morning, like all days, the farmers showed up in their trucks to find workers.  No one got in.” 

In the closing days of 1997 and the start of 1998, six coalition members staged a hunger strike to demand the farmers sit down and negotiate.  “We thought that being so close to Christmas, we might reach the hearts of the farmers – but nada.” 

The local bishop, other religious leaders and ex-president James Carter gave support. 

“Out of repect for them, we ended the strike after 30 days, but it helped us raise the bar of our local action.”  This was followed by a 370 kilometer march, and various labor actions on the farms that would not accept contracts.  “Those that said they had no interest in guarding their image didn’t have one to protect anway,” Lucas said. 

While this was going on,  Benítez read an article in a specialty journal that was called to his attention.  Taco Bell announced that they had signed a contract with two of the largest growers in the area to sell tomatos at below market prices.  “We knew what price they were paying.”

The Immokalee workers (half Mexican, 30 per cent Guatemalan, 10 percent Haitian and the rest from other countries) then launched a boycott against Taco Bell.  Along the way, they obtained help form students, churches, film stars and politicans. 

At first, the company would not budge.  Taco Bell is part of Yum! Brands Inc, one of the 500 largest corporations in the world, according to Fortune magazine, with almost 900,000 employees in 100 countries.  Among other restaurant chains, it owns KFC, Long John Silver’s, All American Food and Pizza Hut. 

It took nearly four years for Taco Bell to feel the effects on its image as a “philanthropic” and “socially responsible” company.  “They agreed to pay an extra cent for each pound of tomatoes, and to pay that penny directly to the workers.” 

Two other achievements were by no means minor.  The company and CIW developed a “Code of Conduct” which in essense obligated Taco Bell to encourage farmers to repect labor rights for their workers.  Furthermore, the company promised to stop buying from those farmers who had committed “extreme violations” of these rights, such as forcing workers into involuntary servitude or slavery.  

Filling the baskets

Tomato plants are picked three or four time, Lucas explained.  “the first time there is a low yield, and filling a basket is dificult.  Other times go faster, and it takes five to eight minues to fill one.  During the last harvest, you can pick 20 to 30 baskets per day. 

After the agreement, the harvesters receive 45 cents for every 32 pound, which presently sell for 77 cents.  Now, every week Taco Bell sends the coalition a list of those workers who picked tomatos for their restaurants.  They receive one check from the farmer and another for the corporation, for amounts between 18 and 40 dollars. 

Following this triumph, the coalition directed its guns at another powerful mulinational.  The victory over McDonald’s only took half as long, two years.  This past April 9, the corporation accepted the same conditions as their competiors at Yum! Brands.  In retrospect, Lucas says, “six of the largest food chains in the world now work with us.” 

From wetback to prizewinner

Lucas Benítez is certain that if he had stayed in Mexico he would have ended up as a “impoverished campesino or a delinquent.”  In the United States, however, he has become a multi-prize winning personality.  

In 1998, CIW received a prize from the Episopal Conference of the United States for their work in eliminating poverty and injustice.  In 1999, they were awared a grant sponsored by Rolling Stone magazine. In 2003, together with two of his co-workers, Benítez was awarded a prize named for Robert Kennedy for their human rights work. 

On the latter occasion, in the U.S. Capitol, Lucas said, “It’s a strange thing:  life is like a dream.  Two days ago my compadres were protesting the Free Trade of the Americas in Florida, and we faced three thousand police.  Now, I’m in Washington receiving a prize.  Lucas and his co-workers were being recognized for their assistance in liberating more than a thousand agricultural workers kept by force in camps in Florida and South Carolina. 

These days, he is invited to dinner at the Kennedy mansion.  “I never had eaten a meal like that.  When Ethel said to start eating, I said to her ‘you first’ because I didn’t know where to start,” he said smiling.  This anecdote recalled another, about his first time in the United States.  He had gone to a town north of Immokalee (“our house” in the Seminole language).  He didn’t know a word of English, but was hungry.  Standing in line at the restaurant, he didn’t know how to ask for the food.  The peson ahead of him ordered several items, so he said “give me the same.”  For 15 days, the only thing I ate was  give me the same!'”

Guest Workers” = legal slavery  

Married to a Mexican from Chalco, Estado de Mexico, Lucas Benítez has only been back three times to his native Arcelia, Guerrero since he left at the age of 14.  His life, and his battle on el otro lado has kept him busy, and nearly all his family have moved near by since then. 

Based on his experience, and his long struggle for agricultural workers, he is conviced that a guest worker program is not a solution to immigration problems.  “It’s bracerismo – legalized slavery.  Employers can complain to Immigration, and have you black listed.  There’s no way to change jobs, or move somewhere where the pay and conditions are better. 

“There is talk of a treaty, but in practice, Mexico is selling cheap manual labor for the worst paid jobs in the United States, in agriculture.”  

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 August 2007 8:43 pm

    MexFiles, What a wonderful article. Lucas should be very proud of his amazing successes! I am a strong believer of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. I write about it in my blog.
    Come visit me if you can. It is nice to see a good news story about Immigration for a change!



  1. Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce… one cent more won’t upset us « The Mex Files

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