Thursday, December 30, 2010

Presentation by the Student Farmworker Alliance and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

In the news over the past few years, you may have heard phrases like "Boot the Bell" and "One Penny More" amongst stories of abused farmworkers and debt slavery on American soil. These phrases and the public knowledge of farmworkers rights' abuses are the responsibility of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Student Farmworker Alliance (SFA). And on December 9th, these groups paid a visit to Tufts' Fletcher School.

Meghan Cohorst of SFA and Cruz Salucio of CIW came to Boston and spoke at dozens of events for over a week while they were in the area. The Friedman School's Slow Food Tufts and the Fletcher School's Human Rights Project, Migration Club, and PRAXIS journal worked jointly to coordinate and sponsor the event, including providing catering from Central Square's Harvest Co-op.

The Crowe Room was quickly filled with over 20 undergraduate and graduate Tufts students, who listened eagerly to the discussion lead by Meghan and Cruz. Their discourse made for a fascinating scene, as Meghan largely spent her effort translating for the audience as Cruz, a former teacher and farmer who emigrated from Guatemala, spoke comfortably in Spanish. They began by describing who they were and why they were going around the country. The CIW and SFA are working jointly to speak up for farmworkers in Immokalee and elsewhere in Florida as well as around the United States who are abused by their employers, most often in the pocket but also physically and psychologically. Often these workers are held in a form of slavery wherein they receive below minimum wage pay and are hit with exorbitant "fees" for basic employer services and are not allowed to leave their work for any reason including family, healthy or financial issues through fear of violence. In these situations, their status as undocumented workers leaves them with no legal recourse and little hope of escaping the oppressive cycle of debt slavery.

After their introduction, Meghan and Cruz showed a film, a news report made several years ago that documented their efforts to better the lives of farmworkers. The workers in Immokalee, Florida typically harvest tomatoes and citrus fruit. They are paid by the bucketful; therefore, the faster they can harvest, the more money they make. However, even the fastest worker is rarely able to make anything close to a living wage because the pay received per bucket is simply too low. The film captured the effort by CIW to increase the pay of these workers by going straight to the top. Much of the tomatoes harvested in Immokalee goes to fast food restaurant chains, so the CIW took their protest to YUM! brands, namely, Taco Bell. Through their "Boot the Bell" campaign, the CIW worked for years through letter-writing, boycotts, marches, and hunger strikes to increase the pay that workers receive per bucket by one penny. After nearly a decade of effort, the film captured the triumph of the CIW to secure the pay raise.

Cruz Salucio (L) and Meghan Cohorst take questions from the audience.

After the film, Cruz and Meghan took questions from the event attendees, who conversed with the presenters in both English and Spanish. Meghan and Cruz discussed their upcoming campaign to take on other players in the food system supply chain, including several grocery store chains, and their continued efforts to pull back the veil that hides the abuse and debt slavery of farmworkers in the United States. The event served to explain the history and rationale for these major campaigns, and also to bring these efforts to new people and regions, who can both learn from them as well as get involved in the struggle.

David Sussman of the Human Rights Project signs up to get involved with the SFA and CIW.

Thank you to Meghan Cohorst and Cruz Salucio, as well as Beth Tuckey, Elise Garvey, Elizabeth Burgess, Rebecca Nemec, Signe Porteshawver, Isabel Leon, Sarah Strong, Ronit Ridberg, Slow Food Tufts, PRAXIS, the Migration Club, the Human Rights Project, the Fletcher School, the Friedman School, the Harvest Co-op, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Student Farmworker Alliance for making this fantastic event possible.

Upcoming CIW/SFA event:
On February 27th, 2011, farmworkers and allies from across the Northeast will gather in Boston for a major action to call on Stop & Shop - and its parent company Ahold USA - to work with the CIW.
Organizers will be in Boston from mid-January through February in preparation for the event. If you are interested in organizing a presentation in your class, congregation or organization, please contact Meghan Cohorst at or 239-503-1533.

-Jeff Hake

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