A good couple of days for Fair Food…

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“Hope that a better world, a more humane world, was in
fact possible…”

Four Freedoms Medal ceremony, massive Wendy’s protest, highlight week full of momentum in movement for Fair Food!

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“Somewhere we have heard that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice… Today, for the first time in the history of the south, this dream is coming true for farmworkers in Florida’s agriculture.  For the first time, we have a place at the table. In our struggle for better wages and working conditions, we are confident that this recognition will help us to arrive to the day in which our dreams will be made fully real.”  — Gerardo Reyes, accepting Freedom from Want Medal on behalf of the CIW

There are days in the life of a struggle like the Campaign for Fair Food when resistance by the forces that would thwart change can feel almost suffocating.  There are days when the task of building a more just world in the heart of the oppressive one it would replace can feel not just impossible, but even unimaginable.  There are days when the fight can feel just too big.

And then there are days like those the CIW spent this past week in New York City.

On Tuesday, a delegation of CIW members and allies from Immokalee arrived in New York and proceeded to spend the next three days in a whirlwind of intense action for Fair Food, of festive celebration of twenty years of groundbreaking organizing, and of exciting planning around two new initiatives that promise to expand the boundaries of the fight for Fair Food ever outward. 

It was a good couple of days for Fair Food. For this past week, at least, the struggle launched 20 years ago in Immokalee, and joined today in communities across the country, moved forward on all fronts.  

Because the four days in New York were filled with so much news, we will break the report into two parts, with Part 1 covering Tuesday and Wednesday and Part 2, Thursday and Friday.  And so, we begin with Part 1:

Tuesday: Wendy’s Protest in Union Square…

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On Tuesday afternoon, the CIW crew arrived in the city and joined forces with dozens of New York-based allies for what was going to be a quick, pre-Roosevelt award picket at a Union Square Wendy’s. But the action was transformed into a street party for Fair Food by the presence of representatives of farmers’ movements — in town themselves to receive the 2013 Food Sovereignty Award for their activism in pursuit of a more democratic food system — from five continents.  Their spirit of solidarity, and the energy brought directly from their struggles in Haiti, Mali, India, Brazil, and the Basque Country, lit up the protest and took over the street in the heart of New York’s storied Union Square.  Here’s an excerpt from a story on the protest by Leif Skodnick with the Columbia School of Journalism:

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NEW YORK – The Florida farmhands who pick the tomatoes that garnish Wendy’s hamburgers have a beef over worker’s rights with the fast food giant.

Nearly 200 workers and activists picketed a Wendy’s Restaurant on East 14th Street near Union Square Tuesday afternoon, demanding that Wendy’s International, Inc. sign a “fair food agreement” with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers…

… Wendy’s is the largest fast food chain in the country that has not signed such an agreement.

“We can complain about abuse now,” said Perez, 50. “Before, we’d get fired if we complained, now the crew leader gets fired. The grower has to take care of abuses, otherwise retailers won’t buy from them.”

One protester, holding a sign reading “Your burgers may be square, but your food ain’t fair!” thought that the treatment of farmworkers is indicative of the disconnect between immigrants and mainstream American society.

“This country has three Nobel Prizes in economics, and they don’t know how to give people salaries,” said protester Jairo Barragan, a native of Colombia who works as a political cartoonist. “We have to have a voice, because the immigrants don’t.”

The protest drew a remarkable amount of media attention in a city of more than 8 million people, including some great international and Spanish-language coverage.

Wednesday: Four Freedoms Medal Ceremony…

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The highlight of the New York sojourn, though, was the unforgettable experience of receiving the 2013 Roosevelt Institute Freedom from Want Medal at a moving, Wednesday evening ceremony in the heart of Manhattan.  And that doesn’t even begin to do the moment justice.  Indeed, the ceremony, held under the timeless arches of the St. James’ Episcopal Church on the Upper East Side, was a highlight of our first twenty years of organizing, and those two decades have included quite a few crowning moments (like this, thisthisthis, and this, just to name a few…).

From meeting, and getting to know, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt — board chair of the Roosevelt Institute and granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — to spending time with our fellow laureates — Wendell Berry, Paul Krugman, Ameena Matthews, and Sister Simone Campbell — to sharing the moment with the many close friends and longtime allies who traveled to the city for the event, it was an extraordinary evening.  

Ahead of the ceremony, the Huffington Post published a nice interview with the three CIW members who would be accepting the medal on behalf of the Coalition (pictured above, from left to right, Nely Rodgriguez, Greg Asbed, and Gerardo Reyes), entitled, “How to Fight for ‘Freedom From Want’ and Win: A Q&A With the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.”  Here’s an excerpt:

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RK: “Freedom from want” is more than being free from deprivation. What do your members hope for in their lives? 

CIW: Our members want nothing more, and nothing less, than to lead what most people would consider a “normal” life. Our members want to be able to provide their families with good food, a decent home, and a life they can enjoy together. Today, even though conditions are improving, farm labor remains a job that not only impoverishes workers economically, but socially as well, by demanding that workers be available from before dawn to after dusk.

Farm work steals the hours of the day when families spend time together. Mornings preparing breakfast for your children before school, weekends relaxing around the house or on family outings, those are the moments of which a family life is made. Having to pull up stakes and move the family to follow the harvest, children missing crucial weeks of school and living in a constant state of uncertainty, makes family life more difficult. Stability, dignity, and a measure of economic security are the things we want, not just for ourselves, but more than anything else, for our children…

… RK: What has been the key to your success?

CIW: The single most important factor in our success is that the Fair Food Program is truly a worker-designed, worker-driven social responsibility program. The vast majority of corporate social responsibility programs are created and controlled by corporations themselves, and so, quite simply, they are designed to protect the corporations’ interests. The Fair Food Program, with its principal architect being a workers’ organization, has a unique design and structure, all constructed with one goal in mind: to protect farmworkers’ rights.

In doing that, the Fair Food Program also improves the agricultural industry as a whole, through direct economic benefits such as lower turnover and increased productivity, and through the marketing advantages created when an otherwise indistinguishable commodity becomes a product that can be differentiated on the supermarket shelf as having been produced under humane conditions. That makes the Fair Food Program uniquely effective as a means for protecting human rights and simultaneously uniquely attractive as a business model for growers and buyers looking to succeed in the 21st century marketplace.

By Wednesday, though, the build up had run its course and it was time for the ceremony.  And quite the ceremony it was.  With dozens of CIW members and allies looking on from the pews — part of a crowd of 1,000 that filled the beautiful, two-hundred-year-old church — the CIW was recognized for its two decades of work on behalf of the human rights of farmworkers in Florida. 

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It was an evening of stirring speeches, moving memories, and exciting promise for the future of Fair Food.  Below is the CIW’s portion of the event, though you can see the whole ceremony — including powerful messages from other laureates — at the Roosevelt Institute’s website.

Wednesday’s ceremony drew even more press attention than did Tuesday’s big protest, covered by Bill Moyers, the Nation, and Common Dreams.  Here’s an extended excerpt from a great piece by Greg Kauffman of the Nation:

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CIW members look on from the pews as CIW representatives accept the 2013 Roosevelt Freedom from Want Medal.

I was thrilled to see the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) honored at the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedom Awards on Wednesday night. Having followed the organization’s work for seven years, I believe their effectiveness is unmatched, and their achievements constantly offer a reason for hope.

The CIW way is non-hierarchal, led from the grassroots, fearless and savvy—and they have defeated Goliath so many times that they can no longer be considered a David. I think many community-based and national anti-poverty organizations can learn a lot from them…

… In 2010, the Campaign for Fair Food evolved into a broader Fair Food Programa new model of social responsibility. In addition to abiding by the penny-per-pound agreement—which has resulted in over $11 million in additional earnings for workers since January 2011—corporate buyers who sign on will purchase tomatoes only from growers who sign a code of conduct drafted by workers, in consultation with the growers and buyers. There is also worker-to-worker education on the new rights, and workers monitor their own workplaces.

Under the agreement, the Fair Food Standards Council conducts regular audits, investigates complaints and monitors resolutions at the twenty-six participating growers—growers who account for 90 percent of the $650 million in revenues in the tomato industry. When major violations occur and aren’t corrected, corporations stop buying from those growers. (This model is similar to the one US retailers have refused to sign on to in the Bangladesh garment industry.) Through this system, four crew leaders with long histories of sexual harassment or labor abuse have been terminated, and supervisors at those companies were trained to address sexual harassment and other requirements under the Fair Food Program.

“With this program, the women who pick tomatoes to support their families no longer have to leave their dignity in the tomato fields,” said farmworker Nely Rodriguez, who accepted the Freedom From Want Medal along with fellow CIW members Gerardo Reyes and Greg Asbed. “Women now have a voice and a way to stop the harassment and abuse that happened for too long.”

Finally, there is the CIW’s stunning anti-slavery campaign: since 1997, the group has assisted the Department of Justice in uncovering numerous multi-state slavery operations in the Southeastern United States. This work has resulted in the liberation of more than 1,200 workers and was a major factor in the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The State Department recognized the CIW as “an independent and pressing voice as they uncover slavery rings, tap the power of the workers, and hold companies and governments accountable.” Now, with the Fair Food Program and the severe financial consequences for growers that are imposed when forced labor is discovered, Florida has evolved from what one federal prosecutor described as “ground zero for modern-day slavery” to having no cases of slavery over the past three years.

Asbed spoke of the special significance of the Freedom from Want Medal in the context of the organization’s history.

“Twenty years ago when we began organizing, Immokalee was a town defined by violence,” he said. “Violence against women, beatings in the fields, modern-day slavery—it was a brutal and unforgiving place.”

The farmworkers began to gather every week in a room at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in town. They would pass around the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the preamble of which included FDR’s Four Freedoms.

“This book gave us hope that a better world, a more humane world, was in fact possible,” said Asbed. “[It] gave us the strength we needed to fight to make that world real. So being here today feels a bit like coming home, like our journey has come full circle.”

It’s a journey that shows us what it means to work directly—from the grassroots—with those most affected by poverty; what it means to set a seemingly unreachable bar and persevere; and what it means to understand your opposition and find new ways to challenge it.

Asbed insisted that the CIW’s “work has only just begun.”

“Our work is not done until all farmworkers live free from want,” he said. “Until all farmworkers live free from fear; and until all farmworkers live free to enjoy the dignified life they deserve for the hard work they do.”

It was a magical night, and one that will be remembered for many years to come.  The recognition underscores the deep connection between the vision of a fairer world, predicated on universal respect for fundamental human rights, that animated Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s life work and the vision of a fairer food system, predicated on respect for farmworkers’ human rights, that drives the Fair Food movement.  We thank Anna Roosevelt and everyone at the Roosevelt Institute for seeing that connection and choosing the CIW to receive the 2013 Freedom from Want Medal.

Next up, Part 2 of the CIW’s trip to New York City: Plans for the release of an upcoming documentary that focuses on the Fair Food movement and a CIW-label, Maine blueberry jam?…

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