Photo: Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) fight for food justice
Lucas Benitez, a Mexican immigrant who helped organize fellow farmworkers in Florida, shared with colleague Greg Asbed the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Growing Green Award in the category of Food Justice.
“We in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers feel proud,” Benitez told Efe from San Francisco, where the Growing Green Awards ceremony took place.
“The NRDC started giving these awards four years ago, but today is the first time it includes the category of Food Justice, which consists of growing food in fields where human rights and the environment are respected,” he said.
A native of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, Benitez was only 17 when he migrated to the Southwest Florida town of Immokalee in 1992 to look for work.
“When I arrived to work in the agriculture industry in the tomato fields of Immokalee I experienced, along with my co-workers, a great lack of respect on the part of owners and supervisors,” he recalled.
“There were bosses that even let you see a pistol to intimidate, so no one says anything,” Benitez said, adding that a worker who slipped away for a moment to drink some water would routinely face verbal and physical abuse.
But it was theft of wages that ultimately drove the workers to fight back, he said.
“One day, at the end of 1992 we - Mexicans, Central Americans and Haitians - decided to organize to demand our rights and in 1995 we had the first general strike of more than 3,000 workers for a week,” the CIW co-founder said.
“With this,” he continued, “we managed to get the country’s attention and we exposed what was happening in the agricultural areas of Florida.”
Building on the initial strike, the CIW spearheaded public campaigns to persuade fast-food chains to put pressure on growers to improve pay and working conditions for farmworkers, campaigns that led to significant concessions by employers.
Burger King Corporation, Yum! Brands - parent company of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and other chains - and McDonald’s eventually signed accords with the CIW to nearly double the piece-work rate for tomato pickers.
CIW’s 2005 agreement with Yum! Brands came after a four-year-long battle that included a national boycott of the conglomerate’s Taco Bell chain.