Modern-day slavery in America

October 4, 2018

I Am Not a Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took on the Fast Food Giants and Won, by Susan L. Marquis (Cornell University Press, 2017)

In an earlier time, slavery was a central feature in American life, openly practiced, justified by academics and clergy, and essential to the nation’s economic system. Even after slavery was outlawed by the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War, and legislation, patterns of segregation and injustice persisted in American life, and continue in slightly veiled forms today. One example of the virtual slavery in our own time was described in an article by Barry Estabrook published in the March 2009 issue ofGourmet. As Susan Marquis summarizes the essay, he tells a story of “unrelenting abuse of farmworkers, of modern-day slavery, complete with beatings, wage theft, and workers locked in the back of a box truck that served as their home” (p. 2).  This was happening on tomato farms in Florida in 2009.

When she read this article, Susan L. Marquis was beginning her work with the Rand Corporation as dean the Pardee RAND Graduate School, which she describes as “the oldest and largest public policy PhD program in the United States.” There she became aware of the Coalition of Immokalee [rhymes with “broccoli”] Workers. She began reading about tomato pickers in south Florida who had succeeded in overcoming their terrible working conditions, reducing violence and abuse in the fields, and increasing wages. Their success was achieved, in part, by enlisting the aid of fast-food chains in their efforts.

Marquis traveled repeatedly to Immokalee and over time became thoroughly knowledgeable about every aspect of this remarkable story. Her many interviews with people on all sides of this struggle gave her insights into the ideas and motivations that have been at play throughout this struggle for justice and equity. Her previous experience in systems analysis—fifteen years with the Department of Defense and “a half dozen years running a defense, healthcare, and analysis group in a Washington, DC, nonprofit” equipped her to understand and interpret the work being done by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

The key figures in initiating this transformation were Greg Asbed and Laura Geronimo, paralegals who worked for the Florida Rural Legal Services’ Immokalee operations. As they studied conditions faced by the workers, they began asking a “What if” question. What if the workers themselves, rather than concerned outsider advocates, “came together as a community” and instead of fighting individual legal battles concerning injustices fought a united battle for their human rights?

In full detail, Marquis describes what happened as Greg and Laura began working along these lines. They talked with many workers to get a full sense of their working conditions and included workers in meetings where coordinated responses were crafted. Together they created the CIW to be their means of working together in their efforts to persuade growers to transform the conditions faced by pickers. At every point workers were directly involved in reporting abuses to the growers. A basic principle was consultation rather than confrontation.

Although significant improvements in working conditions resulted from this phase of their work, it became clear that the growers themselves were limited in what they could do, especially with respect to wages they could pay. They were caught between the workers’ calls for better wages and pressures on the other side, from the buyers of their produce, who demanded the lowest possible prices for the tomatoes they bought. As this factor became clear, staff and leaders of the CIW concluded that they had to find ways of bringing major buyers, the fast food chains and major grocery companies, into the process. If they could force prices down, they could also force prices up. Read more. . . .I Am Not a Tractor copy