Photo essay by Zach Blume with Nashville Fair Food
(Reposted from SFA@Vandy blog)
Why the struggle, why the strain?
Why make trouble? Why make scenes?
Why go against the grain?
Why swim upstream?
Nothing changes anyhow. – “Nothing changes” by Anaïs Mitchell (listen)
I’ve been on the march for three days now with the Coalition of Immoaklee Workers (CIW). It is tiring in the Florida sun. Think of the last time you spent eight hours in the sun — now multiply that by 14 days, constantly walking the whole time. People are already getting blisters. There have been laughs among runners that it’s much easier on our bodies to run a half marathon than to walk one everyday. The consistency wears on you. That’s what we’re up against.
By the end of these two weeks, and over 200 miles from where we started, we will arrive to Publix’s headquarters in Lakeland, FL on the CIW’s “March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food” in order to ask them — once again — to come to the table with farmworkers in dialogue.
This is a defining moment for the CIW. Are we going to win? This is one of the largest actions they’ve ever done. The farmworkers are determined beyond belief. The spirit here is captured in a common joke. Someone at the front of the march shouts in spanish, “Are y’all tired?” The workers response is simple: “What is tired?”
There’s a latin american tradition of speaking about organizing for social justice as a process of “walking together”. Even our word in English for it: a movement. There is something about the idea of traveling that helps us think about making the world better while working with others. Walking through problems, accompanying each other through hardships in order to build a better world, and especially the foundation of it all: learning and thinking about each other and ourselves. Marching for hours a day has given me time to think, time to reflect. Why are we marching? What do we want? We say the march is for “Rights, Respect, and Fair Food.” What exactly are these concepts to us?
RIGHTS: A new day is dawning in the fields of Florida for 100,000 farmworkers because of the Fair Food Agreement. With the implementation of the Fair Food program with 95% of growers signing the agreement and working with the Fair Food Standards Council, there now is a a source of worker-to-worker education on workers’ rights, anonymous reporting systems for abuses, and a 3rd party investigative apparatus, as well as a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and discrimination.
For an industry in which 1,300 people have been freed from conditions of modern-day slavery in the last fifteen years (read more about the CIW’s anti-slavery campaign), these large-scale adjustments are necessary. The heart of the matter, though, is in the day to day lives of farmworkers. They now do not have to overfill buckets until they break their backs. They actually get access to fresh drinking water, breaks, and moments of shade from the sun. They can get up at more reasonable times in the morning, and maybe see their children at breakfast and off to the bus-stop.
Now, Publix stands in the way of this progress. If Publix gets their way — the buying and selling of tomatoes with no industry standards for human and workers’ rights, all of the changes just described would be in jeopardy. If Publix continues buying tomatoes without coming to the table with the farmworkers who pick them, there will continue to be growers who, for whatever reason, don’t appreciate the Fair Food agreement and who nevertheless will still have the unscrupulous buyer of Publix to offload their unethical tomatoes onto. We’re marching on Publix because it stands in the way of the march towards justice that is going on right now in the fields.
RESPECT: I am particularly struck by what one farmworker said to me. “If you ask most people here in Immokalee, they will tell you that they don’t like being farmworkers. But it is because of the way they are treated — not the job they do. Most of us grew up with the land, and we love taking care of it, and harvesting it.” To me, this is profound. The discourse we typically have around “helping others” or even “helping ourselves” is usually based around changing the nature of what they do, what their lives are about. Here though, the CIW is saying: we do important jobs. We do good jobs, ones that should give us dignity through fair work but also through our connection with the land and with other people. You can see it in the way that the farmworkers march: with humility, but also with pride. They are important people, too. This isn’t just about dollars per hour and pennies per pound. We’re fighting for a better world, one in which everyone is valued. The question is, how do we truly respect them?
This respect is captured in the way that students and farmworkers work together. In the struggle for justice in the fields, the CIW have built incredible ally networks — and they’ve done it by showing community members, people of faith, and students the beauty that comes from farmworkers standing up for themselves, not from other people speaking for them. They’ve also convinced us that we have personal stakes in their fight, that we too will benefit from a world with corporations that are held accountable to workers and consumers. I’m one of the people they’ve convinced, as a student from Nashville, Tennessee.
Thirteen years ago, on the “March for Dignity, Dialogue and a Fair Wage” (note the similarity in names), many students found themselves marching alongside farmworkers. They themselves reflected on what they could do support the workers more generally, after the march was over. Those students were so inspired they went and founded the Student / Farmworker Alliance (SFA).
I’m excited to see what this march produces for SFA. The energy from students here is powerful, with words like “moving”, “inspirational”, and questions like “what will our lives be like after the march?” I envision a new burst of energy and organizing that expands our resonance and the movement. This is what Publix should really be scared of: this is not only a wakeup call to them, but also a new beginning for us. And it’s going to be beautiful.
FAIR FOOD: The march has been an experience in uniting. Unity, unity is the word that gets repeated. We walk together, we eat together, we sleep on the floors of churches together. What does this have to do with fair food? For me, food has always been the way that I connect with people. The idea of being friends with someone is all about eating lunch with them.
Fair food is about reclaiming that bit of humanity, and holding it close. It’s about reaching across the lines of class, race, language, religion and gender along with the CIW and allies and doing something different, something extra-ordinary. Walking 200 miles with strangers, and growing close with them, seems to me like an amazing way to do this.
One day, then, Publix will join us at the table — to talk about signing the agreement, but I hope also to eat with us and share a bit of humanity — and make this world a little more united. Things do change, all the time, and question is whether we can push that change is a direction of unification. That is the heart of fair food for me, and that is why I am here marching.
In the next 14 days, I’m sure there will be more stories to tell. Until then, let’s leave it at this: Publix, here we come!
Follow this blog to get more updates by email, by pressing the “follow” button at the bottom right of this page and entering your email.