Written by Gregg Brekke
Continuing its lengthy track record of commitment to farm-labor justice, Punta Gorda (Fla.) Congregational UCC was the most logical of stops for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) during their recent “Pilgrimage to Publix” – a 200-mile, interfaith bicycling trip throughout southwest Florida.
The journey of the Florida tomato pickers culminated Sept. 6 at the Publix’s headquarters in Lakeland. It began Aug. 29 with a blessing of the riders and brief prayer service at Naples UCC.
“For me, it was a continuation of involvement I’ve had in farm worker justice,” said the Rev. Bill Klossner, senior pastor at Punta Gorda for the past 23 years. “I was one of the 95 pilgrims who flew to southern California from General Synod in St. Louis in 1973 when we had the opportunity not only to be with grape workers, but also met Cesar Chavez.”
The pilgrimage, which featured several dozen presentations and prayerful meals hosted by UCC congregations and other faith traditions along the way, began Aug. 29 and concluded around noon Sept. 6. Soaked from a torrential downpour, farm workers were joined by about 75 supporters and clergy members when they arrived at the headquarters, hoping to speak with Publix CEO Ed Crenshaw. As he has done several times over the past two years, Crenshaw declined their request.
With the support of nine multi-billion-dollar retail food corporations – including McDonald’s, Florida-based Burger King and Publix competitor Whole Foods – more than 30,000 farm workers are hopeful of realizing concrete changes beginning in the fields this season. Among them:
- Assured access to shade
- The right to report abuses without fear of retaliation
- The ability to form health and safety committees in the fields
- Zero-tolerance provisions for forced labor and sexual harassment
- A wage increase funded by a 1-cent-per-pound premium paid by participating retailers.
Publix has repeatedly refused to increase prices by 1 cent more per pound to help raise farm-worker wages. It also will not agree to condition its purchases on suppliers' compliance with the new code of conduct.
In addition to Naples UCC and Punta Gorda UCC, participating churches in the pilgrimage included Venice UCC, Andrews UCC in Sarasota and Faith UCC in Bradenton.
For Klossner, the journey represented “a connection to the past and a continuation for the church.”
“In 1973, there was significant violence in the field – death threats, beatings and farm-worker homes being burned,” said Klossner. “Our trip to southern California was a 24-hour witness to the farm workers.”
Punta Gorda UCC was involved in farm-labor justice long before Klossner’s arrival, he added. “The congregation had a connection with the Guadalupe Center in Immokalee, which predates the Coalition of Immokalee Workers."
In what The New York Times called “possibly the most successful labor action in the U.S. in 20 years,” 90 percent of Florida tomato farms agreed last November to a new code of conduct, promising to bring about an unprecedented transformation of farm-labor wages and working conditions.
Said CIW member Oscar Otzoy, "What's particularly frustrating is that that Publix's PR department has consistently distorted the nature of the Fair Food program, and our request that Publix help support this promising new day for our state's farm workers has been repeatedly denied."