Farm Workers

Farm Workers

On May 12, 2016, the UCC Board of Directors endorsed the boycott of Wendy's. (Read the Resolution approved by the Board.) UCC members and congregations across the country are honoring the boycott, not buying at Wendy's, and engaging in other activities to support the CIW. See the UCC Boycott Wendy's webpage. Get Boycott Wendy's buttons here (coming soon). Read more about this campaign for justice below.

Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.   James 5:4

Just as in New Testament times, farm workers in the U.S. today confront injustices in the fields. They labor under difficult, unhealthy, and even dangerous conditions. Wages are low. Workplace protections are weak and poorly enforced, and penalties for violations are pitifully small. Farm workers are not covered by many of the federal laws that protect most other workers. Housing, whether provided by growers or available for rent by farm workers, is frequently substandard. Child labor laws are often ignored.

Being a disciple of Christ means that Jesus' values must govern our lives including our decisions about purchasing and investing. We witness to our faith when we use our purchasing power to encourage companies to treat workers fairly. Investors bear witness to their faith when they call a company to account for unethical practices. The reign of God does not stop at the door of the factory, edge of the field, or entrance to the store. People of faith strive to be faithful witnesses in the marketplace. 

Say a Prayer for the hard-working people who plant and harvest our crops or use other worship resources from the National Farm Worker Ministry. Our Faith Calls Us to Stand with Farm Workers, a short resource linking our faith to justice for farm workers. Read the materials on this page or download information from Student Action with Farmworkers or Farmworker Justice. Prepare a Mission Moment for Sunday worship.


From PBS Newshour: racism and the legacy of slavery are the reasons why, still today, U.S. farm workers are excluded from most labor law protections (Sept 18, 2016)

Just 13, and Working Risky 12-Hour Shifts in the Tobacco Fields by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, Sept. 6, 2014. Low wages paid to their parents and completely inadequate legal protection mean children work in N. Carolina's hazardous tobacco fields.  

Protecting immigrant farm workers, an article in the Miami Herald (March 13, 2013) written by Prof. Cindy Hahamovitch, an historian at the College of William and Mary, reveals the abuses that have been present throughout the history of agricultural guestworker programs. 

A State of Fear: Human Rights Abuses in North Carolina's Tobacco Industry. This investigation calls for a fundamental restructuring of the exploitative industrial structure that denies tobacco farm workers thire most basic rights.

California Institute for Rural Life: the Fair Food Project.  Watch the excellent videos showing conditions experienced by farm workers, views of growers, and what advocates are doing to help.

New Report Outlines Abuses Faced by Farmworkers. In a unique for-profit/NGO joint venture, the Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation and United Farm Workers of America, with support from Oxfam America, released a groundbreaking report on March 31, César Chávez Day. The Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States compiles and analyzes data from multiple federal, state, and private sources to give the most comprehensive picture yet of the reality faced by America’s least-valued but critically important workforce. The report is the first of its kind to detail the lack of laws and protections for crop farmworkers in the U.S."  -- from the report's press release   Executive Summary (PDF; 499KB) | Full report (PDF; 6.13MB)
Excellent video about farmworker conditions (5 minutes). 
More about the report

Justice in Florida's Tomato Fields

Farm workers in southwest Florida, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), since the mid-1990s, have organized, demonstrated, and marched to improve wages and working conditions in the fields where they pick tomatoes. Today, after much effort and with the support of allies including people of faith, 14 major food retailers participate in the worker-designed Fair Food Program. This agreement among among growers, farm workers, and retailers has eliminated modern-day slavery and sexual violence in the Florida tomato fields, improved farm worker wages for the first time in decades, and guaranteed basic protections for workers. Participating retailers agree to purchase exclusively from suppliers (growers) who meet a worker-designed Code of Conduct which includes a grievance procedure and a zero-tolerance policy for slavery and sexual harassment. Buyers also pay a “penny-per-pound” premium which is passed down through the supply chain and paid directly to farm workers by their employers.

The CIW's Fair Food Program is a new approach, introducing social responsibility into the US produce industry. It combines the Fair Food Code of Conduct – a set of labor standards developed in a unique collaboration among farm workers, tomato growers, and the food industry leaders who purchase Florida tomatoes – with a small price premium (an increase of one penny per pound of tomatoes picked) to help improve harvesters’ wages. The goal of the Fair Food Program is to promote the development of a sustainable Florida tomato industry that advances both the human rights of farm workers and the long-term interests of Florida tomato growers.

All but one of the major fast-food chains have joined the Fair Food Program. The hold-out is Wendy's, even though its major competitors including McDonald, Burger King, Taco Bell, Chipotle, and Subway have all joined the Program. 

Wendy's Boycott: Farm workers and their allies have, for years, engaged in marches, rallies, letter-writing campaigns, and other tactics to get Wendy's to sign on. All without success. So in March, 2016, the CIW called on consumers to boycott Wendy's until the firm signed onto the Fair Food Program. 

In May, 2016, the United Church of Christ Board of Directors endorsed the boycott. (Read the Resolution approved by the Board.) UCC members and congregations across the country are boycotting Wendy's and engaging in other activities to support the CIW. See the UCC Boycott Wendy's webpage. Get Boycott Wendy's buttons here (coming soon).

A number of grocery chains have signed onto the Fair Food Program including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Walmart, Ahold, Stop and Shop, and Giant. But many major chains -- including Publix and Kroger -- have yet to join. CIW and their allies continue to pressure fast food companies and supermarkets to join the Fair Food Program. Learn more including the latest developments on the CIW's webpage. If the goal of a more modern, more humane Florida tomato industry is to be fully realized, the supermarket giants must do their part. As consumers, we can all play an important role in letting major supermarkets know that it is time to ensure fair wages and working conditions for the farm workers who pick their tomatoes.

 Justice in the Tobacco Fields of North Carolina

Tobacco fields are especially hazardous for farm workers. In addition to the usual hardships of low pay, pesticide exposure, and harsh conditions, workers also suffer from green tobacco sickness, an illness caused by nicotine they absorb through their skin. The workers' union, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), is seeking a way to address the workers' concerns.

R.J.Reynolds is the second largest tobacco company in the U.S. FLOC wants to work with Reynolds to address the problems farm workers face in the tobacco fields.

R.J. Reynolds employs no farm workers. But this does not remove the company's responsibility for the farm workers who produce its tobacco.  RJR contracts with farmers to grow tobacco and specifies in some detail how the tobacco is to be grown. RJR has great power. If growers don’t agree to its specifics, RJR won’t buy their tobacco. Unfortunately, Reynolds is silent regarding labor practices. Just like in the global anti-sweatshop movement, consumers and others concerned with justice believe that large corporations have the opportunity, power, and obligation to require their suppliers (growers in this case) to operate in a just, humane, and sustainable manner. Put another way, RJR needs to assume responsibility for its supply chain. The company also needs to pay more to farmers for their tobacco so they can afford to pay more to farm workers.

For a number of years, Reynold's refused to speak with FLOC. But after six long years of prodding, in 2012, R. J. Reynolds finally agreed to talk with FLOC about conditions in the tobacco fields. Talks are ongoing.

Learn more and follow developments at, or connect with FLOC through social media. Supporters in North Carolina are especially needed.  For more information or to volunteer, contact JWM's Edie Rasell.

 General Synod Marches in Support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, July 20, 2011

On Monday, July 4, 2011, over 400 people attending the UCC's General Synod in Tampa, FL., marched in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their efforts to improve pay and working conditions in the Florida tomato fields. See the UC News story and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' story and photos from the march.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has stuggled for over a decade to bring justice to the Florida tomato fields. Starting in the mid-1990s, farm workers engaged in talks, marches, and other measures to convince growers to pay tomato pickers a penny more per pound for the tomatoes they picked in the fields near Immokalee, Florida. In 2001, after these tactics had failed to bring the needed improvements, the Coalition called for a boycott of Taco Bell, one of the buyers of the tomatoes.

The United Church of Christ became the first denomination to endorse the boycott. In 2005, after much hard work by the farm workers and their allies, including many people in the UCC, Taco Bell agreed to the price increase and to negotiate with the workers over other working conditions. In addition, the other fast food chains owned by Taco Bell's parent company -- A&W, Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers, and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) -- also signed on. More work, including marches, letters, and educational forums, eventually convinced McDonalds, Subway, and other fast food restaurants to also pay the higher price. Now the struggle has turned to grocery stores. They also need to pay the additional penny per pound and sit down with the workers to address conditions in the field. The destination of the General Synod marchers was a Publix grocery store. Publix is a large grocery chain in Florida and is a current focus of the campaign for fair food. More info  about the campaign.

Contact Info

Edith Rasell, Ph.D.
Minister for Economic Justice
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115