Fla. UCC churches support 'pilgrims' on 200-mile justice trek
Written by Jeff Woodard September 13, 2011
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
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:
access to shade
right to report abuses without fear of retaliation
ability to form health and safety committees in the fields
provisions for forced labor and sexual harassment
increase funded by a 1-cent-per-pound premium paid by participating
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
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."