Written by Emily Mullins
The United Church of Christ is a long-time supporter of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers, marching with them many times since 2001 in their quest for fair labor conditions. Today, church leaders and members are walking in solidarity with the CIW once again on a 230-mile "March for Rights, Respect, and Fair Food" through Florida, ending with a rally on Sunday outside a company that won't bargain with the coalition.
"The Florida Conference has long supported the work of CIW," conference minister the Rev. Kent Siladi said. "We have partnered with the CIW in its work to improve wages in the fields, and to work to put an end to modern-day slavery in the agricultural industry. We have members and congregations that have marched and have been marching this week. We continue to press for fair wages for those who work in our state."
The march concludes at the doorstep of Publix, Florida's largest privately-owned company. The grocery chain has long refused to even sit at the table with farmworkers. Marchers are walking about 15 miles each day, starting in Ft. Myers on March 3 and are set to arrive at Publix's headquarters in Lakeland on Sunday.
The CIW is a community-based farmworker organization with more than 4,000 workers who seek modern working conditions for farmworkers and promote their fair treatment in accordance with national and international human rights standards.
The CIW's Campaign for Fair Food has won unprecedented support for fundamental farm labor reforms from retail food industry leaders. The Fair Food Program brings together farmworkers, growers, consumers, and eleven multi-billion dollar retail food leaders in support of fair wages and humane labor standards for tomato harvesters. The FFP asks for higher standards of working, and an additional penny-per-pound for tomatoes.
For the past 20 years, the CIW has worked to improve wages and working conditions for tomato pickers in the fields around Immokalee in southwest Florida. Major fast-food chains, grocery stores and food service corporations (including Taco Bell, McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's, Bon Appétit Management Co., Compass Group, Aramark and Sodexo) have joined the CIW's Fair Food movement, and adopted new codes of conduct to improve conditions in the fields where many of the tomatoes we eat are grown. Despite CIW's success, there are many corporations and most grocery chains, including Publix, still following their old practices.
"This march continues to raise awareness not only here in Florida but across the country about the resistance of Publix to be a part of the Fair Food Agreement that so many other responsible businesses have already agreed to," Siladi said. "Publix will not even sit down at the table to have a conversation about the important issues of justice related to products that they sell in their stores."
Siladi plans to attend Sunday's final stage of the march to Publix headquarters.
The UCC has stood alongside the CIW before, most visibly during a demonstration at General Synod 2011 in Tampa, Fla., when 350 delegates and visitors took to the streets in protest.
Those who want to support the rally at Publix, but are unable to attend, can print out flyers and letters to deliver to their local Publix store in support of tomato pickers.