Not all strikers are created equal, apparently

November 20, 2007

Courtesy of Morning Edition on NPR, I now know that strikers in France are “costing” their country 600 million dollars a day, strikers in New York are costing their city 2 million dollars a day, and migrant workers protesting to be paid a penny more per pound for the tomatoes they pick in Florida are deceitful, spoiled people who want to bleed poor Burger King dry.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, as is the title of this post. NPR itself didn’t say that, but their version of fair and balanced reporting on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers campaign to get Burger King to agree to the same plan they got Taco Bell and McDonald’s to agree to seemed a little heavy on the reasons why these workers may just be getting a little big for their britches. The Miami Herald article on the topic doesn’t even try to disguise its disdain for these workers and their demands. They make the tomato picker they quote sound like someone who expected to get rich off of one season of working tomatoes. What they have is,””What we want is more hours,’ said Sanchez, who paid $1,300 to come from his home in Mexico to Immokalee for the tomato picking season. `We invest a lot of money to come here and when we work few hours we’re not making ends meet.'” This might be true for this guy (if he was interviewed in Spanish, there’s always the question of translation to be added to the perennial question of context), but to say that their efforts are directed toward ensuring that everyone makes a tidy profit from picking tomatoes and has regular 40 hour work weeks is completely misleading. Their demands are much more basic and much more radical really: they’d like to be safe while they pick tomatoes for a fair wage, and they want the tomato growers and the companies who buy tomatoes to be accountable to them as human beings, not as citizens of this or that country and not as disposable parts in a labor machine.

I used to be kind of on the fence about the CIW–when I first heard about their penny more per pound campaign against Taco Bell, my gut reaction is, that’s pretty useless. What good is a penny per pound going to do you? Why all this effort for so little? Then, this past fall, some of the workers were guest speakers at a youth retreat I chaperoned. First off, it was the workers themselves speaking to us and demonstrating what it means to pick tomatoes–several of the kids from our group stepped up to have a go hoisting 32-lb. buckets of green tomatoes over their shoulder and running a hundred feet, as if they were trying to reach a haul truck. I don’t want to do that for a living, and I’m glad that there are people who do it despite its challenges, and they should have the right to organize to negotiate a fair wage. This talk and demonstration was much different than seeing people who look more or less like me giving a moment of mission at our church on Sunday morning. Second, what they spoke most forcefully about was involuntary servitude. That’s slavery, and despite what the tomato farmer quoted on NPR this morning told you, it certainly is still happening in Florida agriculture. There are documented cases amounting to over 1,000 workers determined to have been living and working in slavery conditions. It may affect only a small portion of the workers employed by Florida farms, but um, that’s still too many, and that’s one of the CIW’s key demands: that companies who trade on their reputation take responsibility for what is going on in their supply chain. That’s a lot to ask from anyone, but is it really any less than what we should ask from everyone? Is it really so unreasonable to ask this of people who are making huge profits through their ignorance?

Predictably, and understandably, no one wants to do that, and my understanding is that the food companies recognize that a penny more per pound is not the real problem, the real problem for business as they know it is what happens when you concede to the demands of people who have less power than you. Why would you do that? Nothing about the basic nature of human society right now says you have to–might makes right, possession is 90% of the law, the proof of those realities is everywhere to be found. There may not be a reason that follows logically from the brute force demands of global capitalism or government, but there is a reason that follows from the fact that we are all human beings, together, and if you think that you could not possibly be one of those people, breaking their bodies for pennies, you are just plain wrong. Sticking up for them can feel like sticking up for myself, and it kind of is–this situation of a company based in one country relying on workers who may have no legal status or right of redress in that country is only growing more widespread. It happens in new industries in new ways every single day. If there is any way for this to work long term, I think it has to include people like the CIW demanding to be treated as human no matter how they look on paper. This is why I’m glad that my church thought it important for these workers to come and speak to our teenagers–if that’s not a Christian message worth spreading, I don’t know what is.

This is a big, complicated issue, and I don’t expect everyone I talk to to agree with me about it. There is that whole question of well, why are they here in the first place if things are so bad. No one can answer that, the situations are as varied as the individuals. But for every worker there, it was preferable to the alternative of staying home. It is clear that these businesses rely on their willingness to work for minimal compensation and in horrid conditions in order to make the profits that they do. You can say that’s a reality of the market and on one level it is, but really now, are you satisfied with that? Would you be satisfied with that if it was your children out there? If you are, I believe you shouldn’t be, even if it’s just on the basis of fear for your own hide.

So that’s why I’m in support of the writers, the stagehands, the French government workers, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.


2 Responses to “Not all strikers are created equal, apparently”

  1. Nice post. I’m one of those radical people who supports pretty much any strike, no matter how wealthy the strikers. I’m a worker, not a boss, and I support those like me, even if, as has been the case when professional athletes have struck, they’re making more money than I can even imagine.

    A year or two ago, Amy taught a Comp class that focused on race, and part of the reading involved news stories about the slavery problem in Florida, and it floored some of her students, simply because we’re taught that slavery ended in 1865 and has never reappeared. And the media does little to disabuse us of that fantasy.

  2. SJ Says:

    Thanks for reading! I like the way you put it–why should any workers feel compelled to settle for what they’re given? Would anyone else in the corporate food chain?

    I have to confess I was one of those people who never really thought about all the forms slavery could take, especially in my own country until I met people who had seen it themselves. It’s sad that Law & Order features involuntary servitude plotlines more than our newspapers.

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