“The contemporary concern for social justice leads primarily to a stress on public-policy initiatives, to a reorganization of ‘the system,’ and to social reform,” Brian Benestad observes in his book “Church, State, and Society.”
Understanding and practicing social justice, instead, as a personal virtue—one that inclines us to work with others for the common good—as he recommends, implies the capacity for people to join together to achieve a shared goal. It draws on the energy, creativity, and resourcefulness of those involved.
But, sometimes, those suffering the worst conditions appear incapable of helping themselves, of practicing the virtue required. Only legislation, regulation, and the strong arm of the state seem to have a chance of making things right.
Tomato Harvest Slavery
The problems of abuse and coercion, slavery, and forced labor have been endemic in Florida agriculture from the early use of slaves before the Civil War, up to the present century, and they seemed intractable.
In 1960, Edward R. Murrow’s television documentary “Harvest of Shame” exposed the appalling conditions of agricultural migrant labor in the United States, specifically in Immokalee, Florida.
My neighboring town, Immokalee, was and remains the hub from which tomato pickers began and worked long hours for poverty wages in southwest Florida and then followed the crops and the seasons north to New Jersey.
The program showed the persistence of what to most Americans were unimaginable conditions of neglect and human-rights abuses. One grower is quoted as saying, “We used to own slaves; now we just rent them.”
Tellingly, Murrow ends his documentary on a note that portrays the workers as powerless to help themselves, or to come together to improve their situation through their own labor organizing or lobbying, as workers had done in other industries. Their only hope lay in the efforts of others.
“The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused, and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do. Good night, and good luck,” Murrow says.
But public opinion and state intervention through the U.S. Department of Labor and its inspectors weren’t enough. Despite their dedication, there were far too few government inspectors to cover the wide area and the tens of thousands of workers in the fields. Conditions of wage theft, violence, sexual abuse, and forced labor persisted.
Efforts to help from outside, notably by Florida Rural Legal Services, won allies such as churches and students to the cause, but their efforts to produce wider impact through publicizing and winning the prosecution of individual abuses failed to have a wider impact.
What made the difference was the self-organization of the workers in a particular way. They formed an association, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), that brought together members in weekly meetings, initially in a room provided by the local Catholic church.
Not Another Labor Union
As they tried different tactics and studied their situation in the context of the agricultural economy and its food-supply chains, they realized that organizing for a traditional labor union struggle against the employers wouldn’t work.
The growers themselves were being squeezed by the big corporate buyers, who pushed down the prices the employers would get and, hence, the wages and conditions they were able to provide to the workers they hired.
Susan Marquis, of the RAND Corporation, has provided a comprehensive and scholarly study of the CIW and the development of its unique strategy.
The workers came to see that the growers weren’t vulnerable to public pressure or boycotts and had no margin for increasing wages, but the corporate buyers had brands to protect. They had customers who liked the cheap food, but not the slave labor and inhuman conditions in which it was produced.
The CIW’s efforts led to a tripartite system of regulation involving workers, growers, and big customers such as Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart. The parties agreed on a human-rights-based Code of Conduct on which all signed off.
The CIW’s Fair Food Standards Council is responsible for enforcement. It has a 24-hour multilingual complaint line, responds promptly, and resolves most issues quickly without resort to the available sanctions like suspension or termination (which mean that the corporate buyers in the program will not buy from sanctioned growers).
The problem of poverty wages was resolved with a penny-a-pound premium on the price of tomatoes and paid to the workers as part of the agreement, as well as measures to prevent wage theft.
The state, alerted by CIW, played a role in prosecuting slavery cases as recently as 2014. But it took energy, creativity, and initiative by the workers themselves to turn Florida agriculture around, taking it from having the worst conditions to perhaps the best in the country.
The workers, seen by Murrow as passive and helpless, did just what Murrow thought them incapable of doing, that is joining together to solve a seemingly intractable problem for the common good.
They achieved it, not through traditional labor organizing against employers, but by creating a three-way partnership with the employers (growers) and the big consumers.
The sanctions through which the code is enforced—restricting the ability of offending growers to sell to the big corporate buyers in the program—come not from the state, its regulators, and courts, but from the market.
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i, and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.