Case Studies

Faith Groups Back MacArthur Grant-Winning Work on Farm Labor Rights

Greg Asbed was awarded a MacArthur grant for his work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization founded in 1993 to fight for better conditions for Florida farmworkers. Faith communities played a crucial role in successfully getting that work done.

Addressing the Problem

While planting and harvesting produce can be grueling on its own, Immokalee workers often dealt with illegally low wages and outright wage theft. Sexual harassment was widespread. Many workers feared speaking out about labor conditions because they were undocumented. Conditions were so dire that US attorney Doug Molloy called Immokalee ground zero for slavery in America.

As Asbed and his colleagues looked at the problem, they realized that part of it stemmed from pressure from buyers for extremely low prices. Since these buyers included some of the largest restaurant and retail companies in the United States, Asbed realized that his cause could gain leverage through customer boycotts. Starting humbly on college campuses, with CIW organizers helping to educate students about the treatment of the people who grew and harvested the tomatoes that went into their favorite fast-food meals, this initiative led to the development of a national consumer network in 2000.

Over time, the consumer program took on a name—the Fair Food Program. Its supporters include a wide range of religious organizations who have not only added their names to the campaigns but also worked with their congregations on boycotts. For example, CIW has teamed up with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and the United Church of Christ.

Seeing Success

Asbed’s and these faith groups’ efforts worked. The CIW received commitments from leading retail and restaurant chains to buy produce from growers of tomatoes, strawberries, and bell peppers who were committed to treating workers fairly. Walmart, Whole Foods, Subway, McDonald’s, and Yum! Brands were among the many companies that agreed to pay extra to source ingredients from these growers. The program is sometimes referred to as “a penny a pound,” because the extra cost isn’t that much. But the payoff is huge. Since 2011, the Fair Food Program has generated $25 million in premium prices that lead to higher wages. Another 150,000 workers have received materials on their rights, 45,000 have received face-to-face education on US labor laws, and 1,800 complaints have been resolved.

The Fair Food Program is currently running boycotts of Wendy’s and Publix Super Markets, two of the largest companies that have not yet signed on. The Wendy’s boycott has been supported by leaders of the US Presbyterian Church, the Catholic Church, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), among many other faith communities. This is one of the ways that these organizations are putting their faith into practice to make the world better.

In an interview with the New York Times, Asbed said that the entire $625,000 MacArthur grant will be used by the CIW to expand its successes with both farm workers and consumers. The hope is to expand the number of food products covered, further increase consumer awareness, and continue to expand the number of workers who receive fair wages for their work.

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