“What can we do to help?”
This was the question one of my classmates asked Gerardo Reyes Chávez, a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Gerardo was being televised into our class that day from New York where he was preparing for a week-long boycott of Wendy’s starting tomorrow, March 12. The CIW is an incredible organization founded in 1993 by laborers working in the tomato fields of Florida. It began with a small group of people who came together in desperation to discuss what they could do to improve the poverty wages and abuses they were experiencing in the fields. As word about this organization grew within the community, more and more people started coming to the meetings, sharing their stories of abuse, harassment and exploitation. In 1998, CIW organized a work boycott in three different tomato-farming communities and a month-long hunger strike camped across the lawn from a Publix Grocery store to demand a 1 cent raise for each pound of tomatoes they picked. 1 cent. This raise would still not bring their wages up to poverty levels, but it would translate to relatively better financial security for the farmworkers. Publix refused to even listen to CIW’s requests. Nevertheless, CIW persevered, shinning the spotlight on other food retailers and restaurants who make profits from the exploitation of their labor. Through tireless efforts and unshakeable determination over the years, CIW has succeeded in enlisting food chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Whole Foods, Subway, Trader Joe’s and Chipotle in their Fair Food Program, a model they established based on worker-driven social responsibility.
Now, CIW is looking at Wendy’s, and their message is particularly salient. In honor of International Women’s day (March 8), the #MeToo movement and the countless women working in the fields and food industry, CIW and nearly 100 farmworkers are setting up camp outside the hedge fund offices of Wendy’s Board Chair Nelson Peltz on Park Avenue in the heart of Manhattan. For five days they will go without food as part of the “Freedom Fast” to protest Wendy’s unconscionable failure to join the rest of the fast-food industry in fighting sexual violence against women in its tomato supply chain. Sexual assault towards migrant workers in the agriculture sector is disgustingly common. Given that many of these women are in position of very little power, with fear of deportation, being separated from their families or retaliation from their abuser if they speak up, much of the assault goes without consequence.
So my classmate’s question, what can we do to help, was one many of us in the room had upon learning of these horrendous truths about our food system. And Gerardo’s answer cut straight to the core:
Participate, he said.
But don’t do it out of pity for us.
Don’t do it because you feel sorry.
Do it because… you owe us.
You see, Gerardo has been working in the fields since he was 11. He’s worked on large agricultural operations in Florida picking oranges, tomatoes, and watermelons. He joined CIW in 2000 when his roommates, who had previously escaped a violent slavery operation hidden in the swamp south of Immokalee, Florida, invited him to come to the CIW’s community meetings. Yes, you read that right: slavery.
Here’s the sad truth: We are taught that the 13th amendment abolished slavery in 1865 and we talk about slavery today as if it were a blemish in our country’s history. The reality, however, is that modern-day slavery in the United States still exists. There are people, right now, who are picking the food that you may eat later this week who have been forced into involuntary servitude. (If you don’t believe me, watch this.) Even those workers who are receiving what some may call “income”, are getting less than poverty level wages. This is not enough to support oneself, let alone provide for a family. In 2001, the Department of Labor even issued a report to Congress, stating: “Production of fruits and vegetables has increased and global demand for American produce continues to grow, but agricultural worker earnings and working conditions are either stagnant or in decline.” “Farm workers not only lost ground relative to other workers in the private sector, they lost ground absolutely.”
And yet, these are the people who are feeding us. These farmworkers are responsible for the food in our grocery stores, the cans of peaches that are in your cabinet, the peanut butter you put on your kid’s sandwich, the Thanksgiving turkey you share with your family, the tomato on your restaurant burger. These are the people on whom our food supply depend!
So yes, you’re damn right, Gerardo, we owe you.
With that, to show my solidarity with our farmworkers and participate in the demand to end sexual abuse in agriculture, end exploitation of farmworkers, end slavery, I am joining CIW in their first day of fasting. Starting 7pm tonight through 7pm tomorrow I will go without food in support of the Freedom Fast. I will call Nelson Peltz Monday morning to tell him that he has an incredible opportunity to join other leaders in our food system in a movement towards equality and justice – this is the future, Mr. Peltz, and you have the chance to lead the way.
And you, dear reader, I want you to know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I want you to think deeply about your role as a consumer – we all play a part in this. I also want to invite you to participate as well. CIW offers many ways to show your support on their website. But even just sharing this information is a start. We need to wake up to these unacceptable realities in our food system. We need to make decisions (with our dollars and our votes) and make demands (with our voices and our actions) to end this human rights crisis in our country.
Here’s your chance. Here’s how you can help:
1) If you’re in NY, join thousands of Fair Food activists for the Time’s Up Wendy’s March on March 15!
2) Call Wendy’s Board Chairman Nelson Peltz on Monday, March 12 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. at 212- 451-3000. (Here’s a sample call-in script!)
3) Organize a solidarity action at your local Wendy’s from March 11-15!
Plan your own creative action at a Wendy’s restaurant near you to coincide with the Freedom Fast. Whether you organize a picket, march, letter delivery or vigil, your action will help speed the day when we can end sexual harassment and assault in the fields! Please see our Creative Actions Guide for ideas and inspiration. Contact Julian at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know that you’ll be planning your own Wendy’s action.
4) Send in a statement of solidarity for the Freedom Fasters!
Write a few words of support to share with farmworker and ally fasters during the “solidarity hour” at the Freedom Fast site outside of the offices of Wendy’s Board Chair. Local groups or individuals are invited to share their statement in person. If you aren’t able to join us in New York City, we will read your statement out loud during one of the days of the fast, to give a fresh wave of strength to those fasting. Please send your statements and any questions to Patricia at email@example.com by Sunday, March 11.
5) Donate to support the Freedom Fast and Time’s Up Wendy’s March!
Make a contribution to advance the swiftly growing movement to end sexual violence against farmworker women! Every donation goes a long way to strengthen the growing Wendy’s Boycott to bring the world’s third-largest hamburger chain into the Fair Food Program – and to realize farmworkers’ vision for dignity and respect in the U.S. agricultural industry and beyond. Donate today!