Friday, August 31, 2012

Labor Day, with Tomatoes and Justice For All

The following is an article I wrote for the United Methodist Church General Board of Church & Society...
GBCS is committed to building an economy that values work and honors the dignity of all workers. Across the connection United Methodists are engaged in transformational ministries to support the unemployed and to stand with workers struggling for justice. In this series of blog posts we will highlight a few of these stories and provide opportunities for you to be a part of this movement. To share your story or for more information on how you can get involved contact Rev. Israel Alvaran ( or John Hill (

God of shop and marketplace, of farm and studio, Of factory and shipping lane, of school and busy home: Bless the produce of our hands. Redeem our work for Kingdom-use. By Your grace, our efforts stand, all offered up to You. There in Eden, You proclaimed that we should work the earth – Stewards over all we named, delighting in their worth. Through our fall we brought decay, lost access to Jehovah’s rest. Through the cross, we rest in faith and all our labor’s blessed. In Your image we are made: Creative like You are, Forming goods for use and trade just like You formed the stars. Send us out in power and skill to worship through each task assigned. By Your Spirit we fulfill the holy, grand design.
Bobby Giles ( meter)
On this Labor Day, I celebrate a woman who 40 years ago walked away from her job. June Kistler Adams was my grandmother. She made the 30-minute commute from Palatka, Florida to Green Cove Springs with a fellow teacher who happened to be a woman of color. The principal made it clear she could either lose her riding companion or lose her job. “Mommom” told me this story the year before she died, saying “I looked that jerk in the eye and told him where he could stick that job.”

Pullman strikers outside Arcade Building in Pullman, Chicago. The Illinois National Guard can be seen guarding the building during the Pullman Railroad Strike in 1894. Source: Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project
I’m guessing most articles about Labor Day don’t start out with someone walking out on their job, but actually, that is how the first Labor Day came to be. It goes back to the Pullman Strike of 1894, a nationwide conflict between labor unions and the railroad, involving 250,000 workers in half the country over wages, treatment, and housing conditions. When those who benefitted from the railroad were affected, 12,000 US Marshalls and troops broke up the strike, killing 13 and wounding 57. Six days later, Labor Day became a federal holiday. Most people spending today at a picnic don’t realize that their day off was created because the bloodshed of exploited workers fighting for their rights.

Where I live, the struggle isn’t over railroad worker conditions… it’s more of a food fight—tomatoes to be specific. Most of the nation’s tomatoes are picked by immigrant farmworkers being exploited in fields a few hours from me in a small town near Naples, Florida named Immokalee. One of their largest local purchasers is headquartered where I live in Lakeland, Florida: Publix Supermarkets.

For generations, farmworkers have been deprived a fair wage. Retail food giants like Publix have high-volume purchasing power to demand tomatoes at a cheaper cost from suppliers. This downward pressure on the cost hurts the farmworker at the bottom the most. Accordingly, tens of thousands of farmworkers and their families have been made poor so that supermarkets and their beneficiaries can profit.

Despite Publix’s reputation of good work in the community, they refuse to join the Fair Food Program, a path that would give a penny more per pound to farmworkers. This is a touchy subject within The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, as executives, employees and farmworkers are members of our churches. Publix people give millions of dollars to our churches, camps, and colleges. A few clergy have firmly placed themselves on the side of the corporation, but most clergy, including Bishop Whitaker, have come down on the side of justice for the farmworkers, calling on Publix to sign on to the agreement.

Farmworkers experience horror on a day-to-day basis. There have been nine cases of slavery in Florida’s agricultural fields since 1997. Recent federal convictions include tomato pickers locked in the back of a cargo truck every night for months; another farmworker was literally chained to a post. The U.S. State Department gave the CIW an award for its work in uncovering and aiding the prosecution of these slavery cases.

Major corporations like Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have signed on to the Fair Food Program and use their purchasing power to ensure fair pay and safe conditions for farmworkers. But sadly, Publix constantly claims to the media and on its website it is “more than willing to pay the penny more per pound” to increase tomato pickers’ pay but “we will not pay the employees of other companies directly for their labor.” Publix has chosen the path of public relations falsehoods and corporate greed for their shareholders over doing the right thing.

New York Supreme Court Justice Laura Safer Espinoza leads the Fair Food Standards Council, the body monitoring retailers’ penny-per-pound payments. She challenges Publix stating, "No corporate buyer pays a farmworker directly in the Fair Food Program. They pay a premium that gets passed down the supply chain to the workers, who are paid by the growers who employ them. In other words, buyers like McDonald’s are doing exactly what Publix says it’s willing to do—they are putting the Fair Food Premium in the price they pay for Florida tomatoes. The fact of the matter is Publix is not willing to voluntarily pay that penny as other corporate buyers have.”

So as a people called to do justice, what are we to do? Here is what I am doing and I invite you to join me:
  • Engage Publix and other companies practicing injustice in conversations via letters, blogging, social media, and action in their stores and in your community.
  • Visit or better yet, tour Immokalee in person, or another immigrant farmworker community.
  • Research news media coverage on the issue and submit your own letter to the editor in your local paper.
  • Bring a group to a Publix produce department and hold a prayer meeting around the tomatoes.
  • Most importantly, make relationships with immigrants by going to community meetings, actions, invite them to lunch, listening to their stories, and sharing your own.
On this Labor Day, let’s take the challenge to speak truth to power for the sake of exploited farmworkers. George Jenkins founded Publix on the principle "Don't let making a profit stand in the way of doing the right thing." Might this day of rest help us remember to do the right thing and call on corporations around us to do the same. And as you are getting ready to eat at your cook-out today, be sure to remember whose sweat watered the tomato on that Labor Day burger. Chances are it came from exploited farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida.

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