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Florida UUs campaign for impoverished migrant workers

Pickets and fasting raise awareness of agricultural workers’ low pay and dangerous conditions.
By Donald E. Skinner
4.23.12

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A Florida farmworker is seeking an additional penny per pound for picking tomatoes and improved working conditions. (Linda Stoller)

As Unitarian Universalists count down the days to General Assembly 2012 in Phoenix, the “Justice GA”, which is focused on immigration-related issues, some UUs in Florida are already living the vision.

Around twenty-five UUs, from congregations across the state, supported migrant workers who held a “Fast for Fair Food” in support of higher wages in mid-March. The fast was organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group primarily comprised of Mexican, Mayan, and Haitian immigrant workers.

For six days, from March 5 to 10, a group of around 150 farmworkers, clergy, and community members picketed outside the corporate offices of Publix Super Markets in Lakeland, Fla., and in front of a Publix store several miles away. Around 60 workers and supporters fasted for the entire period, hosted overnight at the UU Congregation of Lakeland. Among them was the Rev. Allison Farnum of the UU Church of Fort Myers.

The workers are seeking an additional penny per pound for picking tomatoes, plus improved working conditions. The requests are part of the CIW’s Fair Food Program. Since 2005, 10 major food corporations, including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway, have reached agreements with the workers, some only after several years of protests and protracted negotiations.

The workers are calling on supermarkets to join the Fair Food Program. That would mean paying an additional penny per pound for picking tomatoes and committing to buying tomatoes from farms that comply with a code of conduct in the fields. The code of conduct includes the right to shade and water and zero tolerance for modern-day slavery.

At the end of the Publix fast there was no agreement with the grocery chain, but Farnum said the experience was life-changing and that it has helped her become committed to continued action on behalf of farmworkers.

“The first day was the hardest,” Farnum said. “We didn’t know quite what to expect. I had the physical sensation of headache. People had told me that by the third day I’d feel fine—not ready to run a marathon, but energized. And that happened. I had a sense of fullness of spirit. I came to rely on the strength and the joy that we generated together.”

She said she recognizes that more action will be needed, and she is committed to that. “I think that during the week we came into a feeling of holy discontent. The experience created more energy for this cause and the fact we were disappointed at the end of the week will fuel more action in the future.”

Farnum said that she began to think about the issue as “institutional racism: a giant corporation being challenged by a group of Haitian and Central American workers. And I came to understand that what we did was not only for the workers, but for the souls of the Publix executives who think it’s okay to exploit workers. Every morning we called Publix to covenant.”

Historically, Florida farmworkers have faced sub-poverty wages, denial of fundamental labor rights, physical and sexual violence, and in the most extreme cases, modern-day slavery. She said members of her congregation supported her during the week by fasting on various days during the week and texting her messages of encouragement. Before her fast she also posted on the Standing on the Side of Love website about the farmworkers’ struggle.

Farnum said she hopes to find ways at General Assembly to share her experience and to draw more UUs into this struggle. “This effort in Florida has such synergy with where Unitarian Universalism is headed in terms of social justice work. We need to find ways to be allies, followers, to step up and show up. To recognize and use our privilege to support others.” Farnum is a board member of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, an ally organization of the CIW.

Each day of the fast there was a candlelight prayer vigil outside a Publix store. On the final day Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, was among the participants. Many people walked three miles from a Publix store to the corporate offices on the last day.

Oscar Otzoy, a member of the farmworkers’ coalition, said the fast was successful in several ways. “Not only did we unmask Publix, revealing the falsehoods they have spoken, but we also transformed ourselves, strengthening our community of workers and allies to continue walking the long road ahead together.”

He said that Unitarian Universalists have played a vital role in creating change in the agricultural industry. “Our hope now is that UUA members can amplify the growing call for Fair Food by writing letters to, organizing an action at, or speaking with the manager at their local Kroger, Stop & Shop, Giant, or Publix stores to request that those who labor to put food on our tables are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Linda Stoller, a leader of the Economic Justice team of the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater congregation, fasted the first and last days. “For me it was the most moving public witness I’ve ever done. On the last day I just started crying, just looking into the eyes of the people who had fasted all week, you could tell they’d been through an incredible spiritual experience. I just really felt a link with the other people through history—Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.—who have fasted for social justice.”

The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, minister of the Clearwater congregation, fasted for the first day. He was also part of a panel of speakers. “I talked about fasting as a spiritual discipline and its role in civil disobedience. Given that this event occurred during the Lenten season it was particularly poignant to be engaged in something justice-related. This was a powerful experience for me.”

He said he is hopeful the coalition will ultimately achieve its goals. “It has been working quietly and effectively for years getting one corporation after another to sign on to its Fair Food campaign. It’s slowly working into the consciousness of corporations.”

Even though Publix did not agree to the workers’ requests, there were other benefits from the week, he said. “The coalition got the attention of the larger public. The amount of publicity the workers received was incredible here. The media was very favorable during the whole week.”


An abridged version of this article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (“Florida UUs campaign for migrant workers,” page 39). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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