I’ll start right off by saying I don’t particularly like the name because this isn’t about me or my colleagues. It is about others, people whose experience in life is so different from mine and who live in a place so different from Ann Arbor. But, we all have a role in this issue and I am proud to play my role even if it means being called a Tomato Rabbi.
I was part of a group of Rabbis from across the country who spent the last two days in the town of Immokalee, Florida- not the part of Florida many of us have vacationed in but a dusty town in the middle of Florida’s tomato growing region. We came there as the second group of Rabbis brought by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call For Human Rights to learn about the plight of workers in the tomato fields whose working conditions have been the subject of much attention over the past several years.For many years,clergy have made a similar trip and I am proud to work with T’ruah as part of a bigger picture.
Immokalee attracted the attention of many because of several well publicized, horrendous cases of slavery which took place in recent years. Workers were chained, kept locked in boxcars overnight, charged exorbitant fees for basic necessities and then forced to remain working for the same bosses in order to pay off debt which they never could succeed in doing. The living conditions were barbaric and their treatment an absolute disgrace in any country, let alone this country of freedom. As Jews who remember slavery each Pesach, who know the “soul” of the slave, we are obligated to raise our voices and do whatever we can to see that these types of crimes never take place again in this country- or anywhere.
But, there is more to the story. For even those that are not chained and who receive a paycheck, our faith’s ethical demands for justice and fairness and human dignity compel us to speak out even if the word “slavery” may not be the precisely correct word.
We spent two days talking with farmworkers and with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization which is fighting for those who work in the fields. We saw the destitute conditions many of these workers live in. We heard the stories of the hard, backbreaking work and stood in the parking lot in the middle of the town at 6 a.m. as workers boarded old school buses to take them out to the fields.
And, we learned of the efforts that are starting to make real changes in the lives of the workers because of the dedication of the leaders of the coalition and volunteers who have come to their aid. What has transpired in the past 16 months is remarkable. In October of 2010, one large farm: Pacific Tomato Growers was the first to join with the CIW to adopt a “fair food” agreement which mandated changes in the way that farm work was done. They were joined one month later many others and now 90% of the tomato growers are part of this agreement.
In addition to mandating better working conditions for the pickers including guaranteeing them minimum wage even if they do “piece work” and other important changes, the agreement raises the price paid by corporations for the tomatoes one cent a pound with that one cent passed along to the pickers. Now, a 32 pound bucket of tomatoes earns the picker 82 cents instead of 50 cents, still a low wage but an improvement.
We had the honor of having a tu bishvat seder with Jon Esformes, the owner of Pacific Tomato Growers, members of his staff and members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. He spoke of “doing the right thing” and that is what this is really about. And it is what it is all about for many of the large corporations which have agreed to the one cent increase and to buy only from those farms which are part of the agreement. McDonalds, Taco Bell, Subway, Whole Foods and many more (you can see the whole list at ciw-online.org) have “done the right thing”. ‘
The one major fast food company that has not joined the Fast Food Agreement is Wendy’s. Wendy’s has consistently refused to be part of this effort and now buys their tomatoes from Mexico where workers are treated even more poorly than they were in Immokalee before the agreement took effect.
I am proud to have participated in this trip but I am such a newcomer at this- I had never been to Immokalee before this week and hadn’t heard of the whole struggle until a few months ago. Yasher Koach to all who have worked so hard for so long as another milestone is reached.
I was deeply moved not only by the sadness of the difficulties faced by these workers but also by the optimism, the progress, the glimpses of “redemption” that these two days offered. The issue is difficult, with many different angles but the most important one is that, as Jews, we are obligated to care for those who work for us. While we are not their “bosses”, we are the ones who reap the benefits of the picking that is done in Florida and we are responsible for doing what we can to improve the situation.
I will speak on this issue at Beth Israel during a Shabbat morning to come and we will plan a program to discuss this issue in more depth. Thanks to the miracle of modern communication, I’m writing this message on a bumpy flight home from Florida. In a world, in a country, where such “progress” is taken for granted, we can never take for granted those who work for us, those who put food on our tables.
To those in Immokalee, both the brave workers and the owners working with them- hazak v’ematz- be strong and courageous. May we all “do the right thing”.