Friday, March 15

John Egerton: My Trip to Immokalee

My Trip to Immokalee: Tomatoes, Workers' Rights, and the Penny-a-Pound March

by John Egerton

John Egerton is a Nashville-based journalist and co-founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance. He is the author of ten books, including Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994), and Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (1987). The SFA awards an annual prize in his name.

Greg Asbed accepts the John Egerton Prize at the 2012 SFA Symposium. Photo by Brandall Atkinson.

The SFA gave its 2012 Egerton Prize to Greg Asbed, who accepted the prize on behalf of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Asbed co-founded and directs the organization with his wife, Laura Germino, and their colleague Lucas Benitez, a former migrant worker. The CIW advocates for better pay and working conditions for the 30,000 migrant laborers who pick the winter tomato crop in Florida.    

When I met Asbed at the SFA Symposium in October 2012, he invited me to visit Immokalee. I made my first trip there in January, and went again a couple of weeks ago, Joining CIW farm workers and supporters at the start of a 200-mile Fair Food March from Ft. Myers to Lakeland, the headquarters of the Publix supermarket chain.

The CIW's goal for the March is to urge Publix to join other supermarket and fast food chains (Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Chipotle, and Burger King, among others) in a Fair Food agreement that compels major tomato buyers to pay a penny more per pound, which translates into a significant boost to farmworker salaries.

I met University of Mississippi filmmaker Rex Jones in Fort Myers (some 35 miles from Immokalee) on February 28. We found ourselves in the midst of a panoramic scene enlivened by a surprisingly broad and diverse cast of characters—Latino, Haitian, Native American, Guatemalan, migrants and immigrants, Catholics and Protestants, pickers and packers, a few gringos (of varied colors), walkers and bikers, casino habitu├ęs, little kids, old people, sheriff's deputies, private security officers, and great flocks of snowbirds fluttering around the coastal periphery (not to be confused with the unruly hover of vultures atop the dumpsters in Immokalee).

So much more than tomato harvesting is happening in and around Immokalee. In Collier County alone (where Immokalee is an unincorporated community in the northeast corner), some 16,000 acres are planted in tomatoes—and that's not half as many as are covered by citrus groves. Half a dozen other winter vegetables are grown there as well. Most of this enormous corporate-agricultural endeavor takes place out of public view, in patrolled fields surrounded by earth berms and fencerows thick with undergrowth.  In addition to farm labor, thousands more individuals work as packers in the twenty-some fruit and vegetable processing operations based in and around Immokalee. Toss in a Seminole casino, a Catholic "new town" called Ave Maria, gated communities radiating out from Naples (the seat of Collier county and one of America's wealthiest communities), and you get a bracing panorama of haves and have-nots.

When I planned the trip with Rex, I imagined that we could shoot a short documentary film about Immokalee and the CIW over the course of our four days in Florida. We would use the start and finish of the march to Publix headquarters as bookends around a display of the enormous effort expended by immigrant laborers to supply America's supermarkets and chain restaurants. In 1960, Edward R. Murrow had traveled to this very place to film "Harvest of Shame," a CBS television documentary that became famous for exposing farmworker abuses. I wanted to show what has changed and what has remained the same in Immokalee, some fifty years after "Harvest of Shame" and twenty years after the formation of the CIW.

Penny a Pound from UM Media Documentary Projects on Vimeo.

During the four days we spent in Florida, we didn't get the footage or the interviews we had hoped for. Instead, I left with many questions and few answers. And Rex left with some beautiful footage, excerpts from which are embedded above.

The climax of the march will come this Sunday, March 17, when an estimated 1,000 marchers (CIW members plus many progressive Floridians and out-of-state supporters) will come face-to-face with Publix officials. Expectations of that meet-up seem to be about evenly split between those who anticipate a hostile rebuff and those who look for Publix to sign the Fair Food Agreement.

If Publix throws in with the CIW on the 17th, it will be a historically significant turning point in the troubled relationship between migrant farmworkers and the corporate interests that control their destiny. CIW has already secured significantly better pay, working conditions, health and safety rules, grievance resolution, and transparency of operations than existed when CBS filmed "Harvest of Shame." Still, much remains to be done there.