“Any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.” When I first read this line in Barry Estabrook’s book Tomatoland, I was both shocked, but also, I confess, a little skeptical. The assertion, made by U.S. District Attorney Douglas Molloy, of Florida’s Middle District is based on his extensive on the ground knowledge of the labor conditions in Central Florida’s tomato fields, which, Molloy claims, have been until recently “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy’s insistence that the most exploitative working conditions in Florida’s tomato field amounted to slavery was no mere opinion, but supported by convictions of six men involved in the enslavement scheme. Migrant workers in the employ of Cesar Navarette were coaxed into accepting jobs that promised good pay and clean housing. Instead they found themselves lured into debt peonage, forced to live in unsanitary box trucks with no toilet facilities, locked in trucks overnight to ensure they would be available to work the next day, chained together, beaten and threatened.
While not all workers who toiled in Central Florida’s tomato fields in the first decade of the twenty-first century could be called slaves, instances of extreme exploitation and inhumane work and housing conditions were quite common. The good news is that in less than a decade, thanks to the collective action of workers and their allies, conditions in central Florida tomato fields have gone from among the worst in the United States to “probably the best working environment in American agriculture” according to Susan Marquis of the RAND Graduate School.
Before explaining how this remarkable turnaround occurred, I want to say a few words about my own interest in this subject. In the final chapter of my recent book, Johnny Appleseed and the American OrchardI offer a brief but sweeping history of the apple in America since 1860. When I finished that book I realized I had a lot more to say about the history of the apple in America, including much material that was too far afield from that book’s anchor narrative: the story of John “Appleseed” Chapman and the legend that emerged from his life. I decided that a broader history of the apple in American history was warranted, and have begun to map that book out. One persistent issue in the story of the apple in America is, of course, the problem of labor: who picked your apple, and under what conditions was it picked? Was the laborer adequately compensated for her work?
Slavery and exploitation have been a persistent and recurring part of the global history of agricultural labor. Even in the early 19th century United States, a golden age of sorts for the family farm in the northeast and midwest, slave labor was the engine of southern agriculture. In the middle of the 19th century most of America’s apple orchards resided on family farms and were picked by members of that family or local laborers, or not picked at all. (A significant percentage of the nation’s apples were simply left to drop on the ground, where they would fatten hogs released into the orchard.) In the late 19th and the early 20th century, as orcharding became an increasingly specialized and primarily commercial activity, orchards got larger, the challenge of seasonal labor needs became greater. And as markets became increasingly national and international in scope, competition, more often than not, exerted downward pressures on both the prices of apples and the wages those picking them received. The same factors that created the exploitative working conditions in central Florida’s tomato fields have come to bear on agriculture across the United States and the world, and the apple industry has not been exempt from this.
My project for this summer to is trace part of this transition in orchard agriculture in one small region by telling the story of the Shenandoah Valley’s orchard industry across the first half of the twentieth century. One part of that story is a transition in harvest labor, from family and local labor early in the century, when many Appalachian families came down from the mountains in the fall to pick apples, to their replacement with Jamaican and Bahamian guest workers by mid-century. In the Handley Library in Winchester, Virginia I have found a large collection of the ephemera connected to this harvest labor, including the “picker’s tickets” given to each laborer, intended to help determine what each worker is owed in wages at the end of the day. Agricultural labor was exempted from most of the labor regulations passed in the 1930s New Deal legislation, and the grower’s preferred method of payment–by the pound, bushel or barrel, rather than by the hour–has long made this kind of work especially vulnerable to exploitation.
That has certainly been the case in central Florida’s tomato fields, where workers are paid by the pail. Growers have long insisted that workers make better than minimum wage, but make those calculations are based upon often unrealistic estimates of how many pails of tomatoes a worker can pick in an hour, and also by ignoring the time workers spend at the field waiting for the morning dew to dry before they can begin to pick. The wages and conditions in Florida’s tomato fields have improved dramatically in the last decade by the inspired creation of a “Penny Per Pound” campaign launched by the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW). Growers had long responded to worker’s requests for higher wages by claiming, not unfairly, that they, too, were victims of a global marketplace, and anything that raised their cost made it harder for them to compete against tomatoes grown in Mexico and elsewhere. The CIW’s solution was to go directly to the major purchasers of Florida’s fresh tomatoes–fast food chains and grocery stores–and ask them if they would be willing to pay one penny more per pound if they were assured that the additional penny would go to improving the working conditions and wages of the pickers. The CIW did not initially receive a warm reception, but through
strategic boycotts, they have managed to bring many of the biggest buyers on board. Among fast food giants, the biggest player still refusing to pay an extra penny a pound is Ohio-based Wendy’s; among grocery chains, Kroger’s is one of the last holdouts. Even Walmart has signed on for the Penny Per Pound campaign, and gone one step farther–promising to see if they can institute a similar program with their suppliers of apples and strawberries.
The Penny For Pound program–now called the Campaign for Fair Food–has already dramatically improved conditions and wages for central Florida’s tomato growers, and is on the eve of a complete victory. Please visit their website to see a full list of the supporters and hold outs. Consider printing out information about the campaign from their website and stopping in to talk to the manager of your local Kroger’s and Wendy’s and letting them know how important it is to you, as a consumer, that the people who work to provide your food are treated humanely and paid fairly.
For a historical perspective on the persistence of slavery and labor exploitation, visit the Historians Against Slavery website.