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Immokalee workers demand higher wages from Publix

By Jared Hamil

Farmworkers speak to the crowd in downtown Lakeland

Lakeland, FL – For almost five years farmworkers in Immokalee, organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), have been fighting for higher wages from Publix Supermarkets. Immokalee, located in southwest Florida, grows many crops, including tomatoes and oranges. The city is home to many migrant farmworkers mostly from Mexico and Central America. Publix, whose headquarters is in Lakeland, Florida, is a multi-billion dollar corporation with over 1000 grocery stores throughout the South.

The CIW has been pressuring Publix to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes it buys from the farms in South Florida. As it stands, the Immokalee workers are paid by piece, meaning they are paid anywhere from 30 to 50 cents per 30 pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. Since the corporate buyers set the price they pay for tomatoes, they essentially set the wages for the farmworkers in the fields. The CIW have also been trying to get Publix to sign onto the Fair Food Program, which would advance the conditions for the workers. It would help stop slavery, harassment from the bosses, allow for break times, and many other things.

Since March 5, Immokalee workers on “The Now Is the Time Tour” had been going to different cities throughout the South to talk about the Fair Food Program and urging companies like Publix and Wendy's to sign on. Different cities had marches and protests. On March 14, the CIW arrived in Lakeland. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside of a local Publix store. Groups of people arrived throughout the night to take part in a 24-hour vigil. The local police were in full force, as well. They told people not to enter the parking lot – threatening them with arrests and car towing. On March 15, hundreds more gathered outside the store. The crowd was a mix of farmworkers, community members and students. They picketed for hours while chanting “The people united will never be defeated!” and “J-U-S-T-I-C-E is what we want, Justice in Immokalee!”

In the hot Florida sun, almost 1000 people marched into the streets towards downtown Lakeland. For over two miles, men, women and children of all ages waved banners, flags and signs in the face of traffic and onlookers. Cars honked their horns and people cheered from the sidewalks.

They marched to a park in downtown Lakeland where the CIW had set up a stage for speakers, and musicians. It opened up with speakers, and was followed with Huapango music (Mexican folk). Oscar Otzoy, a farmworker and member of the CIW said, “We're here to celebrate the dramatic transformation underway in the fields as a result of a the Fair Food program and communicate the urgency of Publix's participation as Publix continues to ignore us, to disseminate misleading statements and turn their back on the farmworkers who fuel their soaring profits.”

Farmworkers acted out in a theatrical piece which showed the horrible conditions that they endure in Immokalee. It also showed how conditions improve when farms sign onto the Fair Food Program.

From the stage, students from around Florida spoke. Diego Guerra of CHISPAS from the University of Florida fired people up and led them with a chant, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”

Veronica Juarez who grew up in Immokalee spoke on behalf of Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society, stating “My mom is a farmworker so I've seen the horrible conditions that the farmworkers face first hand; from the harassment of the crew leaders to the wage theft. It's great to see that the CIW is trying to change these realities so that the workers will have better working conditions and higher wages.”

Marisol Marquez, an activist from Tampa and member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization had this to say, “The U.S. time and time again, continues with exploitation of undocumented immigrants and farm workers – specifically those who are from Mexico and Central America. Just like Publix, the U.S. tries to turn the other way when confronted by the same people they oppress. NAFTA is one of those horrible examples of how the U.S. doesn't start its terrible treatment of immigrants just at home, it also does it abroad. That is why you see so many immigrants crossing the border and risking everything to do so. Using economics and exploitation, they hurt people across the globe.”

Marquez continued, “My parents, who are from Mexico, are a part of this. My mother swam through the Rio Grande and my father held onto the bottom of a train for four straight days; looking for work. They met in the crop fields. I remember growing up how they took me from tomato field to tomato field with them. Almost every immigrant around the country knows that farm workers will work under brutal conditions if they move to the state of Florida. And yet Florida is known by big businesses as the number one producer of crops like oranges, strawberries and tomatoes. It's no surprise that business booms when people are forced into slavery and have to work for low wages. Enough is enough, the people are fighting back! And the CIW is paving the way!”

The CIW plans to continue demanding that Publix sign onto the Fair Food program. Over the years the CIW has reached agreements with corporations like: Taco Bell, Burger King, Walmart, Subway, Aramark, among many others. It is only a matter of time before they make Publix cave in like the rest.

Protesters march into the street from local Publix store

Veronica Juarez of Tampa SDS speaks to the crowd

#LakelandFL #ImmigrantRights #CoalitionOfImmokaleeWorkers #Publix