BY WILLIAM BOER
In 2007 the Reverend Noelle Damico, the coordinator of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Campaign for Fair Food and a Princeton Seminary alumna (M.Div., 1991, Th.M., 1993), wrote an article for inSpire detailing the struggles of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Campaign for Fair Food to ensure fair wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers. When Damico wrote, the CIW had established an agreement with Taco Bell’s parent company. Since then they’ve also formed agreements with McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, and a number of other companies in the supermarket industry.
Noelle Damico (left)
Photo: Kim Schmidt
Photo: Kim Schmidt
Photo: Kim Schmidt
However, the CIW has been fighting against more than unfair wages. They’ve also been part of the fight against slavery. That’s not an exaggeration. Real slavery is occurring in modern-day America. There are cases of farmworkers being held against their will and forced to work under the threat of violence.
As part of their efforts against slavery, the CIW created the Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum, a traveling museum designed to educate visitors about slavery in Florida. On July 30 the museum, overseen by Damico during a visit to Princeton, set up in front of Nassau Presbyterian Church, just a short distance from the Seminary, where the volunteers were staying. Exhibits showed the history of slavery in Florida, focusing on ways that it has survived since the Civil War. The centerpiece of the museum was a cargo truck that is a replica of a truck used to enslave workers in an event that came to light after some of the workers escaped and the case was prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice (US v. Navarette, 2008).
Photographs, news articles, and evidence from the case displayed on the walls of the truck detail the terrible events. The Navarette brothers, who claimed to be bringing willing workers to the fields of tomato growers, were in fact locking their workers in a cargo truck at night, and sometimes threatening or attacking them. This continued until one night two of the workers managed to break open a hole in the roof of the truck, allowing the workers to escape and reach the CIW.
There is one thing in the museum truck that is not part of any exhibit: a portable air conditioner. Even on a nice day with the doors wide open, air conditioning was needed to keep the truck comfortable for the visitors. The conditions faced by the workers, locked in a similar truck with nothing resembling a bathroom, must have been truly unimaginable.
While the Navarette brothers were brought to justice, the reality is that this is no isolated incident. In the past decade the CIW has helped prosecute five more cases of slavery, and there are many other suspected cases that never go to trial because victims are afraid to testify.
Damico believes that the CIW’s efforts bring a new hope to the fight. “We’ve developed a working and implemented model for fighting slavery,” she said. “The CIW’s code of conduct is created, implemented, and enforced by the workers.” When she speaks of the model having been implemented, she refers to the aftermath of the Navarette case, where growers who had those slaves working in their fields lost many of their buyers.
The CIW’s code of conduct is given weight by the agreements that the CIW has formed with various companies during its campaigns for fair wages. These companies have agreed not to buy from growers that have benefited from slavery. When cases like the Navarette case are prosecuted, it is impossible to prove that the growers were aware of the slavery, leaving them able to benefit from it without fear of consequences. The CIW’s code of conduct changes that, as growers who have benefitted from slavery will now lose sales to major buyers. Now there are big financial consequences to using slave labor.
It’s a start, but there is much work yet to be done. The good news is that both knowledge about the issue and the number of companies working with the CIW is growing. Find more information, including ways that you can help, at www.ciw-online.org. Read Damico’s inSpire article at www.ptsem.edu/PUBLICATIONS/inspire/11.2/feature1.php.
William Boer, a senior at Arcadia University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, worked this past summer as an intern in the Office of Communications/Publications.