Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers inspire ecumenical effort in Manatee

dgraham@bradenton.comMarch 2, 2013 

MANATEE -- It took more than just faith to get the Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers this far, and a true ecumenical effort is being made to house, feed and support the organization's marchers during their two-night stopover in Manatee County March 9-10.

The farmworkers will present a free music and theater community building event at the Riverwalk amphitheater in Bradenton at 7 p.m. March 10, following a community event at 7 p.m. March 9 at New College in Sarasota.

Starting from Fort Myers, the hundreds of farmworkers and their allies will be walking through Manatee County to Lakeland, where they plan to protest at Publix corporate headquarters. Marchers are calling on the Florida grocery chain to join the Fair Food Program, a partnership of corporate buyers who mutually agree to pay a premium price for tomatoes, buying only from growers who comply with a minimum code of conduct.

"Since first approached by the CIW three years ago, we have consistently viewed this issue as a labor dispute," reads the official Publix statement. "We seek to do business with suppliers who can provide quality products to our customers and operate their businesses in such a way as to provide an enviable workplace for their employees. In the past, we have eliminated suppliers who did not do this, and we would do so again if appropriate."

However, in the case of tomato growers, Publix selects its suppliers independently of the Fair Food Program. Farmworkers and their consumer allies would like to see that changed, according to Silvia

Perez, a farmworker and Coalition member.

"Publix sees itself as a family-friendly company, but in our farmworker eyes we see Publix providing a lot of food for families. We want Publix to provide the extra penny per pound so we can provide these things for ourselves and not depend on their charity," she said. "It's very important to us as farmworkers for them to stand side by side with us in our efforts. There are churches standing with us not just here in Florida but across the entire country."

"We have compassion for people who work in the fields and are underpaid, and who live in conditions that are really difficult," said the Rev. Elizabeth Deibert, pastor of Peace Presbyterian Church in Lakewood Ranch. "While we hope Publix will be proactive in supporting this cause, we're Publix shoppers and we don't intend to malign an organization in our community that serves the community well and is a reputable company."

Peace Presbyterian volunteers will be preparing, serving and sharing lunch with the farmworkers during their Bradenton stopover. "Jesus taught us to stand with the poor, and he himself challenged those in power to listen to the needs of the poor, so we as Christians can't ignore this call," the pastor said.

Members of Manatee Unitarian Universalist Fellowship will provide Sunday night dinner and Faith United Church of Christ in Bradenton and First United Methodist Churchwomen will support the ministry efforts, while marchers will sleep both nights hosted by the Congregational United Church of Christ in Bradenton.

"We'll go share a meal and get to know the farmworkers," Deibert said. "The best mission work is mission work where we build relationships. You realize they're just ordinary people like you and me who have family and homes from another country. They just come to this place for an opportunity and for a chance."

For the Rev. Robert Sicta, pastor of Congregational UCC, farmworker ministry has been a lifelong practice. Growing up in the Green Giant fields of Illinois, he remembers his home community of the 1950s bringing the Jamaican migrant laborers into their churches and their homes during harvest season.

"Relationships developed from that in the form of friendships that exist to this day. People from my hometown have been visiting their friends in Jamaica to this day and vice-versa, all because we extended a hand to each other," he said.

Some of the demands of the Fair Food Program, which the workers want Publix to join, ask for a pay increase supported by the price premium of one cent per pound that participating buyers pay for tomatoes; compliance with a code of conduct that includes zero tolerance for forced labor and systemic child labor; worker education on their rights and responsibilities; a system of health and safety compliance; and specific changes such as shade in the fields, time clocks and ongoing audits of work conditions.

In the farms of Sicta's boyhood, "that was a different time. We would never in that day have thought of being anything but fair in our pay system and in our housing system and in our labor system overall at the Green Giant. I remember the men having regular rest breaks and water breaks and shade breaks, all because we'd gotten to know them and we weren't going to let bad things happen to our friends."

"We think the farmworkers should have their rights. Part of their struggle is to get rights to have lunch in the shade, have a break, be paid on time and have the normal treatment that workers get," said Bernita Franzel, a volunteer at the Manatee Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. With help from First Presbyterian, "we will be hosting a dinner for the workers on Sunday, March 10. From here they will go to the Riverwalk amphitheater where they will present music and a play about the rights of farmworkers."

Dee Graham, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7027, or tweet @DeeGrahamBH.

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