On Tuesday, the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor started its “Labor Lab” series by looking at justice–through tomatoes. Jennifer Luff, research director for the initiative, moderated the panel, which included Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland, and Greg Asbed and Gerardo Reyes, who represented the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
“For some people this seems like a bad time to talk about labor,” Luff commented, citing the economic downturn. But for the hundreds of thousands of tomato-pickers working the fields in Florida, the right time to talk about labor is long overdue.
In fact, despite the economic downturn, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has seen incredible progress in the recent months. “If I had made this talk a year ago,” said Estabrook, “it would have been a real downer—we’re looking at the worst labor abuse in this country, and in the last year something remarkable happened.” After a four-year boycott, the Coalition pressured Taco Bell into a signed agreement.
Estabrook, who started out as a food writer for Gourmet, happened upon the issue of food justice through his search to find more flavorful tomatoes amidst industrial agriculture. A quest that started out as purely culinary took a justice-oriented turn when Estabrook realized he hadn’t a clue who picked his food.
Delving into the food and labor politics of Florida—where the majority of off-season tomatoes are harvested—Estabrook felt “equal parts horror and shame.”
“These are the sweatshops of the field,” he remarked, “where basic labor practices pre-date the New Deal.” Workers suffered from continued exposure to pesticides, were bartered for on country roads, and are still paid by the piece.