Gerardo Reyes inspects the tomatoes gleaming under fluorescent lights at the Cobble Hill Trader Joe’s. Bawdy, colorful cutouts of fruits and vegetables advertise low prices in titillating script. Heirloom Tomatoes, $3.49. Splendido, $2.99. Jazzy reggae background music plays while Reyes explains how, in 2007, a group of tomato pickers were discovered living chained in the back of a truck. The workers were charged $5 to shower and endured severe beatings until one escaped through a ventilation hatch. A middle-aged female shopper bends over in front of Reyes to pluck some ripe-looking tomatoes from the bin and place them into a bag. Reyes smiles awkwardly as he quickly, quietly steps out of her way.
Reyes started picking fruit in Central Florida at 11 years old. Now, 33, he is a labor organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a union that’s helped bring nine cases of modern slavery, involving more than 1,200 farm workers, to justice. The CIW has also picked fights for workers’ rights with some of America’s most powerful food corporations—like McDonald’s, Burger King, Aramark, Yum Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut) and Whole Foods—and won. But Reyes has come all the way from Immokalee, Florida to pick a fight with one more food provider: Trader Joe’s. And that fight is literally over one penny.
Most farmworkers earn 50 cents per 32 pounds of tomatoes that they pick. It’s a wage that requires 2.25 tons of fruit picked over the course of a 10 hour day just to make minimum wage. And it’s not rare for a tomato picker to work for free because his or her wages are withheld after the fact. That’s the situation Reyes found himself in when he first came to Immokalee. But the CIW’s “Campaign for Fair Food” has been asking corporate tomato buyers for two things: First, to sign a code of conduct that establishes fair working rights for tomato pickers and second, to pay one more penny per pound of tomatoes, a difference in a few cents to the consumer that could increase workers’ wages by more than 60 percent.
On April 7, Trader Joe’s released a statement on its website saying that they would pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes, and that they had no problem doing so. In fact, according to Trader Joe’s, all of the tomato growers in Florida that supply Trader Joe’s happen to abide by a CIW code of conduct. At the same time, Trader Joe’s has not signed any binding legal agreement with the CIW itself, and TJ’s has also made it clear that it “does not sign agreements that allow third party organizations to dictate to us what is right for our customers.”
The problem is that there is no way to verify what Trader Joe’s says—Trader Joe’s still won’t reveal from which growers they buy. Customers will simply just have to trust the corporation’s word. To the CIW, along with organizations like the New York City Community/Farmworker Alliance (CFA) and Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA), this promise is toothless, and a corporate word especially meaningless. So on May 1, the CIW and others are organizing a protest at the Trader Joe’s in Union Square. Reyes is one of the organizers visiting New York for two days to drum up support for the rally.
“There is, in this culture, a sense of an inherent right to manage free from any restraints—regulatory or any kind of legal, or cultural, or moral restraints,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. But this year, Bronfenbrenner feels that American citizens are more distrustful of corporations and more supportive of labor movements than ever before.
“I think that what we saw in the aftermath of Wisconsin is that there’s a line at which American people start to say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s going too far.’”
Bronfenbrenner says that paying a penny more per pound of tomatoes is the least of American citizens’ problems right now. She also argues that the customers at Trader Joe’s are smart, and that it makes sense that the CIW figures they should be aware of the conditions of employees who pick the crops. “When a group of immigrant workers says to [the American people] ‘We have not been paid fairly,’ and the corporations try to say ‘Eh, they’re a bunch of undocumented workers who are trying to make you pay too much for your food,’ people might be saying [to the corporations], ‘Well, we might be willing to pay a little more for our food, because you haven’t been treating us well on multiple fronts. We don’t really trust you right now.’”
“In the industry, the abuses happen to everyone,” Reyes says. “It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s an equal opportunity for exploitation.” He uses an example from 2001, when Florida farm employer Michael Lee was sentenced to four years in prison for recruiting workers from homeless shelters, paying them in crack, cocaine and cigarettes, beating them and keeping them in debt.
Agricultural labor entails a historic kind of oppression, and so the protest against Trader Joe’s is taking place on a historic day. May Day rallies in Union Square go back to 1934, when thousands of workers marched during the Great Depression for an eight-hour workday. Today, industry wages for fruit and vegetable pickers have remained stagnant for more than 30 years. This May Day, New York City’s Community/Farmworker Alliance (CFA) and Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA) will be out organizing and protesting Trader Joe’s in full force. And around the country, 18 more Trader Joe’s protests will be occurring on the same day. Reyes sees this campaign as the one to push the industry over the precipice of change.
“For the first time, workers have a voice in the workplace. For the first time, there’s the needed attention from the tomato industry to the problems,” he says. “And more than that, the solution [is] being proposed through the codes of conduct, [with] the willingness from the industry in order to eliminate those abuses.”