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God's Politics

A glimmer of Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11:6-9) – a vision of peace, reconciliation, and justice – is realized in the partnership recently formed between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the McDonald’s corporation. The CIW, a farmworker organization based in rural Southwest Florida, has led two successful efforts to improve wages and working conditions in the fields, first winning an agreement with Taco Bell, and now with the McDonald’s, the two largest fast-food chains in the world. McDonald’s will now work with the CIW to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes directly to the farmworkers who harvest its tomatoes, enforce a stronger code of conduct based on the principle of worker participation, collaboratively develop a third-party mechanism for monitoring conditions in the fields, and investigate workers’ complaints of abuse.

For two years, a war of words was waged between the farmworker organization from Immokalee and the fast-food giant. The CIW and Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, a faith-based partner to the CIW, educated consumers across the country about the sweatshop and slavery conditions facing farmworkers in the agricultural industry today. Florida tomato pickers must pick two tons of tomatoes to earn just $50 in a day, a pay rate that’s been stagnant for almost 30 years. They regularly work 10-12 hour days with no overtime pay, no health insurance, no right to organize, no sick days, and no benefits whatsoever. Recognizing the tremendous market power of fast-food corporations like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King to control conditions and push down prices in their supply chains, the CIW focused its “Campaign for Fair Food” on calling these companies to address the inhumane conditions of farmworkers who harvest their tomatoes.

McDonald’s, however, initially chose to view the situation in its suppliers’ fields not as a human rights crisis to be addressed but as a public relations fire to be extinguished. The company responded to the CIW with a public relations campaign, undertaking a series of moves aimed more at quelling the public outcry than changing the underlying exploitation faced daily by workers in the fields.

Christians and people of faith from many traditions joined the farmworkers’ struggle for justice. Interfaith Action’s national network and people of faith across the country took action – clergy wrote letters to McDonald’s, denominational bodies passed resolutions in support of the Campaign for Fair Food, mission committees invited CIW farmworkers to speak in their churches, hundreds of people of faith organized peaceful protests and marched alongside the farmworkers, congregations lodged and fed CIW members during national tours, and Sojourners’ action alert generated several thousand e-mails to the McDonald’s executives.

It seemed, at times, that the day when the CIW and McDonald’s would work together as partners would never come, and that an unjust status quo might prevail. But on April 9 of this year, it finally happened! As a result of the growing call of the CIW, people of faith, and consumers across the country, the farmworkers and the corporate giant McDonald’s reached a historic agreement for dignity and justice for tomato pickers. Now, we’ve seen a glimpse of God’s peaceable kingdom that Isaiah describes – the lion is living with the lamb, the high-power corporate executives are joining together with exploited farmworkers – for justice and dignity.

Today, the CIW is calling on Burger King to do the same, as the movement for fair food and justice for farmworkers continues to grow. You too can be a part of this vibrant movement! Visit http://www.ciw-online.org/ and http://www.allianceforfairfood.org/faith.html for more information and ways to become involved.

Sarah Osmer is co-coordinator of Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, an ally organization of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) that educates and animates people of faith to partner with the CIW in their efforts to improve wages and working conditions for farmworkers and put an end to modern-day slavery in the agricultural industry.

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