From Friday, March 14th to Saturday, March 15th, Orlando YAYAs attended the culmination of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) 10-day, multi-state “Now is the Time” tour in Publix’s hometown of Lakeland, FL.
One thousand community members attended a vigil and march, including Orlando residents representing groups like YAYA, the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, and the Orlando Light Brigade. As supporters of the CIW, the Orlando YAYA chapter organized transportation to and from the march, provided signs, and spoke at the final rally.
Orlando YAYA members arrived on Friday evening for the final candle light vigil organized in front of a Publix Store. There were about 100 people occupying the sidewalk with signs, banners, and flags. Speakers and musicians periodically took to the stage in front of a bus stop. Traffic was busy, and the group received lots of honking and attention.
Soon after we arrived, a delegation of faith leaders walked to the Publix store to deliver the CIW’s request for Publix to join the Fair Food Program. After returning, the delegation reported getting the same response that the CIW has been getting from Publix representatives over the last years—an unwillingness to sign the Fair Food contract.
The Orlando Light Brigade brought large luminescent placards that read “NOW IS THE TIME”, and that lit up as the sun went down.
In the late evening, workers from Immokalee and their families arrived to a long line of high fives and cheers. Groups took shifts throughout the night, keeping vigil until a sunrise ceremony on Saturday. As more supporters arrived, a picket line began on the sidewalk with signs and chanting.
By the start of the march, hundreds more had arrived. We marched two-by-two, along one of Lakeland’s main streets, singing, chanting, waving flags and carrying signs.
The march ended at a large stage in downtown Lakeland. To end the two-week tour, farm workers enacted abusive and protective work conditions. Speakers from many groups, including YAYA, rallied supporters and attendees with messages of encouragement and solidarity.
This action, and others organized by the CIW, are absolutely necessary to gain Publix’s participation in the Fair Food Program. Publix has refused to enter into negotiations with the CIW for more than four years. By signing, Publix will ensure that workers who pick the tomatoes that they sell, get paid a penny more per pound, increasing farm worker wages. Labor conditions would also be improved, as Publix would only buy tomatoes from growers who support the Fair Food program.
Currently, many farm workers who are not covered under the Fair Food Program labor under hostile conditions. Many growers do not provide farm workers with clean drinking water, bathrooms, or shade breaks. Farm workers may suffer verbal abuse and sexual harassment from superiors. There have been seven confirmed cases of modern day slavery in Florida’s farms during recent years.
With support from YAYA, the Student/Farmworker Alliance, churches, and many other groups, the CIW has been extremely successful in getting other major buyers – including Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and Whole Foods – to sign the Fair Food contract. This makes it especially surprising that Publix is holding out.
I found the vigil and march very inspiring. Being surrounded by passionate advocates for farm worker justice, and by the farm workers themselves, reminded me of the power of simply being together with a group of people fighting for the same cause.
I’m something of an armchair activist; I don’t attend many marches. It was invigorating to get off the computer and attend this march. The action of bodies, voices, and signs, joining together created a powerful impact.
Thanks to Nico Gumbs for transporting and hosting me for the length of the vigil and march; to the CIW for providing food, water, coffee, and entertainment; and to everyone at the march for your presence and inspiration!
Photos courtesy of Jenitza Quiñones and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers